Who's Zooming Who?

The Right's Political Correctness Campaign Against Multiculturalism

By Paula Knippa and Kathy Mitchell
May 1991; pages 3, 14; Volume 2, No. 6
Right-wing attempts at comedy: Aww, poor white man

Right-wing groups like the National Association of Scholars, its local affiliate, the Texas Association of Scholars, and the University Review have launched a counteroffensive in response to what they claim is an assault on individual and academic freedom by the progressive left.

They accuse "political extremists" (Bush, May 1991) of attempting to bludgeon both the student body and university curricula into a narrow vision of sociopolitical reality and academic truth via that pernicious arbiter of thought and speech - "political correctness." While there may be room for self-examination on the left, the Review rejects an honest address of the issues in favor of a renewed attack on the progressive movement as a whole. And, more critically, uses this "controversy" to justify its denial of real social and political realities and its own assault on projects like multicultural curriculum reform.

Welcome to Amerika

The right offers a convenient vision of a society in which economic disparity, racism and sexism are no longer a problem; and instead people of color and their acolytes have created an oppressive atmosphere of "political correctness" in which white males live in fear of being "attacked" for racial or gender or any variety of insensitivities. While reverse discrimination is not exactly a new concept for the right, conservatives have latched onto it with renewed vigor in their campaign to relcaim or at least preserve "their" academic heritage.

Despite their continuing over-representation in the faculty, in the administration, in the student body, the regents and the Legislature, white boys just can't help feeling oppressed.

At the University 90.6 percent of the faculty is white, while black faculty represent only 1.8 of the total, according to the UT Statistical Handbook. Men dominate in all areas, claiming 75 percent of the faculty positions and 53.9 percent of the the student enrollment. Only 8.4 percent of full professors are women.

Among students, the enrollment figures for people of color are even more depressing. Out of a general population that is 12 percent black, UT claims a black student enrollment of only 3.7 percent. Blacks drop out of the University of Texas at 2.5 times the dropout rate of whites. Today, an African-American student's chance of graduating college by age 30 is only half that of whites, according to Erich Nakano, a writer for the Student Unity Network.

Despite its rhetoric, the university has provided neither the classes nor the services that would help retain the small number of minority students they manage to enroll (in spite of their alleged stranglehold on university resources and policy!)

The cartoon academic on the cover of the last Review holds out a tin cup for sympathy to the student body at large, but the sly play on the "poverty" of education only serves to foreground more strongly the real economic privilege they defend.

From 1976 to 1988, the percentage of low-income Latino high school graduates attending college plummeted from 50.4 percent to 35.3 percent, according to Erich Nakarto. The number of African-Americans attending college actually declined during the 1980s, as did the number of black PhDs.

Despite the oppressive atmosphere of the Reagan era, students of color here and elsewhere fought these increasingly regressive developments, creating and helping institute corrective changes in core curricula, Ethnic Studies, campus anti-harassment policies, and some diversification of the faculty.

But even as programs like the English Department's Ethnic and Third World Studies, and Women's Studies and the concept of multiculturalism take root, the right wing launches yet another offensive. This time, hurling accusations of a progressive totalitarianism, the right wants to manipulate the fears of many Americans by manufacturing a conspiracy of "political correctness."

The Struggle for Free Speech

In doing so, the right is finally able to cast itself in the role of the underdog and gain the sympathy of a public drawn to the downtrodden. For example, the most recent University Review champions the cause of the beleaguered white male, who faces intellectual and linguistic censorship, policed by an elite cadre of campus radicals. Incensed by what they portray as linguistic revisionism (i.e. ableism, heterosexism) and intellectual tyranny (that scourge of academic freedom - multiculturalism), this conservative clique mixed a little truth in with a substantial amount of bigotry, pandering and money to create a widely-circulated (although it has no ads, the University Review is able to distribute 15,000 copies of its diatribes) satirical quiz on the subject.

To the extent that campus activists often directly and angrily challenge language and cultural misunderstandings, the right-wing portrayal found sympathy among some mainstream and liberal white students. Overwhelmed by a multiplicity of "isms," students sometimes feel unwilling to speak, fearing indictment for their ignorance and "privilege;" or in the Review's terms, for their "political incorrectness."

The only form of enforcement for "politically correct" behaviors, however, is mild censure or guilt. Other kinds of freedoms are surpressed with greater force and the weight of administrative authority. The proposed E306 syllabus changes, now dead in the water, collapsed under the rhetoric of individual freedom as outlined by that "freedom fighter" Allen Gribben. Positioning himself as the lone defender of the academy in a department ruled by a cadre of "Marxist" revolutionaries, he provided the ideological ammunition for an administrative coup that shelved the project, probably for good, and revealed the truly hierarchical nature of UT's academic process. (Since the fall semester, the entire Lower Division English Policy Committee quit and was replaced by an ad-hoc committee whose role remains unclear. The adminstration refused to allow even a few sections of the course to be taught in the fall of 1991.)

Ironically, the outcome of this rhetorical storm underscores the hollowness of right-wing claims to "oppression" at the hands of a few progressive faculty members. The ability of individual departments and their facilities to decide on course or syllabus changes - as in the case of E306 reform - has often provided the only democratic element in a fundamentally totalitarian educational process.

Enforcing the Codes

Despite regular verbal and physical attacks on black, Latino and gay students, continuing sexual harassment, and less than "fraternal" incidents of violence in the West Campus, the administration has refused to institute enforcement procedures for the harassment codes on the books.

In only a handful of cases at UT has a white faculty member or student been censured publicly for racist behavior, while the fall semester saw a series of ugly and violent incidents against students, a Metro bus driver, and a Latino family that point to the real potential for violence behind the offending language.

"Oppression" is the inner reality of a history of violent exploitation and marginalization. As a subjective experience, it takes as many forms as there are people. The campaign against "political correctness" erases the history and reduces the experience to a mash of linguistic symbols (see Texas Review quiz) intended to alienate liberal whites, intensify racial polarization, and put students of color and their movements on the defensive.