ASU Under Fire From the Right Over a Professor's "The Problem of Whiteness" Class

ASU is taking a hit in the news for offering a senior-level English class next semester called U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness.

The controversial 18-student class will be taught by assistant professor Lee Bebout, whose expertise is critical race theory, American studies, and Chicano studies. Critics of the class -- who are calling it racist against white people -- say it will inflame racial tensions in the country, not abate them. Supporters call that claim ridiculous and think the whole situation is a faux-scandal designed to promote a right-wing agenda.

This all began a few weeks ago when the conservative organization Campus Reform broke "the story," and Fox News promptly aired a segment called "Disgrace on Campus."

Fox interviewed ASU's student correspondent Lauren Clarke, who scoffed at the class' required reading list. "All of these books have a disturbing trend, and that's pointing to all white people as the root cause for social injustices for this country," she said. "To have a class that suggests that an entire race is the problem is inappropriate, wrong, and quite frankly, counter-productive."

The discussion about the class has been mostly one-sided since Bebout isn't talking to the media (he declined to comment or be interviewed by New Times), and the university won't say anything beyond the public statement it issued about how "the class is designed to empower students to confront the difficult and often thorny issues that surround us today and reach thoughtful conclusions rather than display gut reactions." (The full text of the statement is available at the end of the article.)

If Fox News represents one point of view, University of Arizona Professor Nolan Cabrera, who studies race and racism in higher education, represents the other. He looks at the situation and sees "a manufactured controversy" by groups like Campus Reform, and by people like anti-leftist thinker David Horowitz--author of "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America." Because they believe there is a liberal bias in universities, Cabrera thinks they purposefully go out looking for stories like this to get media attention for their cause.

(Whatever side of the debate you fall on, if you need something to get enraged about, or a reason to get your heart rate up, may we suggest reading the comments under Fox's Disgrace on Campus segment.)

"You know," Cabrera tells New Times, "many people have this mistaken notion that we can get over centuries of institutional and covert racism without getting uncomfortable." Sorry, he said, we can't. "You can't be all for racial equality and not be willing to talk about white privilege."

He knows "the term 'white privilege' often turns people off and makes them uncomfortable," but just because a person can go through life not thinking about the advantages their skin color affords them, "doesn't mean they should."

Last week, Cory Aragon, an assistant professor at Concordia College, jokingly suggested on Facebook that the school should change the name of the class to "Hey, Whiteness May Be an Issue. Or It May Not Be. Fair and Balanced Race Class."

New Times asked Cabrera whether professors feel pressured to give their classes provocative names and whether Bebout could have avoided this current situation had he named the class something else.

"You have to do a little bit of advertising to promote your course," Cabrera said, "but that may not even be what happened." He doubts Bebout called the class 'the problem of whiteness' just to make it sound sexy, because if you a look at the required reading list, he says, the course name is an accurate depiction of the material it will cover. (ASU has not released the full course syllabus.)

And remember, Cabrera cautions, "telling [Bebout] to tone it down is saying that this academic witch hunt is justified and that it was his fault."

Overall, Bebout's critics, like Clarke, see the situation as part of a conspiracy to promote a liberal agenda. "We're tracking this trend across campuses nationwide," she said on Fox News.

Cabrera agrees only with her assertion that this story is nothing new; "it's part of the same old playbook that doesn't promote social change. It just makes a professor's life miserable for a couple months." He says he sees the situation for what it is: not a huge scandal, as Fox would have you believe, but just "a predictable cycle in these political controversies."

With a sigh he says that the situation will blow over soon enough. "And then there will be the next controversy."

ASU's statement: "This course uses literature and rhetoric to look at how stories shape people's understandings and experiences of race. It encourages students to examine how people talk about - or avoid talking about - race in the contemporary United States. This is an interdisciplinary course, so students will draw on history, literature, speeches and cultural changes - from scholarly texts to humor. The class is designed to empower students to confront the difficult and often thorny issues that surround us today and reach thoughtful conclusions rather than display gut reactions. A university is an academic environment where we discuss and debate a wide array of viewpoints."

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