It was a speech that clocked in at less than five minutes. But it was also chock full of meaning.
In fact, almost nowhere in this still-young week has there been a better example of the tension between the conservative and liberal views of race and the politics around it than behind the podium where University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe stood and resigned Monday.
The Fix is aware that some Americans are inclined to reject, outright, the idea that some words — those that we choose to express our ideas, what we say at critical moments and that which we do not mention — have deeper, often multi-layered meaning. But to believe this, you must reject the field of social psychology — and likely political psychology, too. You must believe that all advertising (or for that matter, campaigning) is pointless and has no impact at all. It is to insist that human beings always mean only what they say.
That's obviously not the case.
So we asked Ian Haney Lopez and Lee D. Baker to help us dissect what Wolfe did and did not say as he resigned. Why?
Lopez is the author of the much-talked about 2014 book, "Dog Whistle Politics." It explores the sometimes-hidden or even unconscious meaning of public speech. He is also constitutional law and race specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Law School. Baker wrote the 2010 book, "Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture." He also brings another perspective, that of a large university administrator. He's dean of academic affairs for Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke.
But neither man gave the speech a glowing review.
To find a complete and uninterrupted transcript of Wolfe's resignation, click the link. The bold text in blocks are excerpts of Wolfe's speech. The insights of our experts follow. We've edited them for clarity and length.
I am resigning as president of the University of Missouri system today. ...
My motivation in making this decision comes from love. I love MU, Columbia, where I grew up, and the state of Missouri. I have thought greatly about this decision, and it's the right thing to do. The response to this announcement I'm sure will bring joy to some and anger to others, and that's why we're here today. So let me speak to why this is so important at this time.
BAKER: Well, my general impression of this speech and, of course this start, is that football has a lot of power at universities.
I do think we have to be somewhat careful about attributing too much meaning to Wolfe's speech — particularly this pretty standard start. It was hand-written — it looked like it was jotted down on a yellow legal pad. I doubt seriously that it was vetted through public relations or layers of communications teams. Of course, that also means that, while it may not have been carefully thought out, it was likely heartfelt. And we believe that it came after considerable deliberation about his continued ability to lead.
LOPEZ: You know what I thought here? I thought about the quote the football players used — what they said in explaining why they felt they could not play. I think they referenced a line from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, when he wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality..." I think those students meant that. I wish that the president had read that letter at some point -- or certainly today before he resigned.
Remember that what King was talking about in that letter, who he was talking to. It was a letter to other clergy who were not happy about the Birmingham protests, who said that change would come with patience, if they behaved well and waited. They were urging temperance, calm and process. And what King said in that letter was that is not the answer. We have already waited. The answer for any moral person in the face of injustice is protest and disruption, nonviolent coordinated action geared towards creating the circumstances of producing actual change.
When I heard this speech, really from the very beginning, it was clear this president has espoused the view of the clergy [to whom King wrote from jail], whether he recognizes that or not. It was clear as soon as he turned to, "How did we get here?" Wasn't he or his refusal to talk and negotiate pretty deeply involved?
So the question really is, is why did we get to this very difficult situation. It is my belief we stopped listening to each other. We didn't respond or react. We got frustrated with each other, and we forced individuals like Jonathan Butler to take immediate action and unusual steps to effect change.
This is not -- I repeat not -- the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. We have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening, and quit intimidating each other. ...
Unfortunately this has not happened. And I just want to stand before you today, and I take full responsibility for this frustration, and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.
BAKER: This is where things get interesting. He calls students and faculty by name and their frustration with him is implied. Then he separately addresses his friends and supporters and what he presumes will be their frustration that he is stepping down. That last part comes pretty close to confirming that those who protested are not his friends.
The reality is that you can, very much, support a president or a leader and still encourage or demand that he or she move swiftly in a different direction, take different actions than they have before. That's the essence of an open environment — certainly a welcoming one. That friendship and support to him seem to be consistent with silence or at least private conversations is telling. As a cultural anthropologist, this is what stood out.
Again, I will assume that he was sincere about his love of different groups. But as a leader, it should be understood that as difficult as the job is you will spend some of your time — perhaps a large amount of your time — talking with, negotiating with and listening to groups with different motivations, concerns and needs. You have to listen. You have to compromise to some degree.
Instead, he [Wolfe] kept talking about how change happens. He never talked about his vision for a more inclusive university community. He never mentioned the things he began to put in place and hopes to see continue, what he realized too late or what he thinks his successor will have to do. He never says expressly what specifically he — not "we" — did wrong.
