Last November, the Santa Barbara City College announced the selection of Joyce Coleman as the new vice president of the School of Extended Learning. Now Coleman has been put on administrative leave due to a comment made about Japanese internment camps that was denounced as causing “great harm” to the Asian community. The action is particularly notable given Coleman’s own campaign against racism in education. Coleman, who is African American, has been a prominent voice against racism in society and particularly in education. She reportedly observed in March in a Zoom event that “There is no such thing as not being racist. Either you are anti-racist or racist.” As will come as no surprise to many on this blog, I believe that Coleman’s statement should be considered protected by free speech and academic freedom principles.
Coleman also has been quoted as explaining that “white folks are all on a journey to realize their own guilt.” She is now on a journey of her own after being the subject of a formal investigation after a comment that she made at the SBCC’s Equal Opportunity Advisory Committee on March 23, according to Santa Barbara Independent. The Committee had formed a new “affinity group” on behalf of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community after the March shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six Asian women.
Coleman reportedly said “about time,” and then noted that she has always been perplexed by the response of the Japanese to their internment. The Independent reported:
“The complaint alleges Coleman, who is Black, reportedly greeted news of [a new campus affinity group on behalf of Asian-American Pacific Islanders] formation with the words, “About time,” and then described having visited an internment camp for Japanese and Japanese American people during World War II and wondering why the prisoners there “did not just leave,” given how small the fence was. By contrast, Coleman allegedly noted, Black American slaves formed the Underground Railroad and actively resisted.
Some campus faculty and staff took offense to what they described as “victim blaming,” charging that she inflicted “great harm” by her words and actions.
I can certainly understand why members of the AAPI community would be offended. However, the response should be to challenge Coleman’s assumptions and knowledge. Instead, some members of the community brought a formal complaint. I agree with the AAPI community that the comments were ill-informed and insulting. Indeed, I found the comparison insulting to both groups. Such comparisons rarely work out well. (Recently, a Holocaust surviver recently denounced progressives for repeatedly comparing immigration centers to “concentration camps.”).
However, Coleman was expressing her opinion in the comparison and she should be free to do as an individual and as a faculty member. Indeed, this is the type of statement that could have been used for a great debate and exchange on campus. I would not be surprised if Professor Coleman ultimately amended her comments or apologized in the course of such a dialogue. Even if she did not, this could have been a learning experience as faculty and students compare the two great historical injustices perpetrated against the Black and Asian communities.
Professor Coleman may have been trying to show empathy for the Japanese Americans in the camps with her comparison to the intolerable conditions of slavery. I can see why it was received as deeply insulting but we all have a need to try to give the benefit of such doubts to each other in our public discourse.
I understand the need to write a letter condemning such comments. In the not-so-distant past, university officials would have noted the protections afforded to such views under free speech and academic principles. It would have then facilitated a meeting or, even better, a forum to discuss such historical and political issues. Those days seem to have now passed.
Campuses have become places of growing intolerance where faculty and students use speech regulations to seek to silence those with opposing views. We often seem like institutions populated by little Madam Dufarges eager to give testimony against those who offend us. The prior default was free speech. We would have passionate but civil debate. Even extreme views were heard on campuses as part of our commitment to open and uninhibited thought and speech. We now appear to be collective censors and accusers.
Any “harm” caused by Professor Coleman’s remarks pales in comparison to the greater harm of speech regulation and curtailment on our campuses.