Saturday, August 7, 2010

Chapter 9

Charles Gibson was the only African-American who was a university professor at NDU. A highly prominent scholar in the field of African-American literature, he had been lured to NDU from Duke University three years ago with a nine month salary of $125,000 plus guaranteed summer support money. Gibson loved being in the Washington, D.C. area where he received far more media coverage than he ever had before. He had rapidly discovered, though, that the quality of both the students and the faculty at NDU was not nearly as high as at Duke. Still, it was nice to be a big fish in a small pond.

Someone knocked on the door of his office. "Come on in," he called.

The door opened and in walked a very attractive African-American woman wearing what was obviously an expensive suit--something he would expect to see a young woman wear in an office but not on campus. He recognized that she was one of his students but did not know her name.

"Hello, Professor Gibson," she said. "I'm Genevieve Lacouture from your Introduction to African-American Literature class."

"Oh yes," said Gibson. "Please sit down. What can I do for you?"

"I know I shouldn't have waited until the last week of the semester to come talk to you," she said as she sat down. "I'm afraid I've been very busy with my part-time job this semester. In fact, I'm going there right after I talk to you. The point is this: I'm very worried about my grade in your class. You gave me a B+ on the midterm and an A- on the paper. There's only the final exam left, and I want to do as well as possible on it. So I thought I'd better come and talk to you about what I need to do to improve my grade.

"I'm a computer science major," she continued. "I'm taking this course to fulfill my humanities requirement. I'm not used to literature courses which contain a high degree of ambiguity."

Gibson was a little taken aback by this. "Computer science?" he asked incredulously. "Why are you majoring in that? Why aren't you majoring in African-American studies, or sociology, or something else that's relevant to black folks?"

"Well, to tell you the truth, I was just never very interested in all that. In fact," she confessed with some embarrassment, "I'm only in your course mainly because it's the one lit class that best fit into my schedule. I got into computer science when I was in high school. And, I'm proud to admit, I'm pretty good at it.

"Besides," she said with a knowing smile, "I think that a B.S. in computer science will get me a much higher paying job than a B.A. in African-American studies."

"So is money all that you're interested in?" asked Gibson, shaking his head. "I really just don't understand the black students here at NDU. All you're interested in is yourselves as individuals. You seem to have no concern for advancing civil rights or other black causes like my generation did. Why, when I was at Berkeley in the '60s..."

"Yes, yes," Genevieve interrupted, displaying some impatience. "We know you were at Berkeley in the '60s. You've mentioned it in class several times this semester."

Gibson wondered: Am I getting old? Am I repeating myself without knowing it? "The point I'm trying to make," he said, "is that my generation worked together for black rights. Yours isn't doing that."

Genevieve shrugged her shoulders. "Since your generation largely succeeded at this task, my generation can now move on to something else. Perhaps we could move on to discussing your expectations for the final."

Now Gibson was annoyed. "Your generation may think it can move on, but it is deluding itself. My generation worked hard for affirmative action. But affirmative action is now being destroyed bit by bit."

"I just see it differently," responded Genevieve. "Whatever benefits affirmative action may have provided decades ago, it's a program that has now outlived its usefulness. Educated African-Americans--especially ones with technical training--can get jobs as easily as anybody else. And isn't it better that corporations want to hire us because we have knowledge and skills they value instead of because they need to fill some federally mandated quota?"

"And look what's happening," Gibson continued, "to congressional redistricting to ensure black representation in the House. The courts are slowly but surely overturning it, resulting in the election of a less and less diverse House of Representatives with each passing election."

"My father says that the only thing redistricting to create congressional districts with black majorities ever accomplished," countered Genevieve, "was to ensure the election of white Republicans in all the surrounding districts."

"And it's the Republicans in Congress," thundered Gibson, "that have slashed social programs which help disadvantaged blacks."

"My father also says that it's these misguided social programs of the past that have provided skewed incentives to African-Americans, actually making it unprofitable for those on welfare to work their way out of it," said Genevieve. "We don't need welfare! We don't need special programs! We can succeed on our own!"

Gibson was disgusted. "Just what does this father of yours do for a living anyway?"

"He's a vice president at Dillo Petroleum Services in Fairfax," Genevieve replied proudly.

"Aha!" said Gibson. "He's one of those lucky blacks who succeeded thanks to affirmative action but who now want to end it for the rest of us."

"My father succeeded," Genevieve responded hotly, "through hard work and determination! His parents were poor immigrants from Haiti! They worked hard to send him to college to become a petroleum engineer! It wasn't easy--nobody handed him anything. He got where he is through his own hard work--and through his ability to work with others.

