By Bill V. Mullen
Arizona State Ethnic Studies Professor Lee Bebout is under attack by a white supremacist group called the “National Youth Front” for teaching a course at his University called “U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness.”
Lee was my student at Purdue University, where he earned his Ph.D in American Studies. As a graduate student, Lee had much to teach me as he went on to write an important dissertation on the Chicano/a movimiento of the 1960s, later published as a book with University of Minnesota press. Now, as a colleague, Lee is continuing to teach me and the world how to be a principled scholar and to fearlessly pursue critical thinking in the face of attack.
The National Youth Front, which is leading the attack on Lee, is headed by Angelo John Gage, who’s been called “an unabashed racist and anti-Semitic” by the watchdog group Southern Poverty Law Center. Last week, the NYF put posters around Bebout’s neighborhood with his photograph on them and the label “Anti-White.”
The National Youth Front was apparently inspired to attack Bebout by a report on Fox News complaining about his course. On “Fox and Friends,” host Elizabeth Hasselback interviewed Lauren Clark, a campus correspondent for a right-wing group called Campusreform.org. Clark intimated that Bebout’s class was inappropriate and demeaning to whites. Her group, Campusreform, is a project of the Virginia-based Leadership Institute founded by long-time conservative Republican activist Morton Blackwell.
Campusreform’s attack on Bebout directly also echoed and replicated parts of attacks by the Arizona State legislature on Ethnic Studies teaching in Arizona public schools. In 2010, the legislature banned one of the books Bebout also happened to be using in his “Problem of Whiteness” syllabus because it was being assigned in a course in a Mexican-American studies curriculum that it had ruled illegal. The legislature shut down that program in January 2012.
The attacks on Lee Bebout and his course indicate the creeping attempts by censors with conservative agendas to curb academic freedom and free speech in both public education and U.S. Universities. Last Fall, for example, Steven Salaita, who teaches courses on Palestinians and American Indian Studies, had a job offer rescinded by University of Illinois for posting messages on his own twitter account critical of Israel’s bombing of Gaza last summer. In recent years, scholars like Norman Finkelstein and Joseph Massad have been fired from their jobs, or subject to attack from campus groups, because of scholarship and teaching sympathetic to Arabs and Palestinians.
But it is the very people and organizations attacking Bebout that underscore how important his academic course on the “problem” of whiteness really is.
Critical Whiteness Studies, as it is sometimes called, is a field of scholarship and public inquiry that studies the white majority in U.S. society. It is premised on the idea that all races have historical origins and a politics of their own, including the white race, especially in a society like the U.S. with a history of extreme racial violence by whites against minorities. Such scholarship exposes and talks about complex legal and pseudo-scientific definitions of what it means to be “white”. Against the mainstream efforts to see whiteness as normative, or as the default, such scholarship is essential for pointing towards how such an approach of treating whiteness as ‘normal’ can be directly harmful to communities of color.
Ironically, each of the groups now attacking Bebout for talking about white people has its own much publicized “white” problem.
A Fox news affiliate in Baltimore had to apologize on air in December 2014 for editing footage of African American protestors against police shootings to make it sound like they were saying “Kill a Cop,” when they were not. Just last month, Fox had to apologize for suggesting that regions of Europe controlled by Muslims were “no go” zones for white non-Muslims. Various well-publicized studies also indicate that Fox News’s viewership is overwhelmingly white compared to its competitors (as much as 92 percent) and that only 1 percent of its audience is African American.
Leadership Institute founder Morton Blackwell, meanwhile, which sponsors Campusreform.org, is a veteran of the 1960s right-wing group Young Americans for Freedom and is former executive director of the College Republican National Committee. In recent years, YAF members like Kyle Bristol have gained notoriety for inviting white nationalists to speak at college campuses and spearheading anti-immigrant groups. Bristow also published the novel White Apocalypse, a revenge fantasy about attacking Jewish professors and Latino and American Indian activists. The Young Americans for Freedom is now listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
And closer to Bebout’s home, the Arizona State Legislature which banned as illegal the teaching of Ethnic Studies in public schools, was acting in that state’s own tradition of what might kindly be called aggressive whiteness. Who can forget for example Arizona’s efforts to resist implementation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday? In 1990, after Arizona Governor Evan Mecham rescinded support for the holiday, Arizona voters voted against recognition of MLK Day (a vote overturned two years later after national protest and embarrassment of the state). Fast forward 24 years to January, 2014, just last year, when the Tau Kappa Epislon fraternity at Arizona State University, where Lee Bebout happens to teach, was suspended for holding a “Martin Luther King” day party in which pictures posted to social media showed guests dressed in basketball jerseys, flashing gang signs and holding watermelon-shaped cups.
It is these “problems” of whiteness that Professors like Lee Bebout seek to explore in their courses. Indeed, the ‘slippery slope’ between overt white supremacy as practiced by hate groups like the National Youth Front and racist social performances by white students at the Arizona State campus, is a “problem” of whiteness, as is the slippery slope between Fox News uses of sources culled from political organizations with dodgy racial histories, like Young Americans for Freedom, and ‘mainstream’ groups behind them like, well, the Republican party. These examples beg us to address the question: where do the boundaries of racism and white supremacy in America begin and end?
Indeed, especially in times like these, courses like Bebout’s are essential. The hundreds of thousands of protestors who have taken to U.S. streets in the name of “Black Lives Matter” in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, and the national outrage at video of white police officers choking to death Eric Garner for selling cigarettes on a public street, are only the most recent of reminders that America’s “problem of whiteness” is hardly academic. It is one of the most vital unsolved problems in the U.S.
For these reasons and others, Lee Bebout deserves to be defended, and applauded, for his work. As the actions of the National Youth Front, Campusreform and Fox News show, racism and those who would deny, disguise or promote it will continue to plague the U.S. until the veil of racial hatred and white supremacy is lifted once and for all.
Bill V. Mullen is Professor of American Studies and English at Purdue. He is the author of the forthcoming book Un-American: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution. Thanks to Tithi Bhattacharya for reading and editing on this piece.