Lecture Hop: Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. Lee Bollinger talks.

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If ever there were a “hot seat” upon which a major university president could sit, it would undoubtedly be between Harvard law professor Lani Guinier and NAACP legal defense fund head Ted Shaw. As two of the country’s top civil right’s scholars, and as two people profoundly troubled by, and conversant in, the state of diversity and affirmative action, it would take a slick legal-type with civil rights cred of his own to emerge unscathed–especially from at panel entitled “The Future of Diversity: A Discussion on Affirmative Action,” which was held last night at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

PrezBo fits the description, but he still found himself having to strike a very fragile balance. The man wasn’t named the #24 person who’s screwing up America for nothing–he’s the precedent-setting public face of affirmative action, even if he rejected the idea that race is any better an indicator of “diversity” than class or even geography during his opening speech. But he presides over the same kind of monolithic, exclusive institution his co-panelists so vehemently criticized. Shaw, for instance, argued that true diversity was limited by the white establishment’s inability to see race from the perspective of minorities. Guinier spent most of her presentation explaining how institutions have to be diverse at their “core,” and how peripheral diversity (e.g., the superficial “differences in phenotype” achieved through affirmative action) helps insulate and protect higher education’s exclusionary center. Both identified the basic misunderstanding of race on the part of entrenched whites as a crucial social and institutional hurdle.

Bollinger is not just an entrenched white, but an entrenched white with power. Civil rights defender or no, judging by the restive and oftentimes vocal nature of the audience it was lost on no one that Gruinier and Shaw’s presentations were focused on people like him. And with Bollinger’s simultaneous progressive and conservative pressures laid bare (basically the whole pissing off Bernard Goldberg thing versus the whole running a school with a $7 billion endowment thing), he performed brilliantly.

In his opening speech, Bollinger both rejected the uniqueness of race and argued for affirmative action on the sole basis of the educational value of diversity. With typical Bollingerian subtlety, he took the minimalist and institutionally convenient stance that affirmative action is not about race, and that racial equity issues are not primarily about social or historical justice–notions which Grunier and Shaw identified as destructive to the current dialogue on race relations.

Were Bollinger like Ruth Simmons at Brown University, he would have used Guinier’s call for core, institutional changes to make some recommendations of his own. Within a year of becoming the first black president in the history of the Ivy League, Simmons launched a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to explore the university’s connection to the slave trade, and to begin the process of institutional self-purification that necessarily precedes other long-term, diversity-related goals.

It would be presumptuous to think that Bollinger lacks the imagination or the initiative of a Ruth Simmons. But tonight he stayed on defense, and tactfully rebutted his potential critics in the audience with a statistical profile of the incoming freshman class: fifty percent of the class of 2011 are people of color. Twenty percent are black, Hispanic or Native American. Fourteen percent qualify for Pell grants.

But even if Bollinger was able to negotiate the doubtless uncomfortable territory between social and institutional responsibility, it was Shaw who provided the evening’s most eloquent argument against even trying to negotiate it at all. “I can’t let go of race,” he said, “because race can’t let go of us.” Shaw might have been referring to the dangers of trivializing or misunderstanding issues of race. Or maybe he was warning those who would try to let go of and hold on to race at the same time.


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  1. Bozo the Frown

    Nice chiasmus Shaw.

    p.s. When aliens destroy us, we'll all look the same to them. I personally think this is the most powerful argument for affirmative action. I call it the Argument-From-Outer-Space. You should have used it insteaad of...whatever incomprehensible argument you were trying to make.

    Bwog, I don't like lecture hopping. If I wanted someone's filtered opinion about a lecture, I'd ask myself about it. In the future, please publish articles that give me more than one quote and tell me what went on at the actual lecture that has been hopped instead of giving me some watered down backstory.

    • haha

      Yaaaa Foner's on there! Can't believe no one's spotted that yet.

      By the way, who is "ARR"? I'm not a big offense. Commenter 1 was right about having a bit more content, though background and *some* interpretative analysis is welcome.

  2. the list

    is disgusting.

  3. NewsFlash  

    Bernard Goldberg is a friggin moron.

  4. my favorite

    Ludacris: like all rappers, Ludacris promotes ignorance and anti-social behavior.
    "All rappers"? And has he been on the bwog?

  5. fuck

    that list. If there was even an ounce of fairness in its compilation, Coulter & O'Reilly would have been on it.

  6. keb

    That list is the most moronic thing I've ever read.

    Eg. Tim Robbins: He also says he's about peace, but he's also mean to people.


  7. DHI

    Manson is nowhere near as good a killer as Mike was a basketball player.

  8. awesome

    Take note that Arthur Sulzberger, number 2 on that list, comes from the same line of Sulzbergers that give the Barnard dorm its name. Yippee! Another point for University of Havana North and its feminazi counterpart!!

  9. Fred Sanford

    Poor Prezbo. Always sucking-up to POC but still getting treated like a honky.

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