While Riley Cooper Was Getting Drilled, a College President Largely Got a Pass
Earlier this summer, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper became the unceasing focus of media attention because while he was attending a Kenny Chesney concert, he got into an altercation with an African-American security guard and used the “N-word.” The incident probably would have remained just another ugly little off-season episode involving an NFL player, overshadowed by the actual felonies committed by other NFL players, but the exchange was captured in a video that then went viral.
I have no desire to defend Cooper or anyone else for using racial or ethnic slurs. But the whole thing quickly assumed ridiculous proportions. Commentators worried whether Riley Cooper’s teammates’ would ever again “be able to forgive him or to trust him,” whether they would be able to “move beyond their feelings of bewilderment and betrayal.” ESPN started to become dangerously close to indistinguishable from Oprah or Dr. Phil. The media swoon became so suffocating that the Eagles sent Cooper off for several days of sensitivity training (unfortunate echoes, here, in Bob Filner’s abbreviated gender-sensitivity therapy), and Cooper vowed to “work hard” on his “problem.”
I am not trying to be dismissive of the offensiveness of what Cooper said or to reinforce stereotypes of professional football players as insensitive, unthinking brutes. But I could not help but feel that the media was making a lot more of the whole thing than Cooper’s teammates and opponents were, simply because I am fairly certain that most of the African-American players in the NFL have heard a lot worse and have confronted far more virulent exhibitions of racism than what Cooper said and did. And these guys have to be very thick-skinned, literally and figuratively, to survive in their profession. I recall reading an interview with the late Reggie White in which he talked about reaching that point in the season at which he stopped getting routinely black and blue from the contact.
Try to imagine someone like Lewis Black making this point: someone who can get up after being drilled into the artificial turf is not likely to say after hearing someone use the N-word,” “I’m sorry coach, but I am so upset that I just don’t think that I can focus.”
But in contrast with the self-indulgently over-blown media coverage of the incident involving Riley Cooper, an almost equally offensive and in many ways more profoundly disturbing racist comment by a college president went largely unreported and unaddressed.
One of the few media sources that covered the story was the Huffington Post, and the article published there on August 1 opens with this succinct summary of the incident:
“A Michigan college issued an apology after its president made racially offensive remarks Wednesday afternoon.
“Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn described minority students as ‘dark ones’ during a state legislature subcommittee hearing regarding the adoption of Common Core State Standards.
“While testifying against the Common Core, which have been adopted in more than 40 states in an effort to standardize education, Arnn said he took issue with the idea of government interfering with educational institutions and went on to describe a letter he had received from the Department of Education shortly after becoming president at Hillsdale. The letter, he told the committee, said his college ‘violated the standards for diversity because we didn’t have enough of the dark ones, I guess, is what they meant.’”
One might suspect that the story received little media coverage because what, after all, would one expect from the president of Hillsdale College, an institution that a writer for the National Review once described as a “citadel of American Conservatism” and that has, ever since, seemingly tried not just to live up to that epithet but to prove it an understatement.
The irony, of course, is that Hillsdale began as the first American college to prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. But its institutional evolution has in many ways provided a revealing parallel to the transformation of American Conservatism and the Republican party. The progressivism most evident in a figure such as Theodore Roosevelt has given way to the radical parochialism and cynical populism evident in someone like Ted Cruz. So, Hillsdale College, which once prided itself on prohibiting racial discrimination, has now become an intellectual bastion for an ideology that reinforces racist attitudes by redefining any attention to racial issues as racism and by attempting to deflect attention from racism by focusing, instead, on “reverse-racism.”
Indeed, it is a sign of the cultural inroads made by that ideology that a college president who, in a very public, legislative hearing, spoke like a caricature of a plantation owner in the ante-bellum South still has his job.
Shouldn’t we expect at least as much from a college president as we expect from Riley Cooper and, for that matter, from Paula Dean?