Jonesing For An Apology
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that Bob Jones University’s current president has “apologized” for his institution’s racist policies, which persisted until the Civil Rights Movement finally made it to their little corner of Greenville, South Carolina in 2000. Per the university’s website:
For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it. …
On national television in March 2000, Bob Jones III, who was the university’s president until 2005, stated that BJU was wrong in not admitting African-American students before 1971, which sadly was a common practice of both public and private universities in the years prior to that time. On the same program, he announced the lifting of the University’s policy against interracial dating.
As my fellow political scientist Jacob Levy points out this statement is rather pathetic and, shall we say, rather lacking in any sense of just how out-of-step BJU was with the rest of the nation for 32 of the past 40 years:
In short, Bob Jones University did not passively float along on the tide of American racism, and it was not racist only in its “early stages.” It was worse on racial questions, longer, than any other university in the country. And it was actively, determinedly, passionately worse. The University did not conform itself to a surrounding ethos. It fought to resist changes to that ethos; it fought hard, at serious institutional cost.
Now, resisting the surrounding culture is something one expects from religiously dissident institutions. Of course a fundamentalist Christian university views itself as being at odds with the surrounding world–for better and for worse. Passive conformity is no great virtue, and fighting hard for one’s beliefs is admirable. But if it turns out that your beliefs were grotesquely, abominably wrong, then it’s cowardice to suddenly plead passive conformity. That’s a vice of which Bob Jones University has never been guilty–and the lie that it has been strips its supposed apology of any moral force.
As Levy is perhaps too polite to point out, not only is the plea of “passive conformity” cowardly, it’s also factually inaccurate, unless the trustees, faculty, and administration of Bob Jones University were conforming to the norms supported by the Ku Klux Klan and few others.
While the university’s statement does recognize a failure of leadership by white Christian organizations during the segregationist era that was hardly unique to Bob Jones and his progeny, it fails to recognize the degree to which the university both served to legitimate values that today it acknowledges were fundamentally at odds with Christian teachings and acted as an exemplar of racial intolerance that bigots everywhere could point to as a legitimate institution that shared their warped sense that segregation and white supremacy were acceptable values in late 20th century society. While today’s mealy-mouthed statement may assuage those who seek political cover for their association with Bob Jones, it should not satisfy those who expect intellectual honesty from a purported institution of higher learning.