Racism in the Donald Trump era can be a delicate subject—particularly if it calls out a specific demographic as the perpetrator. Put that subject into an academic setting, in a politically tempestuous US state, and you have a potential powder keg.
Ted Thornhill, a sociology professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, is teaching a course this spring called “White Racism,” which, according to its catalog description, examines “the racist ideologies, laws, policies, and practices that have operated for hundreds of years to maintain white racial domination over those racialized as non-white” and aims to “interrogate the concept of race” at large. But the 50-student undergraduate class is now being watched over by campus police officers—because, according to Thornhill—thousands of “unspeakable” comments have flooded in via social media, emails, and voicemails.
Thornhill, who is black, told local news outlets that “the course needs to be taught, and so that’s what’s going to happen,” despite the personally targeted comments, threats, and racial slurs he has received. (He sent police 46 pages of such comments.) A university spokesperson said the school’s deployment of officers to watch over the class—the first has held yesterday (Jan. 9)—means it is prepared for “any possible distractions.”
Such “distractions” are not out of the question; in fact, given recent violence at schools across the country around politically controversial speakers, they are almost likely.
Since Trump’s election, a number of US professors have offered academic courses focusing on “white racism” or “white privilege,” and in several instances have been met with some form of disapproval, or at least unease, by their surrounding communities. Florida, a state notoriously riddled with racial problems and the existence of many so-called hate groups, is no neutral ground for a course with such a provocative title to be located. But of course, that is perhaps Thornhill’s point: It’s about time the state’s universities address its troubled racial history, which traces all the way back to its founding and still lingers today in its politics, head-on. At least he didn’t go the even more direct route of New York’s Hunter College this summer and name the course “the abolition of whiteness.”