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Sunday, July 31, 2016

They Don’t Belong Here: Liberal Higher Education and White Privilege

Dateline: St. Louis. MO

“If my child had prejudice in his head, I'd be ashamed. I would see it as my failure as a parent.”
Salman Rushdie

“Bias and prejudice are attitudes to be kept in hand, not attitudes to be avoided.”
Charles Curtis

In the hashtag# society in which we now reside, social uprisings are known by their #. “#Black Lives Matter” grew from the summer of 2014 Ferguson riots. The catch phrase inflames many whites, liberal and conservative alike. Why? The term “#White Privilege” has come to symbolize the fall of 2015 student uprising at the University of Missouri. The phrase alone can set off a firestorm of protest from offended whites, both liberal and conservative. Why?

To me “Black Lives Matter” does not and never did mean white lives don't matter. It does not and never did mean that only black lives matter. It simply says to someone who feels invisible, “I see you and I value you.”

“White Privilege” I find more difficult to understand and accept. It is more personal and more chaffing upon personal introspection. However, to immediately dismiss it outright has become the accepted strategy of the group I consider today’s most damaging racists - the liberals who run the nation’s institutions of higher education. High ranking college administrators today are caught in the cross hairs of the ugly aftermath of the 2015 University of Missouri and numerous other campus protests across the nation and they don’t like it. Good. Let them squirm.

I have worked in a school district where the most-vile of racial slurs when referring to students of color was used regularly in private conversations amongst both school board members and school administrators. I have worked in a district where the right to wear a confederate flag ball cap in the school building was considered a more valued entitlement than being taught to read. I have as a professional educator been exposed to discriminatory ignorance by those entrusted with running public schools that would warm the wretched heart of the Grand Cyclops of the KKK. However, beyond any shadow cast by a Klansman’s robe, the most racist educational entity I ever worked for was a group that considered themselves a bastion of liberal political correctness and racial inclusion, Fontbonne University in St. Louis, MO.

At Fontbonne University, in the first decade of the new millennium, a black athlete receiving a diploma was about as common a finding as a white cornerback in the National Football League.
In 2006 I started the cross country and track and field programs at Fontbonne, a small Catholic institution. In 2007, I recruited two African American track athletes to Fontbonne. Both young men were very talented and would have immediately made a major impact on the national level in NCAA Division III track and field. Neither had the high school academic achievement level of standards to get through the NCAA’s Clearing House, a mandatory requirement to accept an athletic scholarship at a larger Division I school. This was the only reason they were not running in a major college program. For sure, they were both fast enough.

As a NCAA Division III university Fontbonne could not give athletic scholarships, thus neither runner would have to certify through the clearing house. I strung together a combination of federal grants and loans to get them to St. Louis and enrolled. I found both jobs bagging groceries at a market near campus. I assisted them in finding affordable off campus housing.
Both young men came from the Mississippi River Delta area of West Memphis, AR; a vastly different cultural background than the large majority of Fontbonne students. I was assured by the track coach and the principal at their high school that both were of good character. What I am offering, I told both, is a chance. One made a 22-hour bus ride to St. Louis with all of his worldly possessions in a tattered back pack, arriving on campus sight unseen. “I got to make it here,” he told me when I picked him up at the downtown bus station, “because I got nowhere else to go.”

Two weeks after the fall 2007 arrival on campus of these two young men, they came to me upset and ready to quit school and go home. They complained to me that they were being singled out and treated differently than other students. When on our campus, they felt unfairly labeled as trouble. Neither lived in the dorms, but when they would visit friends who did, the Resident Assistants would tell them to leave or security would be called to have them removed. They had both been threatened with arrest on multiple occasions.
The two athletes claimed that their behavior when on campus was appropriate, but had been told that dorm residents, especially female residents, were “uncomfortable” with their presence. They related to me that white visitors were never asked to leave, disregarding and despite the constant overt (drunken) actions of many of these white non-residents, behaviors in obvious violation of dorm rules. “All we are doing is hanging with friends between classes,” one told me.

After I confirmed with other students – both white and black - who lived in the dorm in question that this type of unfair treatment of these two young men was indeed occurring, I requested a meeting with the Dean of Students and the Dorm Supervisor. They invited one of their flunkies, whose title was Head Resident Assistant, to join us.

