Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega
Chicago, Illinois, USA
September 11
A (Sometimes) Respectable Negro
Editor and Founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes He has been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland's Alternet Radio Hour, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground. His essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos. The NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Slate, and the Week (among others) have featured his expert commentary and analysis on race, politics, and popular culture.

Chauncey DeVega's Links

MARCH 24, 2010 5:52AM

A College Classroom Becomes An Arrest Scene-Is this Racism?

Rate: 1 Flag



With access to less than complete information, I would like to believe that I would have magically defused this situation and turned it into that pedagogical unicorn, the mythical thing educators call a "teachable moment." But in all honesty, I am unsure if I could have mustered that wisdom and patience.

Being a teacher is very difficult. Regardless of your years of teaching, level of competence, or depth of expertise in one's field of specialization, we are always a bit naked before their students. When that normal awkwardness is compounded by an unruly student (quite literally) anything can happen.

In my years of college teaching I have been faced with Holocaust deniers, hit by a student, called out of my name on more than one occasion, and have had to deal with what the all too common and generic sickness that is student entitlement derangement syndrome. But luckily, I have never had to call campus security to remove a student, because to do so is the ultimate disruption in the rhythm and sense of community in a class, and where subsequently, it is quite difficult to recover from such an episode. As I tell my students, teaching is like dating, we are building a relationship and have to be mindful of respecting one another, learning to trust, and to be open to sharing. That having been said, while in a dating relationship--as in all human relationships--there is an asymmetry of power. In the teacher-student relationship, the teacher (even with unfair and punitive student evaluations, bureaucratic interference, the corporatization of education, and helicopter parents) more often than not remains supreme, for they have the power of the gradebook.

In reviewing the video of Robyn Foster's arrest, I will be transparent in letting it be known that I don't have much use for "racism chasers." You know, those folks who cry racism at every slight, raised eyebrow, or indignity--real, imagined, or otherwise. Why? because just like the boy who called wolf, racism chasers diminish the power of their claims such that when real bigotry comes about, folks will not likely pay much attention...and then it is too late. Allies are lost, ears are closed, would-be protesters are tired, and folks (of all colors) may be deaf to the call to arms. The Foster case seems ripe for characterization as one where police authority has run amok and racism is the culprit. I do not know what to think, save for the following instincts and questions.

One, while I am not so naive as to believe that all things being equal that race is not operative here--I must suggest that a white (or even Asian) student acting in the same fashion would be treated more benignly (but in this age of school violence I am unsure). Nevertheless, Robyn Foster is no Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who is a legitimate victim of police harassment)--as much as the racism chasers will christen her as heir to his throne. While some "celebrity" will inevitably come to her--and perhaps this is what she yearned for subconsciously--Foster is not, nor should be, a Cause celebre. Two, what do we do with a college educational system, that at the highest levels, is being pressured to admit an excessive number of students (many of whom may not be equipped for success socially, inter-personally, or intellectually) for purposes of enrollment and to fatten the fiscal bottom line? Who is being served? Who is being cheated?

To point: in this incident I see a culture clash that is centered upon deference and comportment in the face of authority (quite literally, I suspect this student does not know how to deal with  criticism. To boot, the idea of either public censuring and/or correction is too much for her to manage given her understandings of what  "respect" and local norms of "prestige" and "power" are).

To my eyes, this video screams a lack of maturity and not race as the overriding issue of dispute and controversy. Some may say that this reading is my impressing of a bourgeois norm of respectability--and Black Respectability--onto a student who may be born of neither milieu. I disagree. Good comportment is good comportment--however awkward my phrasing may be--in the classroom and elsewhere, and the lessons of higher education should and ought to be how to best transcend one's origins and circumstances.

Nevertheless, I must ask myself: How much have things changed when in 2010 it is the norm for a professor to be so easily able to call campus police to their class in order to subdue a student? When did things get turned so topsy-turvy that educators have learned to be afraid of their students, students afraid of one another, and police authority has made itself known even in the college classroom?

