Local Racism, Global Politics, and a National Audience

0 Flares Filament.io 0 Flares ×

and contentious discussion about race, education, war,
and the responsibility of globally-minded activists toward
injustices in their own backyard. Imagine if among the
participants were local citizens, and not only academic
workers or students. Now imagine such an event broadcast
on national television, during prime time, for ninety
minutes. This all happened, forty years ago.
On February 18, 1968, a short-lived experimental television
program called the Public Broadcasting Laboratory
came to Urbana-Champaign. The producers chose the
South Lounge of the Illini Union to host a nationally
broadcasted discussion about “campus unrest.” The event
came on the heels of a controversial campus recruiting
tour by the Dow Corporation, producers of Napalm. At
the University of Wisconsin, protests against Dow led to
bloodshed. At Illinois, a peaceful student sit-in blocked
access for job-seeking students, sparking controversy and
eventually several disciplinary suspensions.
Perhaps it was Illinois’ comparatively peaceful record of
protest that led PBL to choose this campus as a site to
assemble a panel of experts from around the nation. Gathered
in the South Lounge that night were the presidents of
Antioch College and San Francisco State University, student
leaders from Berkeley and Tougaloo State, some Illinois
administrators, at least 70 students from campus and
a scattering of Illinois faculty.
Significantly, also in attendance was community activist
John Lee Johnson. Thanks to him, the event didn’t go quite
as planned. As a result the nation witnessed an audience
wrestle with some very tough questions. The young Johnson,
just 27 at the time, waited about ten minutes through
initial discussions about Vietnam, student activism, and
education, then shouted his first question, “What about all
the psychological napalm whites drop on blacks every day?”
The show’s transcript then reveals a lively and confusing
attempt to deal with the University’s dependence on
a race divide in order to function as a space, and as an
economy. Project 500, the school’s first attempt at integration,
wouldn’t happen for several months, yet one
was likely to only find faces of color in service positions
across the campus.
For even the most active anti-war protesters on campus,
involvement in a climate of racism, even dependence
on racism, was unavoidable — if invisible, until Johnson
turned on the light. Without Johnson’s intervention, the
evening’s conversation might have stuck to traditional
arguments about the effectiveness of certain protest tactics,
or about whether the rights of potential Dow employees
were violated by the sit-in. Such arguments quickly
resolve into clear sides for debate, positions easily identified,
credited, discredited. Universities and television networks
easily incorporate such conversations into programming.
Each side simply gets their ten minutes, and then
the topic is considered covered.
But the conversation that night in the Union reads
instead as refreshingly confused. Positions slide and
morph, people argue and miss each other, emotions ran
high. After an hour or more, even Johnson and the small
group of black students rose and left, Johnson parting with
the explanation, “We can’t make any sense of this.”
National television viewers witnessed the complexity of
a community grappling to understand its own racism, not
as a taint to be identified and removed through corrected
speech, not as a guilt to be absolved, but as an inextricable
part of everyday reality: something to be worked against
on multiple levels, alone and in groups, informally and
formally, as teachers and students and administrators.
Racism so deep that it takes time to even see, and longer
than a lifetime to change.
Rare as such an event is even off-camera, for it to happen
in front of cameras is still unheard of. Since I wasn’t even
born in 1968, let alone present for the changes taking place
in this city, I can hardly speculate as to the broad impact of
that evening’s conversation. I find it instructive, however, to
look at the subsequent paths of those in attendance.
John Lee Johnson, hopefully known already to this
paper’s readers, went on to a lifetime of service to Champaign-
Urbana. As Champaign’s first black Councilman, he
fought for better public housing and more equitable elementary
education. He worked through government,
media, churches, whatever platform he needed. Johnson
seemed to never stop working to improve the lives of people
of color in Champaign-Urbana in palpable ways. That night
in the Union probably registered barely a blip for Johnson
over a lifetime of encounters with sympathetic allies in the
University who were oblivious to their own racism.
One of the few professors in attendance that night was a
relatively new researcher: an Austrian named Heinz von
Foerster. After Johnson made his exit, von Foerster found the
microphone and analyzed the evening’s fraught conversation
in terms of his own area of expertise — cognition, consciousness,
and information. Von Foerster was a leader in the new
field of Cybernetics, a way of looking at the world in terms of
systems, information flow, and feedback loops. For von Foerster,
the failure to see or understand racism would almost certainly
be understood as a problem in information flow. Heinz
kept extensive notes on that evening’s discussion. He saved
every newspaper article on it he could find, and sent copies to
the leaders involved. He corresponded with the show’s producers,
thanking them for the event.
Later that spring, Heinz began to plan the first of many
experimental courses in “Heuristics,” or the science of
identifying and solving problems. These free form and
largely student-run classes grew to be a popular and controversial
staple of campus counterculture. As shelters for
debate and discussion of the most pressing political concerns,
von Foerster’s courses remained admittedly safe
within the walls of academic speculation. But they catalyzed
the campus through the publication of hand-made
zines and catalogs, the organization of disinformation
campaigns within official campus administrative routines,
and sponsorship of radicalized visiting speakers.
Though there’s no record of such curricular experimentation
for Heinz before that spring, we can’t say for certain that
Johnson’s intervention directly sparked such a path. But
when disparate worlds touch as they did that night on Public
Broadcasting Laboratory, opposite Bonanza on channel 15
and Smothers Brothers on channel 3, we would do well to
examine how different forms of political action reflect not
only differing ways of looking at a problem, but distinct
positions of privilege, different audiences, opportunities, and
access points. When does one act from where one IS, and
when does one strive to act from somewhere else, from
another person’s location and information? Which tasks
demand which actions from which persons within a particular
knot of institutionalized racism and inequality?
I have a proposition, a project in mind. New York’s
WNET still holds a recording of that night’s conversation
in the Union, locked away under expired broadcasting
rights. What if we found a way to rebroadcast that program,
forty years later, then held a broadcast conversation
in response? How different would the world today look
from that evening’s picture? If you’re interested, let me
know—maybe you were even there? Let’s get complicated
again, confront the messy facts of our complicities in racist
spaces. Let’s find a conversation that’s hard for any newspaper
to sum up.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.