When Academic Free Speech Goes Wrong: The Jerry Hough Edition

Duke University chaired professor of Political Science Jerry Hough recently created discord with his “controversial” remarks about race in the comments section of a New York Times editorial. Responding to that editorial on “How Racism Doomed Baltimore”, Hough attempted to draw a distinction between different ethnicities and explain why some groups were rioting in Baltimore and not others.

In doing so, Hough demonstrated how NOT to use academic free speech. By labeling himself as a professor at an elite university, Hough attempted to use his academic standing to strengthen his ideas with a sort of gravitas that was completely undeserved. When speaking as an “expert” you simply cannot let personal opinion masquerade as well reasoned, argued, and supported ideas.

In a six-paragraph mess, Hough claimed that Asian Americans were not rioting as a group in Baltimore because “they didn’t feel sorry for themselves” when confronting racism “at least as [bad]” as what black citizens had faced, and instead “worked doubly hard.” He then made what he thought was a lucid point about how, in his estimation, “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” To top it all off, when questioned about his noxious string of garbage, Hough drew back his bowstring for one more zinger: “In writing me, no one has said I was wrong, just racist.”

What bullshit, Professor Hough.

I am telling you that you are wrong (as I expect many other people did had you possessed the sense to listen). Your comments simply do not measure up in the face history, this country’s demographics, or commonsense.

First off, the assertion that “Asians were discriminated against at least as badly as blacks” cannot be supported with U.S. history. Asian Americans certainly have faced considerable racism in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did not have a spontaneous genesis, but came from decades of anti-Chinese sentiment and action. And it is no surprise that only Japanese-Americans were interned in mass numbers during World War II and not Italian- or German-Americans (can you imagine anyone interning Joe DiMaggio?).

Even considering this considerable racism (just look at a sampling of the visual culture from WWII), anti-Asian sentiment in this country pales in comparison to the triangular slave trade. The forced migration and chattel slavery of millions of blacks is one of the most horrific mass acts human beings have ever perpetrated on each other. Add to it the blatant institutional racism this country had for many decades, such as from Jim Crow laws, and the claim that “Asians were discriminated against at least as badly as blacks” is simply wrong.

Second, the idea of names marking a desire for “integration” makes no logical sense. Would Hough argue that President Barack Obama and his family never tried to integrate because of his name? Moreover, Hough assumes that a normative U.S. culture can only exist as a white, Euro-American culture. What he really implies with his use of “integration,” deriding “virtually every black” for “a strange new name,” is that only by choosing European-derived names can non-whites ever truly be real Americans.

Moreover, though I have no hard evidence (and neither does he), I would suspect that his characterization of names by ethnicity falls flat across the entire population. Perhaps his assertion holds true within the very small, typically wealthy subset of the population that is Duke University students—I would not know, because as a UNC alumnus I try to avoid that campus in Durham. But “every Asian student” in the country, or even a large majority? That seems very unlikely. (And he clearly has not been to a toddler playgroup lately—lots of white people name their kids strange things too, and I know as a stay-at-home parent.)

Finally, he makes demographic claims without a hint of evidence. He asserts an “enormous” number of interracial relationships exist between Asian Americans and whites while concurrently arguing that “black-white dating is almost non-existent.” If that were true (it is not), we could not be surprised given our country’s history—Martha Hode’s White Women, Black Men is an excellent work on the subject. However, Hough presents no evidence for his claim. That is because he is flat wrong.

The reality is that while white-Asian marriages are more common than white-black marriages (about 8% of all U.S. marriages are interracial, with white-Hispanic being the most common interracial marriage type in the nation), the numbers are relatively close. For example, in 2010, of the more than quarter-million new interracial marriages, about fifteen percent were white-Asian while about 12 percent were white-black.  That number is statistically significant in its difference, but not the gaping chasm that Hough suggests.

It is the height of irresponsibility to leverage your academic career into the authority to champion unsupportable ideas. This is exactly what Jerry Hough did with his comments. Do I think his ideas are racist? Yes. But that is not the point I am trying to make here.

What I am saying is that if we are going to value academic free speech and defend its merit in a public and higher-ed culture that increasingly devalues academic freedom, then we need to practice responsible free speech with sound arguments, clear logic, and good evidence. Jerry Hough did none of these things, and that is a significant problem.

I am not saying I have to agree with you, but you do have to make even the slightest amount of sense.


Addendum: My friend Allie Mullin read this blog post and said that Hough seems to want “to compare races in essentially an Oppression Olympics. From an academic standpoint that's the only quantification he makes, and it lacks factual grounding and ignorance of intersectionality." I agree with her.