I am sympathetic with his position, to an extent. University administrators have difficult jobs to do, and I think most understand that they are one scandal away from a resignation. But when you are the leader of a community that is supposed to be inclusive and open, where people can express ideas and learn that does include listening to what others consider significant, what others are experiencing and demonstrating active progress to address those issues.
LOPEZ: The protesters at this school are saying we are concerned about and we must confront the great moral outrage of racism. And [in this section], the president is saying that we must worry about declining standards of etiquette.
Rather than address the substance of the students' concerns or the structure that put the students in the position that they felt they had to engage in protests, the president is criticizing them for protesting loudly and, I guess, shutting down their football games. And right there, you see the kernel of the problem on this campus. The university president fails to understand the circumstances the students are contending with and essentially dismisses them or, until his resignation, his obligation to listen to them and address them because the students did not ask nicely, they were not dressed in their Sunday best.
In some ways, this kind of fundamental misunderstanding is understandable.
There is a stereotype of African Americans being threatening, and that is embodied in the president’s language, his use of words such as “intimidation.” There is also revisionist myth making about civil rights protests that asks or at this point virtually allows some of us to only look back on them in this odd way. You hear people say things like "look how neatly dressed they were, they were so polite."
It's a complete revision of how King was perceived in the 1950s and 1960s. [He was seen as a communist, an agitator — the man creating protests and therefore problems where they did not exist before.] But what all this mythical talk about polite and dignified protest really does is say, "you see when people act nicely we will respond. We will also be kind. That is all it takes. But if you are intimidating, then we have no obligation at all."
Notice, he starts [this section] by asking, "How did we get here?" Then he says "we stopped listening," and "intimidating each other" took over. This is a way of saying the problem in our society right now and on this campus is some people are resorting to coercive tactics, to loud protest, to pressure — rather than what this president sees as legitimate recourse.
There are two things going on here: People who represent the dominant interest in society, people who are completely at peace with the status quo that is nevertheless built from deeply entrenched hierarchies can react to protest by saying you folks are being rude. And as a result, they cannot or do not have to try to envision the legitimacy of the complaints. Then, the people who are struggling for change are left with no alternative but to engage in creative pressure tactics and protest. This is what MLK called creative tension when he was responding to the question, "Why protest?"
The second thing you hear in this president's language — and what I suspect we will hear a lot more of in coming days from other people — is this: There is this idea that protest is something that blacks do because they are antisocial and disruptive and difficult.
I truly love everybody here and the very institution, and my decision to resign comes out of love, not hate. I’d like to read some scripture that’s given me strength. I hope it provides you with some strength as well, as we think about this next. I have to also to give credit to my daughter, who reminded me of the scripture.
Psalm 46, Verse 1: "The Lord is my refuge and my strength, my very present help in trouble.”
We need to use my resignation — please, please — use this resignation to heal, not to hate, as we move forward today for a brighter tomorrow.
BAKER: I'm again inclined to say let's take him at his word that these are heartfelt thoughts and ideas. I did hear his reference to the Psalm and thought he was talking about the university's pain and its struggle. These are difficult times for the whole school. I think he meant that he hoped the university would find some productive way to move forward.
The question is did he recognize, outside of that comment about personal responsibility, that if he wanted to remain as administrator, he had a role to play in that and failing on that front in the eyes of students, the faculty and the football team — apparently especially the football team — is why he probably had to go?
LOPEZ: You know, for me, I heard this the speech and the end, and I thought about the way that it seemed connected to a strain of American conservatism that holds that the "real racist" is he or she who brings up race first, brings it up directly and says that it must be considered. It stems from the idea of colorblindness — a once-liberal idea that essentially held that our race or ethnicity was not all that defined us but we still need to be mindful of how race continues to shape our lives, our options.
But as early as the 1960s, conservatives began to hijack that idea. Then, by the 1970s what you get is this total turnaround. Now, anyone who would mention the ways that race affects an issue, changes things — or God forbid, may mandate some kind of race-specific solution — is now the racist, trying to do others wrong.
So, when I heard this, I thought about the fact that conservatives often talk about race all the time in coded terms. They talk about sharia law and Muslim extremists and immigration and welfare rolls. All of those are always conversations about race, but they just don't say the word race if they can avoid it at all. But really what else have our obsessions about anchor babies and crack babies really been but conversations about a racial threat, a perceived danger posed by the other. Today, that coding has grown more sophisticated.
You hear Republicans claim that others "play the race card." You hear this president talk about his need for comfort, for calm in a time of trouble that is probably personally difficult but there do seem to be some larger issues here.