By Greg Markley
For the Opelika
In 1895, W.E.B. Dubois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was a revered public figure in the 20th century for his academic work and social activism. In 1903, Dubois said the new century must face “the problem of the color line” distancing whites from blacks.
Dubois was half-right: issues involving race in the United States continue on 116 years after his prediction for the 20th century.
Recently, both Auburn University and the University of Alabama made news because of an individual who either attended or worked there. Auburn is mentioned because one of these incidents happened there in the mid-1960s. But that person looking foolish by witness accounts is none other than our governor, Kay Ivey.
In an audio from 1967, Ivey’s then-fiance Ben LaRavia said Ivey was wearing blackface and coveralls at a sorority event. This audio was found during Auburn’s digitizing of content for the library. Auburn University issued a statement: “There was a time at Auburn, and in this nation generally, when racial caricature was tolerated. It was wrong then and it is wrong today.” The release included pledges of compliance with federal and state laws.
Meanwhile, at Alabama, there were a lot of crimson red faces as Jamie Riley, the university’s dean of students, resigned. Officials were unhappy with Riley’s tweets published in a newspaper. An article in Breitbart showed screenshots of Riley’s tweets on racism, the U.S. flag and police. “The flag represents a systemic history of racism for my people,” Riley tweeted last September.
“Police are a part of that system. Is it that hard to see the correlation?”
Officials at Alabama were speechless compared to Auburn, which was not itself garrulous in its statement.
“Dr. Jamie Riley has resigned his position at the University of Alabama by mutual agreement,” the Alabama release read: “Neither the university or Dr. Riley will have any further comments.” Riley’s tweets were criticized by conservatives, such as Laura Ingraham of Fox News.
I feel both Governor Ivey’s situation and Dr. Riley’ case can be handled by understanding historical empathy. This is broadly defined as “the process of understanding people in the past by contextualizing their actions”—to help them engage with history and process their own roles in the world.
For example, some students make President Harry Truman out to be a madman; after all he approved the nuclear bombs that killed hundreds of thousands. But Truman had to decide based on the primitive communications of his time. It was also thought the attacks would save millions of American lives. One does not have to agree with Truman’s choice, but to understand it. Otherwise, the research is likely to be weak, ineffective and unbalanced.
My college friend from Barbados and I went to a Macy’s department store in New York in 1978 while visiting the city. Adrian, who is black, looked at the mannequins and said: “Look at the dummies: They are all white!” If certain people heard him implying that “white people are dumb” in 2019 they might not have laughed, but booed. (Now there are black, white and brown mannequins, so all of us must be “dummies.”)
My point: Ivey’s case shows that in college she acted like too many students did then, and she will pay an image consequence whether she stays governor or not. But for me, she should stay because there is scant evidence she thinks the same way about race as she did 50-plus years ago. If Ivey does makes a clearly racist statement as governor, I will recommend then that she retire.
Riley’s case shows he has attitudes on race he might not show at work. But we would not know that unless we violated his privacy through social media, as Breitbart did. He should be reinstated, as we still have the First Amendment that covers unpopular opinion such as his. If Riley says anything in public that is racist or very inappropriate for a dean, the university’s leaders should fire him.
This is the season when Auburn University and University of Alabama should be concentrating on the scrimmage line, of course. But the “color line,” as Dubois said, must eventually be eliminated. We don’t need to persecute each other as we adapt to change. Being a “dummy” ain’t fun.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for18 of the past 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has a masters degree in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.