At the beginning of our meeting, it was made very clear to me by the Dean of Students, and angrily so, that no one on the dorm staff was a racist and no student would ever be treated in a negative way based on their race or appearance. This was before the particulars of concerns of these two young men had even been addressed or discussed.
Paul Pendler and Phillip Beverly co-authored “The Racism Root Kit: Understanding the Insidiousness of White Privilege.” In their work they identify the defensiveness that this liberal Dean was now using to stonewall my inquiry into what was to me obvious racist behavior on the part of the University staff. The authors hit below the liberal belt: “This response to confrontation happens all the time. A white person reminds black people that they personally owned no slaves, their relative marched with Dr. King, and they were into NWA before they got big - so obviously they're in the clear regarding racism. Defensiveness is intended to end the discussion, absolve him or her, and quiet accusations surrounding white privilege.”

This is a perfect description of the rhetorical brick wall I had just hit with Ms. Liberal Dean. There is a problem when those who proudly and loudly declare themselves the champions of racial benevolence, then hide from it when it hits home, where it really counts and where they can really do something about it.

When I asked the three what the two black students had done to receive such a harsh unwelcome, I was told “they make some of the (white) girls uncomfortable.”
I asked how? I was told one of the girls heard a rumor that one of these two athletes had stolen an IPod at an off campus party. I was shocked. That was it? That was the justification for being ordered to leave university property or face arrest?  The Head Resident Assistant told me, “they don’t fit in here,” and “they don’t belong here.” I found hard to believe that any educational leader in the 21st century would be dumb enough to state this – even if they believed it.

It only got worse.

I was told by the mid -20ish Head Resident Assistant that he had turned me in to the University’s Athletic Director for an NCAA rules violation for paying for the lunch of one of these young men. I denied paying for any athlete’s lunch and asked where he got this information. He proceeded to tell me that he watched this particular young man every day when he went through the cafeteria line, and twice he had seen him not pay for his meal and later he had seen me go through the line and assumed I had paid for both mine and the athlete’s lunch bill. He turned this “information” over to the Athletic Director to “protect this institution.”

This explained an earlier meeting I had endured with an angry Athletic Director who told me it was “all over campus that you have broken NCAA rules” in order to recruit athletes of this caliber. He didn’t say “black” athletes, but we both knew whom he was referring to.
The Head Resident Assistant also confirmed that he watched me every time I ate lunch, when the black athletes I coached were present, to see if and how much I was paying when I handed over money to the cashier. This young man, who had majored in Theatre as an undergrad at a $50,000 a year private college, proceed to lecture me that, “You have to understand how to handle these types.”

What an ass.

I angrily confronted him, “You watch every student and coach who goes through the line, or just the black kids and the coaches who have black kids on their teams?” Although unanswered, his biased assumption was crystal clear: black city kids couldn’t afford to pay for their own lunch, especially if they also happen to be good athletes.
Due to this clandestine operation, I now had a firsthand understanding of the hostility these two young men felt when on the University’s campus. I seldom - if it could be at all avoided - ever ate in that cafeteria again. I felt uncomfortable knowing that a Head Resident Assistant, obviously dripping with white privilege, who had anointed himself as head of the University’s NCAA compliance efforts in regard to its black athletes; was staring suspiciously at me as I ate my lunch. 

I informed the Dean of Students that I was appalled at what I had just heard and now held a certainty that these two young men were being subjected to a hostile environment based upon their skin color. I informed her that if they were, “two of my white cross country runners from the suburbs, instead of two kids with dreadlocks from the inner city, we would not be having this discussion about their presence making white girls uncomfortable, nor would they be ‘eyeballed’ in the cafeteria to ensure NCAA compliance.”