Please share. What is your call? Is this racism? A scared and overreacting teacher? A teachable moment lost? How would you have handled this incident?


Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I love the word pedagogical. On campus you can give pedicures?
I an glad you are on campus. Willie Nelson woke up and had beer.
He went to a 'icebox' and popped a Colt 45- Malt Liquor quencher.
I am pretty certain that my first cop-beating was because of Colt 45.
I was parking on a gravel road and the cops hauled me to a jail cage.
I was just roughed-up by cops pushes. No blood or bruises. O Cops?You got me recalling stuff while this downloads slowly. In St Louis?I was pushed up against a brick wall. I was walking in a major drug-running neighborhood in East St Louis. The police searched my pockets for fuzzy loose 'Life Saver, a snot-rag, a screw, bolt, and a few Horehound Herbal Cough Drops. It tickles getting your pockets searched. I was picking up the Kim Doan Family who were DUMPED-OFF in the urban jungle with other Humans who were locked-uo,
in concrete ghettos.
Kim had two children.
She was Vietnamese/Amerasian.
The USA DoJ sure "screwed" her.
It's a long-story. Ask Sunny? F.B.I.
I wanted to say`I'd sip a Leffe Ale.
A Belgium Bier taste great in class.
You pour Ale in a Gator Aid bottle.
This takes 'forever' to downloads.
I will go see if I get 'itch' in my ears.
Itching ears is fun. Use Bag Balm.
I swear Bag Balm cures bad breath,
foul lingo, rotten-liver, a hangover.
This is only 1/4 finished. I'm thirsty.
I'll call up a Baltimore's Mr. Steele?
I can't say if what is happening here is racist or not. I can make a few preliminary suggestions and consider some possibilities. First, someone decided to record what was happening from the beginning of the argument. That's interesting. It suggests this isn't the first time this particular student has been disruptive in some way. The student recording the conversation appears to have focused the entire conversation on that student and not on the professor. That's also indicative of a problem situation that has been ongoing and one which originates, in some way, with the student.

Next, under NO circumstances as a teacher do I publicly discuss paper comments of one student with the rest of the class present. Nor would I allow this kind of argument to escalate. Instead, I would simply suggest the student and I continue our conversation later and then, I'd change the subject. I'd ignore any and all attempts to move the conversation back to that student, by the student, as she is clearly attention-seeking in an inappropriate manner. She's being confrontational in a way that isn't classroom appropriate, and my guess is that she does, in fact, understand this, per her behavior, but is employing a bullying approach to offset her own sense of not feeling good about whatever has caused this situation in the first place. Frankly, she has some boundary issues. I'd be giving her a phone number to the university counseling center to her at our private meeting as well.

Finally, while I wouldn't call security, I can't make a judgment on that, as I don't know the history of this situation. Has she threatened the professor in the past? Have there been other incidents?

Now, the campus police .... hmmm ... I will say I thought escorting her out of class without putting her on the ground first would be the better approach, but I don't know the training situation there. Maybe, with all the incidents on college campuses over the last few years, campus security has been trained to do a 'take-down' in a certain way with all students, period. That, too, would need to be confirmed. As well, I find it interesting that the student is not crying or weeping or anything but angry.

Plus, her final partial comment, evidently about the professor, is not a good one to hear. She clearly cannot be allowed to come back to class, and as an administrator, I'd be concerned about her coming back to school. And none of these thoughts have anything at all to do with the color of her skin. As a teacher, it is my experience that bad behavior can come from anyone. Color or money or gender does not make a difference, as far as I can tell.

But you make the best point. It simply isn't easy to tell what's going on with the little information that we have.
odetteroulette thoughtfully sums up the situation. I also wondered about the sneakattack from the security team. Not knowing the previous history of this combatant individual and her relationship with the teacher, we can not judge their actions. Whether the teacher was scared or not is hard to gauge, but any parent of an unruly and combative child knows not to argue or give an audience to the offender.