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Patient . . . and Radical

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H2 9/27/09

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In sending out a recommendation for our blog last week, one of our Twitter friends, the very thoughtful @readingmachine, described us as "patient," which we took as a high compliment because we try to be measured and thoughtful about our offerings. It led us to consider the degree to which it is difficult to be both radical and patient in this political climate.

It is an appropriate time for us to be a little reflective, as we have just begun our fourth year of us writing our weekly blog. (Interestingly, it was at about this time last year when we felt it necessary to "defin[e] our role.") Of course, much has changed in America since we wrote about the start of the first season of Survivor in 2006, when the "tribes" were divided by race. Much has stayed the same, too. While we were by no means the first online writers to dedicate our space to race and politics, we were among only a small handful of such sites. Now the blogosphere is crowded with smart, thoughtful offerings on the subject, many of them right here at OpEdNews. Back then, we had only a handful of readers, most of whom either knew us personally or were former students. We had the odd reader who thought we were full of it, but for the most part, the comments were civil and respectful; folks appreciated what we were doing, even if they disagreed with what we wrote.

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But things today are much more heated with respect to our topic. Drew Westen, who is working on the cutting edge of political psychology research, wrote a must-read piece for Huffington Post this week where he explains how race has a way of leading to incivility in the way we communicate with one another. Joe Gerstandt wrote a thoughtful piece about how to find "sweetness," and the White House, which has wisely tried to deescalate the anger all summer by downplaying the role race has played, stayed on message this week, as President Obama suggested that race was not an issue in the opposition to his policies because he "was Black before the election."

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To be fair, the overall political climate is probably not, overall, more hostile than it was in the fall of 2006, when progressives were outraged over some of President Bush's policies, but the hostility much more directly centers on race today. So when @readingmachine offered that we were "patient" and @Maevesmom, later in the week, advocated for "relentless etiquette," we were encouraged to reflect on this week's events through that lens.

We have taken a bit of heat over the years from folks who are not familiar with (or simply disagree with) the goals and practices of folks who work in higher education. Specifically, we have been accused of being arrogant and elitist because we have consistently argued that it is the responsibility of scholars to be able to see the "big picture." While we cannot dismiss out of hand charges that we are -- individually or as a pair -- arrogant, we would like to offer that most folks in academia (including us) make a fraction of the money that people who went to school half as long make. Perhaps we are sensitive about it, but far from being reflective of self-importance, this fact is either a testament to our dedication to our profession or to our abject stupidity. Our guess is that whichever choice you prefer depends greatly on the degree to which you think we are on the mark with our analysis most weeks.

In any case, we put ourselves out there each week, which makes us a target for criticism, so we understand that withstanding those jabs is part of what we must expect. We explain to our family members who are troubled by such remarks that the attacks are not really personal, but that it is difficult to separate what we are doing from who we are; it is difficult for our critics, and it is difficult for us.

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We are expected to be "patient" and to engage in "relentless etiquette"; our critics are not. Those who defend the status quo have always been, by definition, resistant to change. From flat earth defenders to slavery supporters to school integration resisters, there is a perpetual struggle between those pushing for more progress and those who think that we have made enough progress (and that any more would be "reverse discrimination"). But progress is not the same as equality, and while it is uncomfortable for many, those who fight for equality do not and cannot stop at each stage where progress has been made. Intellectual growth, like all growth, requires a tearing down before building back up. In this case, we need to tear down the myths of White supremacy and American meritocracy to expose systemic racism and help folks to understand that the precise use of language related to race is an important factor in determining whether we will continue to move forward or whether we have reached a nadir.

There is a name for such a push: radicalism. Those who seek fundamental changes to the system that created and perpetuates inequality (based on race, sex, etc.) understand that we need radical change. To most Americans, "radical" is synonymous with "extreme," but like "racism" the term has been (perhaps intentionally) diluted by those who wish for it to lose its power. By conflating the term "radical," the etymology of which is "by the root," with "extreme," defenders of the status quo have been able to push advocates for radical social justice to the margins of American political discourse. But if we use a metaphor of weeds, the difference is that we can continue to mow over or "weed whack" those little pesky buggers, or we can get down on our hands and knees, get a little bit dirty, and pull them out by the root so that they never grow back. That's radical, and that's what is needed to bring about social justice. (What that means in policy terms, however, is subject to debate and beyond the scope of this article.)

