Messages such as “What about black racism?” “You’re the problem in this country,” and “If this was a racist country, you wouldn’t have a job” bombarded his inbox and voice mail, said Ted Thornhill, an assistant professor in the university’s sociology department. Many called him the n-word. One caller said he is white and, indeed, superior.
There were no outright threats of violence, though Thornhill sent campus police 46 pages of emails and voice mails that he received about the class, the News-Press reported. Security concerns prompted university officials to send two police officers to the vicinity of the building as a precaution on the first day of the class Tuesday. University spokeswoman Susan Evans said officials “prepared for possible distractions.”
“Out of an abundance of caution, I, along with the administration, thought it was most prudent to request the presence of law enforcement on the first day,” Thornhill told The Washington Post. “Nobody can predict what will happen.”
Things did go smoothly and quietly Tuesday morning, Evans and Thornhill said.
Controversy over the class ballooned in late November after local media reported that it was being offered for the spring semester. Thornhill said that he had expected some grumblings but hadn’t foreseen such an uproar from many who saw the class as an affront to an entire race — and some who viewed it as a personal attack on them for being white.
“It’s not simply the title. . . . As a sociologist, I tell my students all the time, they need to depersonalize. It’s not all about you,” Thornhill said. “I’m not talking about specific white individuals. I’m talking about a group racialized as white. So many people in this hyperindividualized society, they tend to take all this personally. They think they’re being attacked.”
In a lengthy statement that Thornhill had released earlier, he said his course is not “anti-white” but “anti-white racism.”
“Clearly, not all white people are racists; some are even anti-racist. However, all people racialized as white derive, in some measure, material and psychological benefits by virtue of being racialized as white,” he wrote.
There are also the what-about questions. What about black racism? What about Latino racism?
Blacks, Latinos and other people of color, indeed, can harbor racially prejudiced views, Thornhill said.
“But sociologists study racism from a structural perspective. It’s about who has the power and the privilege, and it’s about the history of this country,” he said. “This country is founded in a particular way, based on genocide, colonization and enslavement, and you can’t escape that or pretend that time has rendered those historical facts inconsequential. Because it has not.”
For Alex Pilkington, treasurer for the group College Republicans on campus, the problem lies in the title.
“I would have preferred a name more like ‘Systematic Racism’ because giving it ‘White Racism’ as the name of the class I feel like it’s intentional that you are trying to make white people look at the class a certain way,” Pilkington, 22, told the News-Press.
Asked about his choice for the course name, Thornhill said that it fits the course material and that he meant for it to be provocative.
“The nature of higher education and a university education is one of challenging people to think about the beliefs they have and to engage with critical and provocative material in an effort to grow and cultivate your intellect,” he said.
Thornhill said he has been teaching the same material for years, just under a different course name. He also is not the first to call his course “White Racism.” He points to one that the University of Connecticut began offering two decades ago. Back then, the title had angered many, as well.
“The title made it seem like an attack on whites rather than racism,” Thomas Roberts, a professor who opposed the course, told the Hartford Courant in 1996. “There is a difference between a course that is saying all whites are racist, and one that is saying that racism is a problem in the United States.”
About 50 students enrolled in Thornhill’s class after he increased the cap from 35, he said, adding that he intends to keep teaching the class in future semesters.