The Baltimore riots were a call for action toward achieving racial justice and reconciliation. Duke University professor Jerry Hough answered the call with his controversial response to a May 9th editorial in the New York Times, in which he shared a valuable idea worthy of further dialogue. Hough asked why Asian-Americans and African-Americans appear to have responded differently to years of racism and discrimination.
Asian-Americans have long been stereotyped as the “model minority,” but their success is easily measured. The U.S. Census Bureau documented that in 2013 only 10.5 percent of Asian-Americans lived in poverty compared with 27.2 percent of African-Americans. In 2014, 48 percent of Asian-American adults held a bachelor’s degree or above, compared with only 19 percent of African-American adults.
The professor asserted that Asian-Americans, in general, have overcome discrimination to be well-assimilated and successful. He suggested that discrimination against Asian-Americans has caused them “to work doubly hard.” In contrast, discrimination has stifled progress of African-Americans due to a perception of victimization.
And for this he is accused of being “noxious” and racist? Hough assures that he is not racist but is sharing his own unconventional observations to forward the effort toward equality at the cost of being called a racist. The 80-year-old professor has lived through decades of racial struggles, but says he remains disappointed with the lack of progress toward racial reconciliation.
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Ironically, this Harvard educated Kremlinologist who has spent his career studying the Soviet government is being ridiculed for exercising his freedom of speech to create positive social change in the United States. Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University’s vice president for public affairs, said the professor’s words have “no place in civil discourse.”
Actually, Hough’s ideas are the very essence of civil discourse. His raw, unconventional ideas are exactly what the U.S. needs to consider, especially taking into account the failures of past and current strategies to dissolve racial tensions and inequality.
If allowed to become a dialogue, or even the basis of further research, Hough’s idea could lead to identifiable protective factors experienced by Asian-Americans that could then be re-created within the African-American community. Specific facets of the experiences of African-Americans may become better understood and more specific assistance established.
But instead, energy is being used to stifle his voice because the conversation is uncomfortable.
Honest, open dialogue about race can be expected to be uncomfortable. The conversation brings with it the weight of hundreds of years of injustice and inequality. Discussions stir painful memories, both recent and long past for many people of all races and ethnicities. Conversations about an entire population, such as a race or ethnic group, are unavoidably filled with generalizations that may awaken offense.
Hough lamented that he should have taken more time and care to make his New York Times response more clear. However, the stark clarity of his words is the crux of the controversy and led to the knee jerk reaction against his politically incorrect suggestion that contrasts with current progressive values. The professor might have found a more palatable way to express his ideas using different words, but even unpalatability should be tolerable for the sake of new ideas that propel society forward.
Every American who supports racial equality and improvement of race relations should join the discussion. However, everyone who joins the dialogue takes on the responsibility of speaking carefully and of bearing feelings of discomfort and offense that are unavoidable in the midst of such emotional charge. An inability to commit to both of these limits conversation and progress toward the “dream” that Martin Luther King, Jr. shared decades ago.
Anna Brown is a hospital social worker in Durham.