Unleashed was a fury I had not anticipated. I was immediately told that my comments were “personally insulting” to her (the Dean). She made not one inquiry of the ass sitting right next to her as to why these young men were being subjected to this type of special scrutiny and treatment, nor what could be done to make them feel less harassed and more at ease on campus; only that she was insulted. I told her that with all due respect I really didn’t care if she took my words as a personal affront or not, my concern was for my athletes and how they were being treated.
At the time of our meeting, the Jena Six situation in Louisiana, where six young African American males had been charged with assaulting a white student and were given what many felt were disproportionate punishments based on their race, was a hot issue on college campuses across the nation. Student organization on the Fontbonne campus had taken up the call for support. “Free the Jena Six” posters and t-shirts were all the rage in the dorms and on campus bulletin boards. A poster even hung on the wall in the Dean’s Office where we met on that afternoon. Never one smart enough to know when to quit, while leaving her office at the conclusion of our meeting, I fired one final parting shot across the bow, “maybe instead of worrying about the Jena Six, we ought to take a look at what is happening right here on our own campus,” I said. Needless to say, that comment did not endear me any to this now “insulted” Dean.

As we walked across the parking lot back to his office, the Athletic Director told me “you are in her sights now and she is ruthless. Watch your back because no one else here has it.”

The entire meeting was, to say the least, disconcerting.  
Shortly after my meeting with the Dean, I received a letter from the Athletic Director informing me that I had made false statements in regard to the treatment of minority athlete. If I did not cease, I was told, my job would be in jeopardy. The AD signed the letter, but I suspected who had written it, his immediate supervisor, my friend, the Dean of Students. The AD did not deny my assumption.

I did not “cease”, instead I took the issue one step further, ratcheting up the stakes.

My research showed that not one black recruited athlete had graduated from Fontbonne University in at least 8 years. Being a small university and athletic department, it was not hard to get access to the records I needed to back this claim: past team rosters, current enrollment status and graduation lists. My co-conspirators included a couple of other coaches in the Athletic Department. We counted almost 100 black athletes who had entered as freshman over the last 8 years and had been listed on athletic rosters, but were no longer enrolled in the university and/or had never received a diploma.

I forwarded my findings to both the Athletic Director and a very irritated Dean of Students. I asked for a meeting with both. The Dean of Students refused to meet with me. Instead, I received another letter threatening termination. The AD told me that my research was flawed, that some black athletes had graduated in recent years. “Bull shit,” I said.  I asked for names. We will get you a list, I was told. I never did get a list. I informed the AD that he had on his hands the making of a PR nightmare for a liberal urban university. “This is being said as a friend,” he told me, “you better back off.”
Over the next six months I initiated meetings with the minority placement office, the admissions office, the highest ranking black administrator on campus and the academic dean; in an attempt to set up a program of mentoring to help our minority student-athletes. I pleaded for not only academic support for the black athletes, but also social support; try to make them feel welcome here, I suggested. This was all done on a very low key and quiet basis. I wanted no credit or role in running any such program. To the contrary, my research was overwhelming in that for these types of minority mentoring programs to succeed they had to be led by minority role models. I can help, I offered, but I cannot lead.

I sent the following memo to the highest ranking black administrator on campus. She had over 20-years tenure at the university. I hoped her longevity would give her the security to help me rock the boat. I had also developed the opinion, from discussing this issue with her, that she was one of the few listening. I have eradicated identifiable personal information.

From: Dave Almany
Sent: Sunday, May 17, 2009 11:30 PM
To: Subject: African American Academics


Now that track is over and I have had a chance to catch my breath, I want to revisit an issue I brought up last fall, the lack of graduation of African American athletes at Fontbonne. No one I have talked to, including AD                   , can remember the last time a black athlete received a diploma from this institution. I know of none in the five years I have been around here. I think that should be an embarrassment to us as coaches. I have attached the data I compiled first semester on my 39 recruits from my first two years here. The disparity is dismal and to deny its existence is putting your head in the sand. 73% of the African American Athletes I have recruited have been declared ineligible due to poor academic performance.

I don’t feel it is ethical for us to continue to recruit African American athletes when none of them graduate. To have these students take out huge loans and then cast them aside with nothing to show for their time and money, then bring in new batch every year is what I see has been happening. The Administration is not happy with me for bringing this issue up, but it is what it is and should be a major concern of the athletic department; and I am not going to drop it.

The research I have done has three consistent themes for successful tutorial programs for African American athletes in predominantly white universities.

