Trouble on Campus

Issue 220

Noted African American studies prof in hot water for anti-racist Facebook posts

Astha Rajvanshi Dec 20, 2016

Just days after the election, Mark Naison, Professor of African American Studies at Fordham University and Director of the Bronx African American History Project, met with his students of color on campus. 

Many of them at the predominantly-white, Jesuit university in the Bronx were traumatized, frightened and outraged by Donald Trump’s presidential win. 

 “It wasn’t just the fear of what Trump might do, it was also people feeling ready to take things in their own hands and take things out on minorities,” said Dr. Naison, a rare white professor in the field of African American studies who has taught at Fordham for 30 years and authored numerous books including an oral history of the Bronx.

The number of bias attacks and hate crimes has surged nationally since the election. Within the first 10 days following the Nov. 8 vote, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation. In schools and on college campuses the growing list of incidents includes swastika signs blooming in public spaces, white students telling minority students to “go to the back of the bus,” and chants of “build a wall!”. 

Inside Fordham, a white supremacy flier was found hanging on a wall in the schools economics department. 

But incidents of bias are nothing new at the university, where just 5.3 percent of the school’s 15,000 students are black, just 13.6 percent Hispanic. Bias incidents have been increasing over time. In the 2015-2016 school year, there were three anti-Semitic bias crimes reported. One of them included a swastika carved into a door on the school’s satellite campus at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. 

In an attempt to address the fears of his students, Naison floated the idea of starting a ‘Rapid Response Unit’ (RRU) with current and former students. 

“Knowing the history of the campus, I thought it was important to be a resource to people who are still on campus so they have someone to talk to,“ said Morenike Lambert, a 2008 graduate and a former student of Naison.

“In situations like these you need to be brave, problem solve and stand in solidarity with all students to create a safe space for everyone,” said Ann Leiberman, another of Dr. Naison’s former pupils. She noted that her experience of racial bias on campus wasn’t always overt but often occurred in the form of  microaggressions. Frequently, events she and other minority students  organized on campus were called “too political or we were asked to change the wording on fliers.” 

She and Lambert were among the 15 current and former students who came together at Dr. Naison’s residence in November to discuss how to set up the RRU. 

However, the Fordham administration intervened swiftly after Dr. Naison’s efforts to organize the RRU began. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Naison received an email from the Vice President of Student Affairs containing screenshots of Naison’s Facebook posts discussing the RRUs. 

“The letter said, ‘We’re really disturbed to hear that you’ve started a Rapid Response Unit when there are official university channels’,” Naison recalled. “Why is Fordham telling me this when I’m trying to protect my students? Are  they using my personal Facebook posts across professional communications? That crosses a line that I cannot accept, especially at a time of left-wing watch lists,” he continued. 

Lambert was equally alarmed. “He’s not doing anything wrong so I don’t see why there should be any input from Fordham about why he’s doing something to make people feel safe,” she said. 

 “If they’re so concerned with our efforts, then they should take institutional racism on campus more seriously,” Leiberman added. 

Naison has handed responsibility for the Fordham RRU over to current and former students, but he continues to participate in their discussions. 

Despite the university’s attempts to stall their efforts, Lambert believes the RRU will equip minority students with the language to articulate why something is problematic, and enable them to respond to incidents of bias in the future.

“These are the kind of things we’re going to see with Trump — what can they get away with? My view is let them get away with nothing,” Naison said.

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