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May 19, 2015 2:36 pm

Wrong and Racist at Duke

tags: racism

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

  Jerry Hough, Professor of Political Science at Duke, got into trouble by making "noxious, offensive" comments about a New York Times editorial, "How Racism Doomed Baltimore." A Duke vice president used those adjectives, and Duke has placed him on leave. (Hough is 80 and planned to retire after next year anyway.)

            I would suggest that he should leave Duke, on grounds of incompetence. He knows nothing about the history of race relations, yet opines on it anyway. He claims, "No one has said I was wrong, just racist." Well, I do say he was wrong — as well as racist.

            Chronologically, Hough's first error is his astounding statement, "In 1965 the Asians were discriminated against as least as badly as blacks." In 1967, I wrote my doctoral dissertation, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, on exactly this point. I compared the Chinese American population in the Mississippi Delta — the largest in the South — with the majority population there, African Americans. I found exactly what Prof. Hough complains about: Chinese Americans had achieved social mobility while African Americans had not.

            To Hough, this proves black inferiority — not necessarily genetic, just behavioral. Asians "worked doubly hard" while blacks "felt sorry for themselves." On the contrary, my research showed  that the different results stemmed from different positions in social structure, leading to different degrees of white racism.

            The Chinese found a niche: grocers to the black underclass. In this position, they conflicted with no whites other than a handful of grocers who themselves had low status because they served a mostly black clientele. As Chinese Americans progressed economically, they were able to progress racially. By 1955, they were voting and had gained entry into "white" schools and hospitals. Whites then cited successful Chinese merchants to argue that Southern society was not racist. Just like Hough, they said that African Americans were just lazy, while Chinese were industrious.

            In reality, African Americans had no chance to make such progress. They constituted the workforce from which white landowners made their living — and some plantation owners made very good livings indeed. This aristocracy then flexed its political power to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from minimum wage standards and other labor laws. Any African American who nevertheless managed to become successful thereby became a target — such as the merchant in Shaw, Mississippi, whose shoe store was burned out by whites in the late 1950s. About voting, surely even Hough, a professor of political science, recalls that blacks could not register in most of the Mississippi Delta! Two Chinese Americans, meanwhile, served as mayors of their small Delta towns.

            Hough's next error concerns racial intermarriage. "Asian-white dating is enormous," he writes, "and so surely will be the intermarriage." He thinks this is because Asians favor integration while African Americans do not. Here his comments reveal ignorance about what sociologists call hypergamy: the tendency for men in the "higher" group to date and marry "down." It works like this: even today, men initiate most social interaction between genders. Men of the "upper" group choose women of the "lower" group far oftener than they do women of the "upper" group. Thus if a high school senior goes out with a sophomore, the senior is the male. If a doctor dates a nurse, the doctor is the male — and not just because most nurses are female. And yes, if a Caucasian dates an Asian, most often the Caucasian is the male and initiates the relationship.

            Way back in 1937, Romanzo Adams studied hypergamy in about the only place in the United States that then displayed much interracial marriage — Hawai'i. Adams found that hypergamy held perfectly across racial lines, with one marked exception: black/white. These couples were overwhelmingly composed of black males and white females. Why? Because white males resisted initiating social contact with black females. Since then, other investigators have found the same pattern across the U.S., although in the last few years the ratio has decreased somewhat. Here is Hough's explanation: "Black-white dating is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white." Yet by ratios of as much as five to one, blacks initiate black-white dating!

            Hough then suggests a staggeringly original analysis of black naming patterns, a topic with a long, rich, and troubled history. In slavery, owners rather than parents named slaves. Some owners, including George Washington, gave "their" slaves pretentious names like Pompey and Caesar, making fun of their powerlessness. Jefferson took a different tack, recording his slaves by diminutives, like "Jenny" for a woman who called herself "Jane Gillette." Some enslaved parents fought back by giving their children secret names. Those lucky enough to be freed, including by the Civil War, reverted to such names, if they had them.

            During the Nadir of race relations — that terrible period between 1890 and 1940 when white Southerners removed blacks from citizenship — a new consideration affected black naming customs. As racial subordination intensified, every element of social interaction became codified. Now whites called blacks — even older and more senior African Americans — by their first names while demanding to be called "Mr." or "Mrs." in return. To avoid this disrespect, some parents named their children initials, like "T. J." Daughters might get named with positive adjectives, like Patience or Precious. A few parents even named their first-born sons "Mister," giving white supremacists no way to disrespect them, other than "Boy!" The Civil Rights and Black Power movements opened up new ways to claim respect, including African names like Jamal. African Americans’ increased interest in their African past, symbolized in the bestseller Roots and its ensuing smash television miniseries, sparked white Americans’ renewed interest in their own ethnic pasts. In turn, social psychologist LaFrances Rose wrote a fascinating paper about African Americans' willingness to give their children original names with original spellings like Shimiqua and Cheniqua.

