Recent Georgetown University Student Association presidential elections have been rife with controversy, but usually the problem is voting irregularities or last-minute disqualifications. This year, however, the main issue was accusations of racism.
As Calen Angert (MSB ‘11) and Matt Wagner (SFS ‘11) emerged as the front-runners in the race, the politics of their campaigns devolved. Conflict began when Wagner left a comment on the Hoya’s website, calling a Facebook message written by Chris Pigott (COL ‘12) “racially charged.” The only reference to racial issues in the message was when Pigott wrote, “I know some of you are very involved with [the Student Commission for Unity] and other minority and diversity organizations on campus. Just so you know, Matt Wagner was one of the most vocal opponents of SCU.”
After current Vice President Jason Kluger (MSB ’11) heard that Wagner’s running mate Emmanuel Hampton (COL ’11) had been calling their campaign racist because of his connection to Pigott, Kluger publicly confronted his opponent in Lauinger Libary. Meanwhile, online, one commentator accused Wagner of playing the “race-card,” while another criticized Pigott’s attempts at defense against accusations of racism as “reducing this terrible act to a spectacle.”
Then, very quickly, the controversy ended, with candidates claiming they wanted to shift the focus of the campaign. The underlying cause of the disputes went unaddressed.
If merely commenting on a GUSA candidate’s history of opposing one campus diversity organization is “racist,” our campus is never going to move beyond a superficial discussion of race. This incident is just the latest example of how campus dialogue on race is limited, tends towards the extreme and the personal, and rarely examines the fundamental issues. The Georgetown community is unable to learn from incidents of perceived racial insensitivity because inadequate and misguided responses fail to inspire serious, mainstream discussion.
Last December, a Heckler article satirically depicting members of the Hoya dressing up in white robes and burning a cross provoked an overwhelming—and often counter-productive—outpouring of criticism from faculty and administrators. In a press release about the article, sociology professor Joseph Palacios accused the Heckler writers of displaying, “deeply rooted racism, anger and sarcasm, and anti-Christian attitudes.” Other professors and administrators mirrored Palacios’s comments, issuing sharply worded statements calling the Heckler “a mouthpiece for hatemongering.” Faculty members have a right to criticize what they see as racial insensitivity, but publicly accusing students of “deeply rooted racism” is irresponsible. Palacios declined requests for comment, saying he “did not want to contribute any more to the conversation.”
Although much of the debate over the Heckler article was unnecessarily accusatory and polarizing, there were some attempts to approach the issue constructively, including a forum organized by students to discuss their thoughts on the article and race at Georgetown. Though the forum was a valuable effort, it was also an example of the difficulty of engaging in far-reaching dialogue about race at Georgetown. While most organizers were pleased with attendance, several noted that such discussions tend to attract the same limited group of participants.
“A lot of mainstream Georgetown wasn’t there nor did they understand the problem,” Stephanie Frenel (SFS ’12), director of academics for the Student Commission for Unity, said.
The superficial, limited, and unproductive nature of the debate on race at Georgetown is due partly to widespread student apathy. A bigger problem, though, is that the current nature of the discussion discourages unaffected students from joining in. When professors and administrators issue stinging condemnations but then stay away from engaging in extended dialogue, it does little to create an open discussion among Georgetown students.
For this to change, students, faculty, and administrators should embrace and continue to encourage honest dialogue, like the forum held after the Heckler controversy, while refraining from leveling the serious charge of racism when it’s not merited. Otherwise, what could be a productive discussion degenerates into little more than name-calling.
Ryan Wilson (COL ’12), who serves on one of the Diversity Initiative working groups, noted the necessity of thinking beyond each individual controversy.
“This issue is not about the Heckler and it’s not about the Hoya,” Wilson said.
“It’s a larger cultural problem, and until we start to have discussions about that, we’re really not going to go anywhere.”
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Saxa Politica is a bi-weekly column on campus news and politics.