FOR PUBLIC POLICY INITIATIVES

NYT Response
+  From Associate Vice President and Director of the Benjamin Center, Dr. Gerald Benjamin - July 26, 2018

Sent: July 26, 2018 9:36 a.m.

Dear colleagues and co-workers:

I continue to agonize about the remarks I made to a New York Times reporter regarding Congressman John Faso’s divisive use of race in our local election for Congress, and the enraged reaction to what I said both on campus and in the community. As you know, I earlier sent an apology to the campus community. It is largely irrelevant, I now think, that I had no racist intent; my commentary is reasonably read as racist.

I’ve been talking to reporters for decades on controversial political matters; I am not a rookie. I’ll need a lot more time and will have to do a lot more thinking, listening, and learning before I am satisfied that I fully understand why and how this happened, if ever. But some lessons are already clear

Because this story was national, I’ve submitted an essay to the Chronicle of Higher Education setting out what I think I’ve learned so far; it was published in shortened form as a letter to the editor. However, people on campus and in the community have asked to hear from me directly, especially about what I and the Benjamin Center will do next, to address racism on campus, in the community and especially in public life. So I decided as a first step to set out the key points of my edited remarks in the Chronicle for you and add to it some concrete ideas for action that I have started to work on with my colleagues and the college leadership.

Lesson one: Acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism. As a teacher, dean, elected official, commentator, consultant, writer and editor, I have worked to advance democracy, fairness, inclusion, equity, and justice. I now have directly experienced how racism plays out not only in structural matters like city charters or voting laws, but also in words and actions that, intended or not, create a sense of “us” and “them.” Words are powerful; great care must be taken in selecting and using them.

I thought I was unbiased. And yet, I somehow said what I said. For me, and for other white people who think they are not racist or in other ways biased, unguarded moments may reveal deeply entrenched premises or predispositions that result in the unintended invidious categorization of others.

Lesson two: Confront and condemn racism in politics. Our communities are increasingly diverse, and already deeply divided by partisanship and policy preferences. The intensity of these divisions, the greatest that I have seen in my lifetime, threatens the very fabric of our democracy. Direct or indirect, racist arguments in any campaign anywhere exacerbate conflict and division, making civil discourse harder, even impossible. They are never acceptable.

Lesson three: Communicate directly and personally. Turn communication into action. I called Antonio Delgado, the Democratic candidate and target of race-based attacks, and apologized to him and asked him for an in-person meeting. He graciously accepted and agreed. As further detailed below, I have also begun to approach campus colleagues and have met with Benjamin Center staff to make it a priority in the coming year to partner with others on campus to foster dialogue and action about how divisive race- and ethnic-based tribal politics can be overcome. We need a politics that builds community, rather than persisting in a politics that fosters hate and division.

Lesson four: Pay attention to what you are doing; a lot may be at stake. Reputation grows from being morally and ethically centered, and using any skills you may have to build community, and support others in doing so. Reporters turn to expert professors for ideas that are informed, thoughtful and evidence-based. I now know that when this role is forgotten, community may be diminished, not built, and reputation irredeemably damaged. From this moment, I will use my agency to do better on this front.

As I continue to listen and learn, here are a few steps I will take, personally and in collaboration with Benjamin Center colleagues and others on campus to turn lessons into actions. 

  • I will hold a series of listening visits with members of underrepresented communities in the region to learn how the Benjamin Center can better focus on their priorities in our research.
  • I have begun outreach to students and colleagues of color to listen to their perspectives on these issues.
  • We will join with the Department of Political Science and International Relations and other academic departments, in planning a panel discussion about race and politics this fall, with attention to moving from a politics of division to one of inclusion.
  • Current and past Benjamin Center evidence-based, policy-oriented research has dealt significantly with issues of diversity, inequality, and social justice. Moving forward, we will focus more explicitly on issues of race, power and privilege, and invite colleagues of all disciplines with interests in public policy to join with us in this work. 

I welcome additional ideas. Please write to benjamig@newpaltz.edu or call at 845 257 2901.

Gerald Benjamin
Director - The Benjamin Center
Distinguished Professor - Political Science
Associate Vice President - Regional Engagement

+  From Associate Vice President and Director of the Benjamin Center, Dr. Gerald Benjamin - July 18, 2018

Sent: July 18, 2018, 9:43 a.m.

Dear Colleagues and Co-workers:

I have worked at SUNY New Paltz for fifty years in several capacities, and have a deep attachment to the school and the diverse community we have built here. I am therefore very sorry for any unintended distress caused by my remarks in yesterday’s NY Times interview, published today in the print edition.

These remarks  (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/17/us/politics/antonio-delgado-lyrics.html) have been condemned as racist. I had no racist intent but understand the impact of those remarks, and regret having made them.

I sought to make two points in this interview. The first was that race is never irrelevant to American politics, and that this is especially the case when an African American candidate is running against a white candidate in a largely white district. The second was that the Republican use of his background as a rap artist was an attempt to open a cultural gap between Mr. Delgado and the majority of the district’s population.

I made these points badly. My remarks were insufficiently precise, my points poorly articulated and my language very insensitive and therefore subject to multiple interpretations.  I particularly regret the casual use of the phrase “people like us” to describe rural upstate New Yorkers. This language is over general, exclusionary and, I see in retrospect, evokes racist connotations.

Academics should stick to what they know. I react negatively to racially charged, violence-inducing misogynistic lyrics I have heard, but knew virtually nothing about rap music as a form of affirmative artistic and cultural expression. I was therefore particularly in error and professionally inappropriate in generalizing from a casually informed point of view, and in doing so turning what should have been an analytic statement into a very badly informed personal one.

I am honored to head a regional public policy research center named for me that does important work to advance social equity, political accountability and environmental justice. My talented colleagues in the Center, especially because it is named for me, fear that my comments in the Times will jeopardize their opportunity to continue this important work. I urge that colleagues and citizens understand that my remarks were not representative of the Center and its staff, and I ask you to continue to value our work on its merits.

I deeply regret my comments and apologize for any unintended offense they may have engendered and for any harm caused to our institution, to which I have devoted my professional life.

Gerald Benjamin
Director - The Benjamin Center
Distinguished Professor - Political Science
Associate Vice President - Regional Engagement