Letter to the Editor: Listening to All Sides of the TA Debate

By Jeff Paulsen, Junior, Education


A debate rages over an incident that took place on March 27 in an African American Studies class. The details, listed in an article in the April 10 issue of The Chronicle, represented two sides of a somewhat convoluted story. From what I read in the paper, the two sides are “a majority of the students” and the teacher’s assistant for this class, Amadou Niang. Since this has become a front-page headline, the third and fourth sides of the story need representation, both to the readers of The Chronicle and to the administration of the university.

The third side to the story would be that of the students who did not take immediate offense (or any offense, for that matter) at an attempt by Amadou Niang to show that institutional racism’s effects still linger. The fourth side that now must be addressed is the history of the institution that was used as an example, and a look at some possible reasons why this example was chosen.

We all know that religion is a very sensitive subject. It is the root of much of the human conflict in the world today. Religion also plays a major role in Utah. From the Utah State Legislature to the kindergarten classrooms, you cannot escape the fact that there is influence from the predominate religion.

An attempt to examine the structure of society’s institutions is an integral part of understanding our society as a whole, as the two are inextricably intertwined. (The definition of institution, as it applies to this subject, is as follows: A significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture.)

When an attempt was made by Amadou Niang to do just that, the response from some members of the class was immediate, very defensive and was the fuel for the fire that has followed. The decision to cease discussion of the subject (and the accusation of “silencing” that followed) was a necessary response to the reaction of some students.

I believe the intended response to the point Amadou attempted to make was a calm reflection on the history of the institution at question and on what we had just learned from others in the class about the leadership positions currently held by African-Americans within this institution.

This was the extent of Amadou’s intent. Any further, emotionally charged response was definitely an undesired and unanticipated one, and therefore necessitated the end of the discussion (or at least the postponement of the discussion, which was Amadou’s solution).

He never drew the conclusion that current members of this institution were racist, nor did he allude to the recent history this institution. We were able, as students should be, to draw our own conclusions.

The fourth side to the story, and perhaps the reason for Amadou’s analogy, is the history of the institution of the LDS Church as it applies to African-Americans. This history contains one of the most current examples of institutional racism in America today, with their policy prohibiting African-Americans the privilege of holding the priesthood. Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie is quoted as saying, “The negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned?but the inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, is based on his eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in their First Estate [the pre-existence]” (Mormon Doctrine, p.527-528, 1966 edition).

This severely discriminatory practice was finally and formally rescinded in 1978, 115 years after the Emancipation Proclamation which ordered that slaves should be freed. Curiously, the doctrine that “Blacks are cursed because they were less valiant in the pre-existence” has not been changed.

Given the context of the discussion and the historical evidence I’ve listed, how could Amadou be expected to resist an analogy that included the LDS Church?

A student is defined as an attentive and systematic observer. As students, it is our responsibility to be open to exploring contemporary issues and considering history, however painful these things may be. It is our responsibility to make our own assessments of the information we receive. It is also our responsibility should we choose to speak as a representative of any given institution.

It is definitely not our responsibility to identify ourselves as victims in the context of this discussion, and attempt to make a victim of our TA by having him removed from his job.

As one of the alleged victims pointed out during an unrelated debate in this same class, “It does not serve oneself to be identified and categorized as a victim. Making someone else, or making yourself, the character of victimization only serves to perpetuate a problem.” I agree with you. If only your actions agreed with you!

Let’s all take this for what it was, an isolated incident that we can personally reflect upon the meaning of, learn from and then move on.

Jeff Paulsen, Junior, Education