"I've traveled with my father to the Caribbean and to Africa," she continued. "Believe me: African-Americans are far better off and have far more opportunities than do blacks in those countries. And I wouldn't want to be a black person in Europe either. Whatever their situation here, nobody questions the fact that African-Americans are American. In Europe, though, blacks can never be anything besides West Indians, West Africans, East Africans, or even Americans--but never Europeans."

Gibson knew that immigrant blacks from the Caribbean and Africa as a group scored far higher than other African-Americans in indicators such as level of education and income. There was no consensus of opinion as to why this anomaly existed. Gibson couldn't explain it either. But at least now, he thought, he understood where this Genevieve was coming from.

"I don't deny," he said, "that blacks in the U.S. are far better off than blacks elsewhere. Nor do I deny that black progress received a lot of help from whites, especially during the 1960s and early 1970s. What I see now, though, is that a lot of that progress--affirmative action, congressional redistricting, and social programs--is being reversed, mainly by whites.

"It kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?" he asked. "Why did whites go to the bother of furthering black progress back then only to reverse it now? Well, it just so happens that I have a theory about that. Would you like to hear it?"

Gibson didn't wait for her to answer. "In the past, whites were not an undifferentiated group in this country. You had the Irish, the Italians, the Scandinavians, the East Europeans, and others. Up through the 1950s, though, the whites that controlled America were the WASPs--the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But thanks to all the changes resulting from the New Deal in the 1930s and World War II, these other whites became increasingly powerful and threatened to displace the WASPs.

"It was no accident," he continued, "that most of the white liberals in the 1960s were WASPs. They decided to support the cause of black progress not out of any love for us blacks, but as a way of controlling these other, rising white groups.

"Now since then, ironically enough, distinctions among whites have virtually disappeared. Whereas before whites tended to marry strictly within their narrower ethnic groups (WASPs with WASPs, Italians with Italians, etc.), these barriers have now completely broken down. WASPs can hardly be said to form a distinct group any more. I guess they all got bored with each other and married someone else--just as long as they were white.

"But also since then, something happened that the white liberals who supported black progress in the 1960s never seem to have actually expected: the creation of a strong, vibrant black middle class. Just like the WASPs felt threatened by the rise of other white groups in the past, whites as a whole feel threatened by the rise of blacks now. And just as in the past the WASPs sought to keep down those other white groups through supporting blacks, whites now seek to keep down blacks through supporting other groups. And do you know who those other groups are?"

Again, Gibson did not wait for Genevieve to answer. "Hispanics and Asians to some extent. But an even more insidious way of keeping down blacks is the white enthusiasm for the women's movement. And here their intentions are blatant: the women they mainly have in mind to support are white women. So right at the point where more and more talented black men are poised to move into the top ranks of society, they are being pushed aside by white women in the name of gender equality."

"If all that is true," responded Genevieve, "I wonder where that leaves me. It seems to me that as an African-American I would lose, but as a woman I would win."

Gibson shook his head. "This is the problem with today's young blacks--especially young black women. You don't seem to realize that what little you gain as a woman from the white-inspired women's movement would be greatly outweighed by what you would lose as a black."

"I'm not sure about that argument," said Genevieve. "It seems to me that progress for African-American women is hindered far more by African-American men than it is by white women. It's not white women who are getting black teenage girls pregnant and then abandoning them."

"I can see," said Gibson, "that their strategy of divide and conquer has certainly worked with you!"

"Maybe women of all races really have more in common with one another than with the men from their own. Maybe it's the false barrier of race that has kept women divided up to now," she countered.

Gibson shook his head again. "You know, I really don't understand today's young women--black, white, or whatever. You say you're for women's rights. But you've accepted restrictions on yourselves that the women of my generation never would have accepted." At least, not back in the 1960s and 1970s when they were young, he thought.

"What do you mean?" asked Genevieve.

"I mean all these new rules preventing relationships between men and women who work together. But when they do get together--as they inevitably do--and it's somehow discovered, it's always considered to be the man's `fault' that it happened."

"It is clearly inappropriate," Genevieve informed him, "for male supervisors to be pressuring their female subordinates for sex."

"Oh, Lord! Listen to you!" said Gibson. "Not every male is a supervisor to every female in an organization. And sex doesn't happen just because men `pressure' women for it."

"Are you sure about that?" asked Genevieve sarcastically.

"It seems to me," continued Gibson, "that if a man and woman who work in the same organization want to get together, it's nobody's business but their own."

"Can we please talk about the final exam," implored Genevieve.

"And what does it matter if they are supervisor and subordinate anyway? If they're both consenting adults, what does it matter? Who else's business is it?

