Peter Pringle's America: Frozen out by the ice people

Peter Pringle
Sunday 08 August 1993 23:02 BST

WHEN A US federal judge, Kenneth Conboy, last week described the behaviour of Leonard Jeffries, head of the Department of Black Studies at the City College in New York, as 'thuggish', 'repugnant' and 'incompatible with the civilised discourse and conduct expected of tenured professors', I sort of knew what he meant.

I had met Dr Jeffries in his office a few weeks before to discuss his unorthodox views on race and history, and in response to a serious question about his suggestion that whites should pay blacks reparations for the slave trade and other abuses thereafter. I said it was a fair idea but it wasn't going to happen, was it? 'No,' he said, 'but we have to talk about it (because) it has you guys peeing in your pants, shittin' all over yourselves.'

Then the professor spoke of his pet theory of 'ice people' and 'sun people'. Europeans are the 'ice people' and their values stem from male aggressiveness, war and domination. They are 'egotistic, individualistic and exploitative'. On the hand, people of African descent, the professor's 'people of the sun', have a totally different value system, one that is more 'harmonious, humanistic and spiritualistic'.

So are you saying black people are somehow better than white people, I asked, wondering about the charges made against him that he considers that intelligence is related to the skin pigment melanin.

'No,' said the professor, 'you're me. I produced you.' He promotes the theory that most humans are descended from blacks who once inhabited a cradle of humankind in the Nile Valley.

For two years the City College, which is part of the City University of New York, has been trying to kick Dr Jeffries out of the Department of Black Studies, in large part because of a speech he made in the summer of 1991. In the speech, Dr Jeffries blamed 'rich Jews' for the slave trade and accused Jews and Italians of a 'conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood' to cause 'the destruction of the black people'.

The speech caused an uproar in university circles. Academics wondered how on earth a person espousing such views could be head of a university department, and he was removed from his chairmanship. In May, Dr Jeffries won a civil damage suit against the university for his removal and was awarded dollars 400,000 ( pounds 274,000). He then asked the court to reinstate him.

Despite his remarks about Dr Jeffries, Judge Conboy ruled that he could not be removed for a speech made outside the university, because whatever he said was protected by the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of expression. However, the US Constitution does not stop a university from disciplining a member for engaging in a 'systematic pattern of racist, anti-Semitic, sexist or homophobic remarks during class', the judge said. A university can also act against a professor for teaching 'patently absurd and wholly fallacious theories in class'. But the university, whose one-time high reputation for academic excellence has faded somewhat, veered into an area protected by the US Constitution - freedom of speech. Even the most despicable utterings are protected provided they do not foment revolution or cause a riot in a crowded theatre.

Whatever the constitutional issues, Dr Jeffries pushes at the edges. When I saw him, he told me I was the only person to whom he had ever explained his theory about Jews actually being blacks. 'You can't put the Jews in the Nile Valley for 400 years without mixing culture and blood and history,' he began. The black ancestry of Jews was Hitler's 'biggest argument' for putting them to death in the gas chambers, he said. 'There's a deep thing here. You are the only person I've ever explained this to. I want to write about it, but it's too deep even for me to write about it. It's the root of the matter. Blacking up the Nile, we threatened Jewish essence. I don't know how to get people to even explain this.' Dr Jeffries said Hitler sent Jews to the gas chambers 'not because they were Christ-killers, not because they upset the economy in Germany, but because they could run a rationale that these are mixed people, mixed with Asian and African blood. No matter how German they look, how German they sound, no matter how many generations they have been in Germany, if you go back far enough you're back with people of colour. So this is devastation for Jews . . .'

This kind of talk and his remarks about the slave trade and Hollywood serve only to fuel the already explosive relations between blacks and Jews in America. But what is really disappointing about Professor Jeffries, who is bright, articulate and energetic, is not his foul language and eclectic sources. It is that he mixes that kind of rubbish into a more serious discussion of the problems of black people and the flaws of American society - which are rooted in historic inequalities and long-standing cultural stereotypes. He has a special opportunity, in his reinstated position, to help to remove the double standards and to foster in young blacks a sense of their own identity and give them a sense of purpose. But his Afrocentrism is crude and misguided. He talks, for example, of how to deal 'with those crazy Latinos who think themselves better than us because they speak Spanish and they have a little more white blood, but they're us'. In his classes he tells Latinos to go home and tell their parents that they're African: 'You can't deny your Africanness . . . and when I present this in class and these Latinos are so relieved . . . these youngsters freeing themselves from the paralysis of analysis.'

Wiser black writers and commentators such as Cornel West, professor of religion and Afro-American studied at Princeton, have pointed out that such talk reinforces the narrow discussion about race and deflects debate on the wider and related problems of economic decline, cultural decay and political lethargy. These are the issues for the classroom if the slippery slope toward social turmoil is to be avoided.

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