So is it possible to be patient and radical? We hope so.

For the past eight years, we have engaged in social science research to help others (and ourselves) more fully understand the complexities of racism in American politics, particularly the ways that it is reflected in and moved along by language. But we started The Project on Race in Political Communication as a "project" because we always had a vision for our work that transcended the confines of the narrow academic communities within which we work. Part of our mission is to "share [scholarly] information with the mass public in an accessible way," which we do each week in this space.

Beginning this past summer, we also began to provide a place for folks to gather and discuss these issues (on our Facebook page and via our Twitter feed). In all of these endeavors, we have tried to create online space with an academic atmosphere that is a departure from most of the other politically-oriented online environments. To be fair, we have had some problems getting folks to appreciate that one must adjust one's behavior to the context. Just like we would not welcome the sort of screaming matches that characterize cable television news in our classrooms, we expect civil and respectful exchanges of ideas in our online learning communities. The physical space and power differentials that occur naturally in our classrooms make such expectations relatively easy to manage; online, however, it is much more difficult. Just this week, we were forced to issue a call for civility on our Facebook page because we began to notice that the sarcasm and "gotcha" comments that are so prominent in other online settings were starting to seep in. There are nearly 1,000 teacher-learners who look to that page for information and commentary on issues relating to race, politics and language, and we want to be sure to provide a safe environment for the thoughtful and respectful exchange of ideas without fear of bullying.

So while we appreciate that passions are running high, it is important to point out that academics do, in fact, have commitments and responsibilities that differ from non-academics, and that among them, being at once patient and radical is important.

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Academics must view the world differently than journalists, who in turn must view the world differently from those who have no training in journalism. Just this week, Talking Points Memo writer Glenn Thrush had to apologize for taking a document sent to him by a political operative and including it in one of his columns without carefully checking the content. He appropriately noted that the responsibility did not rest with the party leader who sent him the information; that person's job is to spin, persuade and manipulate. While we can argue that everyone has a responsibility to be "truthful," the art of politics is about constructing reality, so we probably won't get too far with that argument. Journalists, however, have a responsibility of pulling back, checking sources, and striving for objectivity (which should not be confused with neutrality).

Academics have yet a different set of expectations. First, with respect to our research, the (often double-blind) peer review process is the step of the scientific method that is designed to ensure that the rigor that is expected in terms of methodology and theoretical development is reflected in our publications. Not long ago, one of our online critics rhetorically asked of a blog entry, "so this passes for academic rigor?" Certainly not! There is less editorial oversight for blogs than there is for media publications, let along academic publications. The work we do here does not significantly contribute to the professional evaluation of our work or promotion at our respective institutions, and it certainly would not pass for "scholarship" at either North Central College or New York University. What we offer here is an application of social scientific scholarship to current events. The peer review process moves (by design) much more slowly. Part of the challenge of teaching students in the 21st century is helping them to weigh information appropriately. If one of our blogs was listed as a scholarly source on a paper, we would certainly deduct points.

Second, as teachers we have a different set of expectations than those who are not teachers. Mark Edmundson wrote an excellent piece for the New York Times this week wherein he very eloquently explains why teachers must view the world differently from others:
Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call "counterintuitive" but to the teacher means simply being honest. The historian sees the election not through the latest news blast but in the context of presidential politics from George Washington to the present. The biologist sees a natural world that's not calmly picturesque but a jostling, striving, evolving contest of creatures in quest of reproduction and survival. The literature professor won't accept the current run of standard cliche's but demands bursting metaphors and ironies of an insinuatingly serpentine sort. The philosopher demands an argument as escapeproof as an iron box: what currently passes for logic makes him want to grasp himself by the hair and yank himself out of his seat.

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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)

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