1)         It needs to be led by an African American (upperclassman or professional) that can serve as a role model to incoming freshman and transfer students. The research is pretty clear, that for someone like me to try to lead such a program does not work. This White Shadow stuff doesn’t cut it. I have four young men that I recruited to Fontbonne that will be either juniors or seniors next academic year and all are on course to graduate                                                                  .                                                                                                                                                                                              
have spoken to             and                              and                         would be interested in serving as tutors to incoming freshman and transfer African American athletes.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to keep a female black athlete around long enough to have any upperclassman females; yet.

2)         The program needs to be one on one and very study specific. In other words: “You have a test tomorrow in Government. Bring your study guide and class notes and let’s study the material you will be tested over”; as opposed to a freshman seminar type of “so how is school going”. Opening a book and staring at it for two hours like our attempts at Athlete Study Halls, is a waste of time and I am glad it finally was laid to rest.

3)         The program must also address social issues. I really see that as a problem at Fontbonne, even with the kids who live in the dorms. I know with                       she really felt out of place. She was always alone. She has recently become friends with several of the girls on the track team in the last month and I have seen a real change for the better in her demeanor. She has been much more upbeat.  She was hanging by a thread emotionally last winter. She has a boyfriend on campus now as well. Great kid. If you are not socially adjusted and happy, you are not going to reach your maximum level, I don’t care where you go to school. And I think that is a big problem with our African American athletes here. They will tell you, if you ask them, that they do not feel connected.

My Masters and Specialist Degrees were both in Curriculum and Instruction so I have a real interest in learning styles. I don't need to be the point man on this, but I would be glad to try and help set up the learning and instruction areas as a model for next fall. The social issues, I would leave to someone else’s expertise.

Let me know what you think.

Dave Almany
Head Men’s and Women’s Track/CC Coach

I also solicited help from our coaching staff ranks. Other than a few polite but unenthusiastic pats on the back, my recruiting efforts went nowhere. 

I was working at Fontbonne for beer money and in a normal year spent more money out of my own pocket on uniforms and meals for our kids than what my salary totaled. For me this gig was for fun and a nice tax write off. Colleagues I was now asking to join me in this controversial crusade would be risking their jobs and their futures. Most balked at getting involved. I understood why.

The highest ranking black administrator on campus finally made me realize I was tilting at windmills. At an off campus Applebee’s lunch we shared she told me, “Dave, I admire what you are doing, or at least trying to do, but you are wasting your time. They just don’t get it here and they are never going to admit they just don’t get it or that they have a problem. I have been here a long time and I have learned to settle for small victories. I have watched this for years and nobody sees that we have a problem. I am two years from retirement.”

Finally, feed up and frustrated, I informed both the Dean of Students and the Athletic Director that my intent was to stop recruiting African American athletes to Fontbonne University. I felt it unethical to encourage these students to take out student loans when past performance showed they had little or no chance of ever graduating from a University that refused to acknowledge or address this problem. I was told by the AD I was racist. To the contrary, I countered, I am a realist. “You do nothing to help these kids,” I said. “So, I refuse to be a part of any further exploitation of minority students. You put in place the programs these kids need to survive here and I will start again to recruit African-American students. Until then, I will be the only track coach in the nation who will have an all-white track team by university design.”

I was sent to meet with the University Vice President who informed me that Fontbonne had been a long safe haven of enlightenment for St. Louis area black college students. “Have you seen our Options Program,” he asked me? “See how many black residents we have taken off the street?” Options was a mostly off campus and on line program that the University marketed to working adults, most of them African-Americans. The curriculum was notorious for its simplicity. The few blacks who were on campus during the day as traditional college students scoffed at the Options program as a watered down form of apartheid education.
One of my black runners who lived on campus as a traditional student told me, “they don’t want us up here on the main campus but they brag about all the blacks in the Options Program. It is a joke and the classes are a joke. The degrees they give out are a joke. I want an education, not just a diploma. I want to learn. The attitude of Options is to make black enrollment look good on the books but keep all those with color out of sight of the regular students. Go down to the (off campus) Options Center on Big Bend some night around 8 pm and tell me it don’t look like a Tarzan movie.”

