Academic Ignorance

When I was a senior at Michigan State University in 1961-1962, I became a research assistant in the School of Labor and Industrial Relations. The school invited graduate students from other countries to spend a few months there to get acquainted with the U.S. and labor issues in the U.S. One of the invitees was an Egyptian named Ahmed. Ahmed was a burly fellow with a shaved head and dark skin. At first glance, he could have passed for an American black.

Having grown up among lower-middle-class and lower-class whites, I knew the prevailing attitude toward blacks, which was — to put it simply — bigoted. The idea that Northerners were less bigoted than Southerners was laughable to me. It’s true that there were far more lynchings of blacks in the South than in the North, and it’s true that the South enforced segregation through Jim Crow laws. But most Northerners disliked blacks and avoided contact with them to the extent possible.

I said as much to Ahmed, as a warning, in the presence of a director of the school, who demurred. I daresay that the director, despite his academic knowledge of labor issues, probably had little contact with denizens of the lower classes, and such contact as he had probably was limited to fleeting exchanges with gas-station attendants, store clerks, and the like. I didn’t press my view, but I wasn’t dissuaded from it by the director’s protestations.

I mention this incident because I recently came into possession of the deed to the burial plots of my parents. The deed, which was issued by a Michigan cemetery in 1954, includes this provision:

No interment shall ever be made except for the remains of members of the white caucasian race.

Such covenants are no longer legal, but they reflect attitudes among white Northerners that probably haven’t changed much in 61 years — especially in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore. I remain steadfast in my view that racism was (and is) as deeply ingrained in Northerners as in Southerners, the attitudes of cosseted Northern elites to the contrary notwithstanding.

You’ll know that I’m right if you hail from the lower classes of the North or know a bit of history — which includes white vs. black riots and KKK activity in the North (see this and this, for example). It gives me no pleasure to be right, but I am offended by the ignorance of comfortable academics, who see the world as they think it ought to be, not as it is.

Today’s academics remain profoundly ignorant of the real world, just in different ways.