Professor Targeted by Right Wingers for Teaching Course on 'White Racism'

Ted Thornhill taught a class on the history of racism — and was attacked by racists: “I didn’t cede any ground”

The 2017 academic year has just ended at most colleges and universities. The students who have graduated are planning their next steps. Other students are working to pay for next year's tuition bill. Lucky students are able to vacation and enjoy a few months of rest before the pressures of life become too heavy again.

College professors and other instructors are taking the time to do the writing and research that most have to put aside during the school year to attend to the demands of teaching and navigating the bureaucracy that comes with a career in higher education. Like many students, those underpaid college instructors who do not have year-long contracts and are employed on an "as needed" contingent basis, are working during the summer to survive those long months without a paycheck as well as subsidize what they hope will be a job in the next school year. There are other college professors who have seen those routines and rituals greatly disrupted.

The American right has been waging a war against American higher education for decades. With the election of Donald Trump it seems to have reached a new crescendo: Across the United States faculty members who have been deemed too "liberal" have been targeted by right-wing organizations for harassment and eventual firing. This war on academic freedom is part of a larger campaign against critical thinking in defense of the anti-intellectualism that has typified American conservatism since at least the 1950s -- and in service of a neoliberal model of education and society where citizens are to be "productive" drones rather than engaged citizens.

Ted Thornhill is one of many educators who has felt the weight of Trumpism and the right-wing movement that is fighting to remake American education in its own image come crashing down upon him.

Thornhill is a professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University. Last January he offered a course entitled "White Racism." The reaction to this course was immediate: his life was threatened, armed guards had to be posted outside his classroom, the right-wing media led by Fox News mobilized its public against him, he was the target of a coordinated harassment campaign, and right-wing student activists, including white supremacists, schemed to undermine his authority as a scholar with the ultimate goal being the termination of his employment.

I recently spoke with Professor Thornhill about the perils of teaching courses about race in the era of resurgent white backlash, academic freedom, truth-telling and the color line, and the new McCarthyism that is targeting America's teachers and professors. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

There is a right-wing network of activists, interest groups, politicians and media figures who are trying to remake American education in radical ways. Part of their strategy is to harass and force out of their jobs any educator who defies your orthodoxy. You experienced this personally. What transpired when you taught your course on white racism?

I’ve been teaching courses on racial stratification for about a decade. When it was time to come up with my list of classes that I would teach in the spring, I knew I wanted to teach a course on that topic. I wanted a title for the course that would capture the subject matter. Thus, I thought that the term "white racism" was an appropriate one. I knew that some white folks would get upset by it, but I can't concern myself with them. We look to engage students, pique their interests. I wanted them to be excited and take the course. Things got out of control because student Republican groups and libertarian groups went online and used Facebook to say that I was racist against white folks. These students then looped in Fox News and a local NBC affiliate. Then other right-wing reactionary media groups got involved back in October and November and it grew from there.

You are describing a well-oiled right-wing outrage machine. How did it target you?  

The producer for Fox News' Tucker Carlson tried to get me on his show four separate times and I’ve ignored them. I think what had these racist conservatives going apoplectic was the fact that I would not apologize or say that maybe I should have moderated my tone and the title a bit. I didn’t cede any ground to them. I think they took offense from that, and then got even more upset. I don’t have nothing to concede. If you’re not a white racist then you shouldn’t be concerned with the title of the course.

What is their logic, in terms of saying you should apologize or that the title of the class is racist?

Everything from these folks is predicated on a belief that our society is "post-racial." They all think that we’ve eclipsed their point where race matters, except in some exceptional cases where people are wearing the hoods and the robes. Moreover, they wanted to silence me. They believe the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction now that white people -- white conservatives in particular -- are being oppressed.

Some people have actually asked me, "Why didn't you just title the course 'Institutional Racism'?" They actually believe that institutional racism impacts them. They think affirmative action is actually an example of institutional racism negatively affecting the life chances of whites. I actually think that these folks are delusional. It’s either they are delusional or they are indifferent. When you know the data the truth is screaming at you. These white folks know what the history of this country is. I think they derive pleasure from it.

