Last November, Santa Barbara City College announced the election of Joyce Coleman as the new Vice President of the School of Extended Learning. Coleman has now been placed on administrative leave over a comment about Japanese detention camps “causing great harm” to the Asian community. The action is particularly noteworthy in the light of Coleman’s own campaign against racism in education. The African American Coleman is a prominent voice against racism in society and especially in education. According to reports, she observed at a Zoom event in March: “There is no such thing as a non-racist. Either you are anti-racist or you are racist. ”As it will come as no surprise to many on this blog, I believe Coleman’s statement should be viewed as protected by the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom.
Coleman was also quoted as saying that “white people are all on a journey to find out their own guilt”. She is now on a journey of her own after undergoing a formal investigation following a comment she made on March 23 on the SBCC’s Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities, according to the Santa Barbara Independent. The committee formed a new “affinity group” on behalf of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community (AAPI) following the Atlanta shooting in March that killed eight people, including six Asian women.
Coleman reportedly said, “It is time,” then stated that she was always confused by the Japanese reaction to her internment. The independent reported:
“The complaint alleges that Coleman, who is black, reportedly received the news from. welcomed [a new campus affinity group on behalf of Asian-American Pacific Islanders] Formation with the words “About time” and then described that he had visited a detention center for Japanese and Japanese during World War II and wondered why the prisoners there “did not just go away” given the small fence. In contrast, Coleman allegedly, black American slaves formed the Underground Railroad and actively resisted.
Some faculty and campus staff took offense at what they termed the “victim charge” and accused them of causing “great harm” through their words and actions.
I can understand why members of the AAPI community are offended. The answer, however, should be to challenge Coleman’s assumptions and knowledge. Instead, some members of the community filed a formal complaint. I agree with the AAPI community that the comments were ill-informed and offensive. In fact, I found the comparison offensive to both groups. Such comparisons rarely work well. (Recently, a Holocaust survivor denounced progressives for repeatedly comparing immigration centers to “concentration camps”).
Coleman did express her opinion in the settlement, however, and it should be free as an individual and as a faculty member. Indeed, this is the kind of statement that could have been used for a major debate and exchange on campus. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the course of such a dialogue, Professor Coleman ultimately changed her comments or apologized. Even if she didn’t, it could have been a learning experience as faculty and students compare the two great historical injustices that have been perpetrated against the black and Asian communities.
Professor Coleman may have tried to show empathy for Japanese Americans in the camps by comparing them to the intolerable conditions of slavery. I can understand why it has been taken as deeply offensive, but we must all try to benefit from such doubts in our public discourse.
I understand the need to write a letter condemning such comments. In the not too distant past, university officials would have taken note of the protection of such views under freedom of expression and academic principles. It would then have enabled a meeting or, even better, a forum to discuss such historical and political questions. Those days seem to be over now.
Campuses have become places of growing intolerance, where faculty and students use language regimes to silence those with opposing views. We often act like institutions populated by little Madam Dufarges, eager to testify against those who offend us. The previous standard was freedom of expression. We would have a passionate but civil debate. As part of our commitment to open and unrestrained thinking and speaking, even extreme views were heard on campus. We seem to be collective censors and prosecutors now.
Any “damage” caused by Professor Coleman’s remarks pales in comparison to the greater damage of language regulation and abbreviation on our campus.