The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, January 17, 2004

Dean and his black roomies - sound of a wooden nickel?

Just reading The Note - which has snippet from the Nightly News profile of Dem hopeful, Howard Dean (are there any confusibles out there?), including this:
JENNINGS: When Dean returned to the US and Yale University he asked to room with two African Americans.

DEAN: When you go to college you might [sic - I think he means meet: what kind of accent is that, I wonder] all kinds of different people. And I wanted to make sure I didn't meet-I didn't stay with people I had been with all my life. I just wanted to meet different kinds of people who had a very different perspective. It turned out it was probably the most valuable year I spent in college.

Now, this bio of Dean says he graduated from Yale in 1971 - so presumably his freshman year started in 1967. Which, surely, was not a time at which the average white Yale freshman would indicate a preference for rooming with Negroes (as they then still were) [1].

So it's odd - raises a question-mark over motives.

The story is - I surmise from a cursory search - part of his standard patter. As in a Boston Globe piece of January 2. Which continues the story:
Another seminal moment was during his freshman winter. One of his roommates became a leader in the black student alliance, which resulted in frequent, large gatherings of African-American men in his dorm room. At one of these gatherings, Dean said, "I suddenly realized I was the only white person in the room, and literally the hair went up in the back of my neck. 'Cause I thought, what if it was always like this? What if everywhere in your world you were the only white person and everyone else was black? For one instant I had some tiny inkling what it was like to be black in America."

Now, I believe there were guys, from political families, who tailored themselves a Vietnam record without actually placing themselves in more danger than the average Peace Corps volunteer, with the particular aim of preening their future electoral image.

Is that what this was about? In which case - why Vermont? No doubt the world and his wife knows the answers to these questions. But they have me puzzled, for the moment. (Not puzzled enough for further research at this juncture, however...)

  1. One could check the rest of the paperwork for his class. In the million to one chance that it survives. There might be contemporary surveys of student attitudes to dorm accommodation. Had there previously been an informal segregation rule? I'm almost interested in the topic now!


Another graf from that Globe piece:
Dean said his own education about unconscious racism began at Yale, where he graduated in 1971. He was trying to get a child from the inner city of New Haven that he was tutoring to talk "proper" English. One of his African-American roommates told him, "Why don't you leave him alone?" He said he had the "traditional white liberal idea that if black people were like us then we'd all be fine. Sort of like the Republican idea. If we all played golf at the same country club, then there wouldn't be any racial problems."

A crying need for 5Ws on this tutoring session: who was this unnamed child? How old? Where was it happening (sounds as if it was that multi-culti dorm room!)? And what, precisely, was Dean trying to teach him - Dean can't even bestow a name on the catalyst for this life-changing experience!

Now, I have a fairly good idea that, back in the late Sixties, the prospects for well-educated Negroes of employment fitting their qualifications were not extensive; and would have been much less so for well-educated Negroes who spoke Ebonics [1], rather than something approaching standard American English. If Dean was helping the Nameless One to a grasp of standard English, he was doing said child a favour.

And - what did his roomie mean when he said
Why don't you leave him alone?
Perhaps he was joking. Perhaps he thought the kid wasn't worth it. Or that Dean was a lousy teacher.

Yet Dean chooses, it seems, to assume the guy meant that he was surgically removing some part of the kid's heritage, in some neo-Columbian cultural outrage (at which revelation Dean sees in a flash of lightning the error of his quasi-colonialist ways, and vows to repent).

And not wonder whether the roomie hadn't himself either been born into a family which spoke standard English at the family dinner-table (remember those?), or else had had the benefit of tutoring similar to that that Dean was providing to the kid.

Now, that graf is annoying the hell out of me! It's full of possibilities - like Pygmalion meets Good Will Hunting... And what happened to the kid? Is he doing 25-to-life in the pen because some brother stepped in and stopped his upward mobility? Or perhaps he found a good tutor, and he's at Yale right now, teaching classes.

And all Dean chooses to draw from this complex little interaction is some facile Cosby Show moral. From a position of blank indifference, I'm starting to dislike the guy.

  1. A pretty small group, I suspect: at that time, education would more or less have entailed standard English, I should have thought.

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