How have the university administration, as well as your department chair and fellow faculty members, responded to all of this?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the strong support I’ve received from the president of the institution. Because it’s certainly the case that faculty members who were under assault by these right-wing folks are often thrown under the bus, or they release these weak, tepid statements intended to reaffirm the institution's  commitments to "diversity," "inclusivity," "tolerance" and "multiculturalism" -- all that kind of stuff.

I’m pleased that the president of my university is respecting and protecting my academic freedom. There have been some folks at the institution, within the power structure let’s say, who have not been antagonistic. But they’ve been a bit reticent about the title of the course.

Why is the very statement of the fact that white racism has in many ways defined modernity so provocative?

I think it’s predicated on their way of producing these false equivalencies. Many people, especially those who are harassing professors like myself, believe that racism, first of all, is not a structural phenomenon. It’s something that is limited to the level of thoughts and beliefs and attitudes. By me titling the course "White Racism," I’m being very blunt in making a claim that you white folks and your ancestors and your white-controlled institutions are responsible for the gross differences and social outcomes between whites and folks of color. That’s just too direct for them to stomach.

One of the most salient things that I’ve learned so far from this experience is that we’ve had these courses called "Systemic Racism" and "Race and Class in American Culture" and "Race and Ethnic Relations" in sociology and other disciplines for a long time. It must be the case that these people who are protesting my class must be thinking that those courses were not focused on systemic racism and that they were simply focusing on this idea that we are all racially prejudiced. "You’re bad, I’m bad. We should all just be kind to one another and the world would be a better place."

I didn’t realize how deeply they believed that, because such people and groups are not attacking all these other courses. They’re going after courses which are explicitly about race. They’re going after courses which examine topics such as the abolition of whiteness, the problem of whiteness or white racism.

One of the ways white privilege works is through how invisible and normal it is for white folks. White privilege also takes the form of interpersonal and structural violence against nonwhites. To actually name a thing for what it is -- that's simply too psychologically and emotionally disruptive for many white folks, especially those deeply invested in white privilege.

I think that is the case. You've got to be able to name something before you can fight it. They know that, because these folks -- despite the fact that I think that they are incorrect on understanding racial matters -- do still have some brain cells operating. They’re sophisticated enough to know that these types of courses represent a possibility for other people to be persuaded by the empirical evidence which shows the continuing significance of race and racism globally. That is why they have to use right-wing, guerrilla-style tactics to try to shut us down.

Let me offer up a very basic question you might have heard from these people: Shouldn't we stop talking about race to get past racism?

You can't address a problem without talking about it. There are processes and practices and laws and traditions and customs that have been in place for generations, and whose negative effects continue to this day. By refusing to talk about race and racism, or even to collect data, they want to ignore reality.

Imagine the audacity and the arrogance necessary for these individuals to think that other folks should silence themselves and not communicate about the racial problems in this society. I don’t have a lot of patience for that.

What are some basic concepts and theories that people who study the color line in a serious way understand and take for granted that may be challenging for students and the general public?

White supremacy. Whenever I try to explain that concept to folks, they immediately go to the Klan and the neo-Nazis and the skinheads. It’s so clear to me that we have this structural system in place and all these elements of the system work together -- that there’s a logic to it. White supremacy has permeated all aspects of society within formal organizations, within the minds of people, within belief systems and within ideologies that circulate among us.

It seems so clear. People who are in denial about this reality will say or think things like, "How are you saying that there’s a system in place? We have laws that say you can't discriminate." I respond that we also have laws that say you can't drive over the speed limit and text people while you drive and things of that nature, but it still happens. I think it’s hard for them to understand the structural and systemic nature of racism. Even when I show them the data, it’s just really hard for a lot of white students and some confused students of color. That’s the one concept that I seem to have difficulty conveying.

