With its choice of speakers for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Purdue has again demonstrated its tone-deafness and opted to whitewash a topic meant to commemorate racial progress forged by people of color.
The backlash that occurred last semester over the University’s mishandling of issues related to racial diversity has not prevented new conflicts from arising. As people who operate an institution dedicated to higher education, one would think the administration would have learned something.
Contracted to speak to celebrate King’s legacy are former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.
Inviting Lynch is a no-brainer. She became the first female African American Attorney General in 2015 after gaining prestige during her tenure as head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.
Over the course of her career, she substantially improved the fraught relationship between law-enforcement agencies and communities of color. Epitomized by the conviction of two New York City police officers who brutalized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997, her unrelenting pursuit of criminal-justice reform reflects her commitment to progress against institutional racism.
And then there’s Jeff Flake.
The fact that he’s a white member of the political party that currently boasts a pitiable two African American members of Congress — one of whom is retiring at 42 because his racially diverse district was deemed more likely to vote for a Democrat in 2020 — is reason enough to raise eyebrows. But my discontent isn’t about political affiliation.
Flake has no distinguishable record on civil rights to compensate for his superficial shortcomings.
In an advertisement run in Thursday’s edition of The Exponent, the University lauded Lynch as a “defender of human and civil rights” in justifying her credibility to commemorate King. The same advertisement commended Flake for his “principled stands on spending and free trade.”
This pathetic attempt to buttress Flake’s resume is indicative of the likelihood that the administration, too, is uncertain of its justification for billing the former senator.
Shouldn’t any white person being contracted to speak in commemoration of an African American civil rights icon be made to meet a higher standard than a boundary-breaking, prejudice-defying black woman?
The event is the most prominent of many planned by Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion John Gates, who joined the administration in April 2019. The theme of the discussion, “Democracy, Civility and Freedom of Expression,” aligns with Gates’ philosophy that any promotion of diversity must include all groups, even those who have never experienced prejudice.
“I’m an advocate for every person on this campus, whether they are brown or black or white, whether they are students, faculty or staff,” Gates, himself both African American and gay, said in a video played during a November town hall meeting on diversity. “Whether we agree with them, whether they are neo-Nazis or whether they are of a different build.”
Whether anyone ought to civilly engage with people who identify as neo-Nazis is an argument for another time. But the statement succinctly encapsulates Gates’ controversial interpretation of his role at Purdue.
In an interview with The Exponent on Friday, Gates said the purpose of inviting a white conservative is to ensure the inclusion of a differing viewpoint. He did not respond to additional requests for comment regarding Flake’s negligible record on civil rights.
So, ostensibly, Flake is speaking at Purdue in celebration of King’s legacy in order to counter Lynch’s progressive perspective. When asked for her opinion on the selection process, a representative of the Black Cultural Center referred me to Gates.
Flake may be worthy of speaking about civility and freedom of expression. In 2015, he was one of only 10 Republican senators to approve former President Barack Obama’s appointment of Loretta Lynch as attorney general. His scathing criticisms of President Donald Trump — whom he voted in line with on over 80% of issues, according to FiveThirtyEight, an organization that collects political statistics — and the Republican party’s political weaponization of fearmongering and xenophobia are commendable.
But to denounce such behavior is to exhibit basic human decency. It being touted as praiseworthy or courageous is a fallacy perpetuated by the fact that so few congressional Republicans have been willing to do so. It’s a modern manifestation of the “white savior” narrative: the notion that white people can be credited with progress on issues of race for merely deciding not to obstruct it.
If not for the event’s timing, it could have been conducive to the promotion of insightful, bipartisan conversation. But should it be Flake’s role to lecture the 2.8% of Purdue students who are African American about the resonance of King’s accomplishments?
At the Diversity Town Hall, Gates handed out a pamphlet advertising the MLK celebration scheduled for the spring semester. Only Lynch was listed to speak.
The subsequent addition of a prominent conservative implies that Gates may be beholden to another prominent conservative within the University’s administrative hierarchy. It wouldn’t be the first time his decision-making capacity was limited by University policy.
It’s as if the University, wary of its conservative alumni’s responses to scheduling a black progressive to speak, offered Flake as a counterweight. Indeed, many have taken to social media to criticize the decision to contract Lynch, worried about the “liberal cesspool” their beloved campus is becoming.
The cultural revolution King nationalized did not allow for powerful white men to ease their reluctant counterparts into acceptance. To posit that change cannot be effected without white acceptance is racist in and of itself but has been an unfortunate historical reality due to the demographic’s dominance of our nation’s largest institutions.
At best, the decision to invite Flake to speak is misguided. At worst, it’s dead wrong, and an explanation of the decision is owed to Purdue students whose fundamental freedoms King fought for.
Are we comfortable with “book-selling Republican” — as one Reddit user labeled Flake — being the baseline qualification for headlining a high-profile discussion about race in the 21st century?