“Suppose we expose you to the media as a racist coach who will not recruit blacks,” the AD asked me? “Suppose I tell them why,” I countered. “I don’t care about making a political statement. I have tried to work low key on this problem and all I get from these overpaid assholes over in that Administration building is ‘quit rocking the boat or else’ memos. You want to fire me, fire me.”
For the sake of transparency, I will admit with 20/20 hindsight, that I went out of my way to irritate my friend in the Dean’s Office. It took her a while to get the knife sharp enough, but that spring Fontbonne did fire me; or at least tried to.

It blew up in their face.
In a mere four years we had from scratch built a track program that had won two consecutive conference championships. A winning team in any sport was and is to this day a rarity at Fontbonne. More impressive than our running performance were the people who wore our uniforms; forty student-athletes with strong character and convictions. The best students on this campus were my athletes; the scholars and the leaders, a group I was defiantly proud of - not a group for the meek or simple to trifle with, as they would soon prove.

Fontbonne loved to fire coaches with a small part of the season left and then not pay them the remainder of their season’s salary. Earlier in the week of my demise the peerless paragons who ran this circus had fired in mid-contract the women’s soccer coach and the women’s lacrosse coach. Neither dismissal raised even a ripple of discontent from their athletes. So why not just add one more scalp to the lance, they must have figured? It would make a suitable ending for a good week of hunting and save a little money.
On a beautiful early spring Friday afternoon, I was told by a very unpleasant bumbling and blathering lady from Human Resources that I was being terminated for violating “Fontbonne polices.” There was no appeal, she said, the decision was final and I would not be paid the remaining 3 months of my contract (I was making the whopping sum of $10,000 a year – cheap bastards). The AD sat next to me the whole time with his eyes downcast, like a man who knew his head was next on the chopping block. At the time, strangely, I remember feeling more pity for him than I did anger at the fools running this University, who in one afternoon had destroyed what it took us four years to build.

I asked for specifics of policies I have violated. I was told by Ms. HR that the previous weekend an accident at an indoor track meet with a school rental van had occurred. I was told I had allowed an assistant coach to transport students in the school rental van. Fontbonne policy, she smugly told me, states that only the person whose name is on the rental company contract can drive the van. She had discovered the name on the wrecked van’s lease was mine but I had not been the driver listed on the accident report. “Now isn’t that right, David,” she smugly informed me as she moved in for the final kill? Well, I replied, as she waited for me to climb the steps to the gallows, “then we always violate this policy because the Athletic Department Secretary makes the arrangement with the rental company when we rent two vans, as we do for all trips, and she has for four years always lists my name for both vehicles. So, you people have thought for the past four years I was driving both vans at the same time? After gunning for me for so long, this is the best you can come up with,” I asked mockingly?
“First, no one but my mother calls me David. Second, I would love to see this ‘violation of Fontbonne policy,’ whatever the hell that is, defended in court,” I said as I stood to leave. I parted with a prediction I would have bet my life on; “But I don’t’ think it will come to that, because lady you might have already thrown two coaches under the bus this week, but you are screwing with the wrong team this time. You have no idea of the huge shit storm that is getting ready to hit this campus.”

My faith in my kids was validated when simultaneously across campus, as a team, all 40 walked out of a meeting with the Dean, the University Vice President and a couple of lower level athletic department members. The meeting was called to inform the track team of my termination and to assure them, that although the college was not at the liberty to explain why, that my removal was being done for “your protection.” My athletes in unison stormed out with a promise of imminent campus protest and a mass transfer by the entire team, as well as a request from our team bad boy that the University Vice President, “shove it up your ass, buddy.”

Both high ranking officials sat open mouthed, I was told later by another coach who was there, as $1,000,000 of tuition over a four-years period walked right out the front door. That got the attention of the University President, who knew nothing of my termination. A deluge of e-mails and phone calls that evening from my athletes and their parents clued him in even further. The President spoke by phone with our team captain, who was also student body president, and ask that everyone calm down. He was flying in from Boston that night and would first thing in the morning, he promised, find out what was going on.
I had always found the President of the University to be a fair man and one who had been very supportive of both our program’s success and the quality of student-athletes we had brought onto his small campus. When I was finally allowed to state to him directly my concerns with black athlete graduation rates and the lack of support within the school for them and that this policy violation charge was a mere smoke screen to railroad me for not caving in, I had finally found a sympathetic ear.

