Dr. Ben Carson is learning the perils of rising in the polls in a presidential election. This week, the National Enquirer produced an article detailing what it says is a pattern of malpractice by Carson, including leaving a sponge in the head of a patient. Some of the harshest commentary however have come from liberal African Americans. Much like some of the criticism faced by Clarence Thomas, Carson has been attacked as being a type of traitor to the black community despite the fact that he is a hugely successful doctor and mentor for many. University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler however took that criticism to a new low in calling Carson a “coon.” While such a racial slur would normally be followed by demands for terminations from a white professor, the response to the slur has been at best muted.
The Butler incident raises again the question of a double standard in controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. Just yesterday we discussed a case at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa.
Butler said that Ben Carson should win the “coon of the year” after the 2016 hopeful supported allowing Confederate flags at NASCAR events. Carson had stated a principled position in favor of free speech despite his own obvious dislike for the imagery. Many free rights advocates, including myself, have argued for the right to display such symbols. Carson said “Swastikas are a symbol of hate for some people too … and yet they still exist in our museums and places like that . . . If it’s a majority of people in that area who want it to fly, I certainly wouldn’t take it down.”
There are strong arguments for protecting this right, but Professor Butler by writing “If only there was a ‘coon of the year’ award …”
The response from the head of her department indicates that this is not going to be viewed as an issue for her colleagues or the school. Professor Justin McDaniel told the Washington Examiner that “She is a valued colleague and faculty member, but I have no comment on the tweet, because I have not seen it nor know the context of the comment.” Fair enough. However, there is a legitimate question of how the school would have responded to a white professor calling a leading African-American a “coon” or other slur. Would that public comment be treated as a private affair? Indeed, racially insensitive comments on social commentary by a Duke University professor led to calls for his termination.
McDaniel is not the only one defending Butler. Over at Mediaite, they are insisting that Butler never actually referred to Carson as a “coon.” While I have added “reportedly” to the title, the defense seems to go nowhere beyond suggesting that people are racists if they interpret a tweet on Carson as receiving an award of “Coon of the Year” as referring to Carson as “Coon of the Year.”
“Now, if you want to interpret Professor Butler’s tweet that way, you’re welcome to do so, but to state that interpretation as fact is just plain wrong. In fact, maybe you’re the racist for reading that tweet and assuming that she meant Ben Carson is a “coon.” There’s another much more relevant interpretation to be made.”
However, Tommy Christopher never gets around to actually explaining the misinterpretations by presumptive racists. It is simply noted that the tweet was in response to Ben Carson’s remarks on NASCAR and the Confederate flag — as has been widely reported. Christopher then goes into an aside on an actual Coon of the Year competition in Maine. Others have suggested that Butler was referring to how “whites” would refer to him. I fail to see how that is a defense. She would still be saying that Carson qualifies as a “coon”, which was obviously slur created for whites for blacks. It is saying that he meets that definition. You end up in the same place. It is like saying that a black leader is an Uncle Tom or “house n****r” — the point is that he qualifies as the type of subservient slave-like character referenced by racist whites. For those who have long been critical of the increasing list of “microaggressions” being sanctioned on campuses, this would seem a macroaggression under the prevailing logic.
This is not the first controversy for Butler who is also a regular on MSNBC as a commentator. In 2013, she tweeted in commentary on the Zimmerman case that
God ain’t good all of the time. In fact, sometimes, God is not for us. As a black woman in a nation that has taken too many pains to remind me that I am not a white man, and am not capable of taking care of my reproductive rights, or my voting rights, I know that this American god ain’t my god. As a matter of fact, I think he’s a white racist god with a problem. More importantly, he is carrying a gun and stalking young black men.
Once again, I have long maintained that academics, including Professor Butler, deserve free speech and academic protections for expressing controversial thoughts. The problem is not that there is a clearly undefined and unevenly applied standard for academics with regard to racially sensitive or controversial comments.
As for Carson, I find the backlash against successful African-Americans like him or Clarence Thomas to be astonishing. One can easily disagree with Thomas’ opinions, but he has one of the most genuine and moving life stories of anyone in Washington. If he were liberal, his rise from abject poverty to the highest court would be celebrated as the triumph of true American values. The same can be said about Carson who has achieved a remarkable amount in his lifetime. African Americans should be celebrated regardless of their political views by the black community and society at large. The harsh and intolerant response to conservative blacks on campuses in not just unfair it is distinctly anti-intellectual. Yet, this intolerance is becoming a badge of pride for some who believe that they have license to insult and degrade those who dare hold views different from their own. Carson’s comment about the confederate flag shows considerable principle in overcoming the powerfully negative imagery for his community. It is Professor Butler who reduced this substantive debate to the level of racial slurs and personal insults.
Martin Luther King said “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Carson stood for free speech rights. It is not clear what Professor Butler stands for in casting racial slurs in response.