They have a caricature of the Klan and Nazis in their heads but they don’t want to look in the mirror and ask themselves, "How am I reproducing these power relationships? How do I benefit from the system?" Because then they have to ask hard questions about their own human decency, morality and behavior.

I think for some it calls into question, "Am I a good person? Am I a good white person?" Well, you might be good, but good people can be complicit too. That’s the part they don’t like. They just don’t like the idea that they could be complicit in the system, and they don’t believe they have any animus in their heart. They don’t see how they can be contributing to the maintenance of white supremacy. Another concept that’s difficult for many white folks, and others, is the myth of meritocracy. They get stupefied: "What do you mean? People achieve things because they work hard!" It’s connected because they simply can't fathom that we have a system where people work hard and don’t make it. That’s another one that’s really challenging for many people to reconcile.

When you were putting together the syllabus for this course on white racism, what was the general outline and what were some of the high points?

In all my syllabi I have an introduction that is more detailed than the typical course description. There I offer a narrative about the origins of the United States as a white supremacist society. It is axiomatic. We are not going to debate about whether this nation’s history actually happened or not. I just don’t go there. Then the first week of class we talk about the race concept itself and how race is a biological myth. Race is a social construction. It is a political, social and cultural idea. But it is not biologically real. Race is real in its social consequences.

From there we move on to discussing different sociological theories of racism, racial ideologies and social institutions. We also talk about the concept of "colorism" in the class. Then at the end of the semester, we have time to actually discuss some strategies that students and individuals in general can use to push back against and challenge white supremacy and white racism.

What’s the one lecture or conversation you’re really excited about?

I get really excited when we talk about colorblind ideology. Yes there is a resurgence of these overt white racist hate groups. But they are not the principal mechanism through which folks of color have their life chances constrained, limited, truncated and reduced. It actually is these seemingly nonracial processes and practices and traditions that do that work. It is not only conservatives but also well-meaning, tender-hearted white liberals who reproduce those outcomes.

As someone who felt the weight of the Trump era bearing down on him, how do you think he was able to get elected president of the United States?  

I think an element of it was how people on the left thought it was so inevitable that Hillary would win. They didn’t even go to the polls.

There’s certainly this element of the white working class being resentful. Mexicans are coming to take their jobs. Muslims are coming and taking over and we’re going to have sharia law all over the country. That the gains of the civil rights movement have gone too far and the opportunities for the everyday white working Joe and Jane have gone away. They can't make it. Another element was an incorrect belief that clearly people are too intelligent to vote for Donald Trump.

This is a really racist country. These folks voted for him because they thought that he would work for them and make their lives better. Trump either felt the pulse or had people advising him who had the pulse of these groups. He spoke in a way that was attractive to his base. Somehow they forgot the fact that this guy was a billionaire, has nothing to do with them and has no relationship to them except that their skin color is the same.

Given everything that’s happened, are you at all hopeful about America’s future? What are you concerned about?

I’m a follower of the late Derrick Bell’s work. I’m not particularly hopeful with regard to racial progress in our lifetime. I think things can get better than they are now. The problems we have can change, but it will be a matter of degree. I think racial contestation will persist. Perhaps during this demographic transition that the census is forecasting, some coalitions could be formed among communities of color that are sometimes at odds, and also with anti-racist whites. There’s a possibility. But I don’t see that happening for decades and decades.

The one thing on a personal level that encouraged me, since I’m so negative and pessimistic generally speaking, is the positive response I got from people via email after all this went down. Yes, I was getting all these threats and hate mail. But I also got a lot of positive emails of encouragement and support from probably a couple hundred people from all over the country and outside the U.S.. That hit me in a way emotionally that I don’t usually get touched. That has prompted me to perhaps tamper some of my pessimism and my cynicism. But it is still there.

Maybe there’s a little bit of hope for me if I see some changes. Perhaps the 2018 election will give me a little bit of hope. Then we’ll at least have an opportunity to get some progress in some more positive directions. That’s the best hope that I have right now.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.