"What if the shoe were on the other foot?" he continued. "With all these women getting ahead, they have subordinates now. What if a female supervisor wanted to get together with one of her male subordinates? Would you modern women oppose that?"

Genevieve did not respond.

"I can just tell what you're thinking," said Gibson. "You're thinking no female supervisor would want to get together with a male subordinate, aren't you? That wouldn't benefit her nearly as much as having an affair with a male supervisor, and then reporting him for taking advantage of her after she's gotten everything she can possibly get from him."

Genevieve did not look happy. "You know, I really don't think..." she began.

"Whenever I read these stories," Gibson plowed on, "about women charging male supervisors with pressuring them for sex after being in a relationship with them for a considerable period of time, I really wonder what the truth actually is. Women aren't all innocent little angels. Look at the way they dress! They're sure not trying to hide the fact that they're women!

"Let me tell you, things were a lot different when I was at Berkeley in the '60s. Back then, young women were trying to break away from sexual restrictions, not wrap themselves up in them. There was none of this nonsense about `inappropriate relationships' either. I remember that it was quite common for female students to have affairs with their professors. And nobody objected either--except the professors' wives, if they found out," he laughed.

"Professor Gibson!" exclaimed Genevieve.

"And the women were open and honest about it, too. I well remember how female students would boast about their conquests among the professors and the graduate teaching assistants."

Gibson had been a T.A. back then. There must have been half a dozen girls he ended up in bed with whom he met through their being students in his discussion sections. They had all been white girls too. Each had told him that she had never had sex with a black man before. He was `exotic' for them--just as they were for him. But so what? That was cool!

"With the new Victorianism that reigns at universities now, though," he continued, "male professors are scared that if they even glance at their female students, they'll be charged with `sexual assault' or some such nonsense!"

There had been three other student girlfriends later when he was a young professor at Duke. These relationships had lasted longer. Unlike his girlfriends at Berkeley, these three had all been graduate students. Like the others, they had also been white. Now that he was thinking about it, he realized that none of his student girlfriends had ever been black. More to the point, he hadn't had any student girlfriend--whether black, white, or whatever--in many years. This was a result, Gibson thought, of the new Victorianism on college campuses. At least, that's what he hoped it was. He certainly hoped it wasn't because of the age difference between him and the students. It was funny how, with their coming and going, the students he taught remained in a constant age range while he got older. Not that being in his late fifties was really all that old, of course.

"Look what's happened right here at NDU," he went on. "The `unwanted' poster in this worthless student newspaper--nothing like what we had at Berkeley--claimed to reprint graffiti written in one of the women's bathrooms about a professor here. I think his name was Barnes. What did it say about him?"

"`Prof. Barnes touched me inappropriately,'" said Genevieve

He certainly wouldn't mind touching this Genevieve, he thought. It would probably do this over serious girl a world of good. "Oh, so you saw that?" he asked. "I guess everyone did. Well, I bet the whole thing is a fraud. I'll bet he never touched anyone. Some girl tried to get him to raise her grade, and when he wouldn't, she wrote this thing about him just to cause trouble for him."

Gibson had heard that Barnes was going up for tenure this year. If that was true, he knew that this statement published in the paper--no matter how false--would cause him quite a lot of trouble. The bitch who wrote it probably knew Barnes was going up and was deliberately trying to sabotage him. Well, she wouldn't succeed if Charles Gibson had anything to say about the matter. And he did: he was on the promotion and tenure committee for the College of Arts and Sciences this year. If Barnes really was going up, Gibson decided that he would get himself appointed as the guy's liaison to the committee. And that reminded him...

Gibson looked at his watch. "Oh, shit!" he exclaimed. I've got to get going. The organizing meeting for P&T committee is about to start."

Genevieve had no choice but to stand up just as he did. "But we didn't talk about the final!" she said with exasperation. "I really wanted your advice! I've got to do well on it if I'm going to keep up my GPA and have a shot at getting into a really good graduate school!"

This girl really had to lighten up, thought Gibson. "I tell you what," he said teasingly. "If you want an A in my class, just wear a shorter skirt than you've got on now to the final--and sit in the front row. You'll feel so good about yourself that I'm sure you'll do fine."

"Professor Gibson!" exclaimed Genevieve. "I can't believe you said that to me! Would you talk to a white girl that way?"

"Only if she looked as good as you do," he said laughing as he ushered her out of his office and closed his door behind him.

As she watched Professor Gibson stride down the hall on his way to his meeting, Genevieve made three decisions. First, she would wear pants to the final. Second, she would sit in the back row during it. And third, since she was carrying a felt tip marker in her purse, she would pay a visit to the first women's lavatory she could find.