I received a call at home that next morning, a Saturday, from a friend who was a janitor in the Administration Hall. “Man, the President has had ‘em all in his office for a half an hour and you can hear him chewing ass all over the building. Man, you got ‘em stirred up this time, brother, for sure.”

Later that afternoon, I was contacted by the head of the Human Resources Department. She was very congenial, as least as compared to our initial meeting the day before. I was told that my termination had been a “miscommunication.” Of course my concerns were very important to the University and had of course now been heard and noted. I complimented her dedication indicative of her working on this beautiful spring Saturday.

I was asked to come in for another meeting. On a Monday morning I was presented with a letter that I was told I would have to sign stating that I had intentionally violated University policy, “then we can get you back to your team.” I am not signing this because it is not true, I said. “No problem,” I was told, “we will just take that part out. See how easy we are to work with. Good luck with the rest of your season.”
We all stood, dropped our guns and shook hands. All we were now lacking was a warm group hug to the back ground strings of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

So, in true Alice in Wonderland fashion, I went back to practice that Monday evening as if nothing had really happened at my Friday “miscommunication” hearing, life now back to normal.
I told the President that afternoon in an e-mail, “I have never been prouder of a group than I am of the 40 athletes who today represent Fontbonne’s Cross Country and Track teams. Their reaction to the difficult circumstances of the last weekend is proof positive of their character, their faith, and most importantly, their commitment to truth and justice. They have done themselves, their parents and this University proud.  It is an honor for me to say I have brought these individuals to this campus.”

When I walked into practice that evening my kids gave me an ovation. Not a word was said, there was no need. I have never cried in public; not at a funeral, a wedding, a sad movie; not at an awards assembly, after a tough loss, a big win; never. That evening I almost did, but I hid it damn well.
I stayed at FU, as we aptly liked to call it, one more year. My friend the Dean was retired shortly after. My kids are all doing great as they transition into adult roles. We still get together a couple of times a year. We have some great stories to reminisce on. I am very proud of all of them.

I learned a valuable lesson from my Fontbonne experience: we do not risk exposing ourselves to the painful self-introspection that would result from true soul searching of our own personal behavior in regard to racial stereotypes if we focus all of our energies – fueled by a righteous indignation and moral outrage - but intellectually centered upon less personal issues, such as racial injustice found in the far off land of Jena, Louisiana.
As white educators, working in the public eye, where the dynamics of race will always be factored in by those judging our actions (or inactions), we are quick to deny that any decision made by us is ever racially motivated or compromised. Racial bias resulting in unfair and unequal treatment based on simple skin color would never happen in our enlightened world and on our morally sound watch. This knee jerk reaction to show the superior quality of color blindness that we possess, is often done before we even inquire as to the feelings and thoughts from the individual(s) who feel(s) slighted. Racism is taken off of the table of debate before it can even be considered when often the perception of its existence is viewed by at least one party as the primary reason for the conflict in question.

Herein lays the real problem with the liberal hypocrites who run modern higher education: The “good ole boy” red neck who yells racial slurs as he drives by in his pickup truck slobbering his tobacco chew is a fool, but a dying breed with no real standing in today’s society, a fading powerless outcast. But, to bring students of color into a higher education setting such as the leaders of Fontbonne University did, then to stand ideally by as they fail in unison while doing nothing to either acknowledge or address the problem, is subtler, but so much more damaging a form of racism.
The liberal college administrators of today have the power to bring about positive racial change on our college campuses, but by refusing to acknowledge the racism that festers right outside their wood paneled offices, they fail those of color who struggle in an alien environment. Call it White Privilege if you wish, but by any name it is a form of racism much more damaging to the soul of a society than a confederate flag flying dumb ass yelling racial slurs. 

Both of the young black men from Arkansas whom I had recruited to Fontbonne returned to their homes at the Christmas break of their freshman year, 2007. Neither ever came onto our campus again. I cannot say I blame them.
I don’t know if Fontbonne University ever did improve on the graduation rates of its’ black athletes. I hope they have. However, I am sure their liberal leaders still hang diversity posters all over their beautifully manicured tree lined campus, finding contentment in the righteousness of the enlightened few, those born of privilege.

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