            About this entire history Prof. Hough seems ignorant, as well. Bestowing unusual names merely "symbolizes their [blacks'] lack of desire for integration." Nonsense! My daughter, half Irish American, married an Irish American; they named their children Seamus and Bridget. So we can infer they don’t desire integration?

            The most famous research about black names, done at Chicago and M.I.T., shows that whites discriminate against them. "White names like Emily Walsh or Greg Baker drew 50% more [job] callbacks than those with African-American sounding names like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones," according to Kenji Yoshino, summarizing in the New York Times.[1] Prof. Hough seems to suggest that such discrimination may be perfectly fair. After all, these kids' parents didn't value success in white society anyway, else they would have given their children white names.

            To sum up, Jerry Hough shows no knowledge about relative discrimination, racial intermarriage, or black naming patterns, though he is willing to write about all three.

  "Ignorant I am not," he nonetheless claims in his defense, in an email to the Duke Chronicle defending his Times comments. To prove he's not ignorant, he notes that he used to live on the West Coast and visited Asheville, NC, several times between 1940 and 1960! Since he finished his B.A. in 1961, we can infer that he was not a student of race relations during these years. Instead, like many white Americans, Hough feels he can simply cite his life as evidence of his knowledge about race relations in the United States.

            This won't do. Like most whites in those years, Hough spent his life in a white cocoon. Near Asheville, for example, three entire counties flatly prohibited African Americans from living in them, except for two small enclaves. Did he ever learn that? I don't know where Hough lived on the West Coast, but the same policy held true for 80% of the suburbs of Los Angeles, 80% of the Bay Area, and many independent towns in California. Has Hough ever interviewed a single black person about race relations in North Carolina? in California?

            Harvard was almost all-white when Hough was there. I know, because I got my doctorate in sociology there just after he left. At that time, Hough encountered not a single African American professor. Harvard's only faculty member who knew anything about race relations, the estimable Thomas Pettigrew in Social Relations, told me in 1966 that he "felt completely isolated."

            Even after finishing his degrees, Hough seemed to learn nothing about race relations. After leaving Harvard, he taught political science at the University of Illinois from 1961 to 1968, for example. At that time, Champaign/Urbana was surrounded by sundown towns — communities that did not let African Americans spend the night. Within about 25 miles, these included Deland, Farmer City, Mahomet, Monticello, Paxton, St. Joseph, Saybrook, Tolono, Villa Grove, White Heath, and several others. In those years, some even posted signs at their city limits announcing that blacks were not welcome or sounded sirens at 6PM telling them to leave. Did Hough even notice? None of these towns kept out Chinese Americans, as far as I know. Yet Hough claims that Chinese faced discrimination equal to blacks! Did he ever interview a single black person about race relations in central Illinois?

            Prof. Hough does not even know enough about race relations to know that he does not know anything about race relations!

            What would we make of a "distinguished" professor of geology at Duke who wrote the New York Times to say that the world is flat? Should he be fired? To be sure, geology is not exactly geography, but geologists who think the world is flat are likely to do bad work. Similarly, race relations is sociology, not exactly political science, but political scientists whose knowledge of race relations is as faulty as Hough's are going to do bad work.

            Finally, what about the fact that Prof. Hough seems not to care about race relations at Duke? Every student he might teach is black, white, Asian, or "other." Now they know that Hough is completely clueless about race. Should they take his course about the Soviet Union? Probably they should, if they want to learn about that subject, but I would not want Hough cluttering up faculty meetings or the Web with his nonsensical views on race. Duke has a troubled past about race relatioins, including recently. I would have to conclude that Hough’s "collegiality" potential would be limited, and his possible excellence about the U.S.S.R. should be weighed against his incompetence in other areas that he thinks are also his domain. Retirement seems appropriate, on grounds of incompetence.


    [1]Kenji Yoshino, "The Pressure To Cover," NY Times Magazine, 1/15/2006, 36. Incidentally, although Asian, Yoshino's parents also must have been uninterested in integration, according to Hough, naming him "Kenji" instead of "Ken." 

Copyright James W. Loewen

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