Letter to the Editor: A Letter to President Berger-Sweeney from David W. Green ’71

To the Editor:

This letter was sent to President Berger-Sweeney this past July 27 in response to her call for alumni participation in the establishment of a Task Force on Racial Climate. Aside from a form letter sent out to all alumni whose offer to participate in the work of the task force had been rejected, Mr. Green received no further reply.

Dear President Berger-Sweeney,

Thank you for your “Message of Hope and a Call to Act,” dated July 1,and for your letter of July 10, in which you invite participation by interested members of the Trinity College Community in the creation of a Task Force on Campus Climate. I appreciate your effort to reach out to those whose lives and world outlook were affected by their years at Trinity.

The years that I spent at Trinity, from the autumn of 1967 until the spring of 1971, played a significant role in my intellectual development. I majored in History, where I had the good fortune to participate in formal classes as well as seminars and tutorials given by exceptional scholars: Professors Phil Bankwitz, McKim Steele, Anthony Netting, Ted Sloan, Jim Compton, and, of course, the extraordinary George Cooper (the chairman of the Department). I must also include a young lecturer, Ron Spencer, with whom I spent countless hours in discussion on the subject of the American Civil War.

Those were tumultuous years in the history of the college and the United States. The war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement absorbed the attention of the majority of Trinity students and faculty. Hundreds of students would crowd into Mather Hall every night to watch the 6:30 Evening News with Walter Cronkite. It was there that students watched the footage of bloody fighting during the Tet Offensive of January 1968, cheered in response to Lyndon Johnson’s announcement at the end of March that he would not seek re-election, and then followed in horror the coverage of  Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Two weeks later, the political and moral crisis triggered by the unspeakable crime led to the student occupation of an administration building. Among the central demands raised by students was a substantial increase in the number of African American students admitted to the college.

My extracurricular activity was centered on the Tripod. I became editor of the newspaper, while still a sophomore, in 1969. Like many of my generation, I was politically radicalized during my college years. In my last year in Trinity — in the aftermath of the Kent State murders of May 1970 — I became seriously involved in socialist politics. This became a life-long commitment. I have devoted my entire adult life to the struggle against American and global capitalism, which, in my view, is the essential cause of militarism (and its countless and never ending wars), economic exploitation, social inequality, poverty, and every form of discrimination (whether based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, or racial background).

I am presently the chairperson of the international editorial board of the World Socialist website. In my political work, I have used the name David North.

I provide this background information to establish that my response to your letters is that of a person who has been for a half century deeply engaged in socialist politics and thought. Moreover, the particular issues that are addressed in your July 1 message and July 10 letter — which involve the relation of history to the present — are ones in which I continue to be intensely engaged.

I respect your efforts to respond in a thoughtful and progressive manner to the crisis that now confronts Trinity and, indeed, all academic institutions. However, I strongly disagree with the approach that is being taken by the College (and so many other major educational institutions), which is based on an uncritical acceptance of a racialized narrative of America’s past and present. The elevation of race into the central analytical and interpretive category legitimizes the falsification of history, is incompatible with scientific thought, and obstructs the objective study of the real socio-economic sources of oppression and human suffering in the modern world.

The July 1 letter informs the Trinity College Community that the Board of Trustees has unanimously adopted a number of action steps, the first of which is the astonishing and deeply troubling requirement that “all campus members, all trustees, and all key volunteers … complete anti-racist, unconscious bias, equity education in the fall.”

Aside from its blatantly intrusive and arguably illegal inquiry into then innermost thoughts and emotions of individuals, what is the scientific basis of this requirement? What, precisely, is “unconscious bias”? The requirement that “unconscious bias” be uncovered and exorcised smacks of an inquisitorial search for heresy. Nearly 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth famously declared that she would “not make a window into men’s souls.” The search for “unconscious bias” not only assumes the existence of some sort of undeclared prejudice. It also clears the path for the proscription and punishment of opinions — not actions — which are declared to the biased. The proscribed thought could very well include all opinions deemed hostile to the present-day academic infatuation with “critical race theory” and race-based politics in general.

What is most disturbing about this “action step” is that it expresses a broader tendency to allow shallow ideologically motivated constructions — many of which border on the absurd — to set the intellectual agenda for the college. For example, the college has posted on its website an “Antiracism Reading List.” The introduction to the list states that its aim is to “dismantle white supremacist institutions.” The first item on the list is Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning.” Among the insights to be found in this very popular volume is the following explanation of the Enlightenment:

“For Enlightenment intellectuals, the metaphor of light typically had a double meaning. Europeans had rediscovered learning after a thousand years in religious darkness, and their bright continental beacon of insight existed in the midst of a ‘dark’ world not yet touched by light. Light, then, became a metaphor for Europeanness, and therefore Whiteness, a notion that Benjamin Franklin and his philosophical society eagerly embraced and imported to the colonies. … Enlightenment ideas gave legitimacy to this long-held racist ‘partiality,’ the connection between lightness and Whiteness and reason, on the one hand, and between darkness and Blackness and ignorance, on the other.”

All this, of course, is sheer nonsense. Kendi simply does not know what he is talking about. Of course, there is nothing wrong with making his book available to Trinity students. But would it be possible, amidst the demand that all members of the college community confess to “unconscious bias,” for a Trinity professor teaching eighteenth century history of philosophy to tell his/her students that Kendi’s effort to interpret the Enlightenment as a racist project, as a defense of “whiteness” against “blackness,” is ignorant and intellectually worthless? Would such a statement lead the teacher to be indicted for offending a student, exhibiting racial insensitivity, etc.? Could it possibly cost the teacher his or her job?

The students who are active in the Umoja Coalition have posted an agenda that is fairly representative of modern-day middle-class identity politics. To be frank, I was struck by the absence in the statement of any reference to the Covid-19 pandemic and to the loss of over 100,000 lives. Its narrow and parochial focus reflects a broader problem in the social consciousness of student youth who have been influenced by the generally backward state of intellectual life in the United States. Trinity should, I would hope, attempt to provide an intellectual environment that encourages students to examine society in all its complexity and question their own unexamined assumptions, including those which are heavily influenced by a racialist world outlook.

The world is now passing through a crisis that can be compared in many respects to that which confronted humanity upon the outbreak of World War I. The complete incapacity of the United States to respond effectively and humanely to this pandemic is a devastating indictment of the economic, political, social, and, I might add, intellectual foundations of this society.  There is a desperate need for a new epoch of intellectual “Aufklärung” [the word used by Kant], to which Trinity should strive to contribute. I have made these criticisms in the hope they might encourage a discussion of Trinity’s future that is not dominated by, but rather opposes, an essentially reactionary racialist narrative.

Yours sincerely,

David W. Green ’71


Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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