Professor Nicholas Valentino is a professor in Political Science as well as Communications, here at U of M. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California – Los Angeles in political science. His research focuses on political campaigns, racial attitudes, emotions, and social group cues in news and political advertising. He is currently teaching Political Science 329 – the Mass Media and Political Behavior. In lecture on October 3rd, Professor Valentino explained his role in creating the response entitled, “Putting the Racist Flyers at UM in Context” to the racially offensive fliers that appeared in campus buildings two weeks ago. After this response was put online, any signers of it received death threats form a hacker that took down the response. This led to 500 faculty to stand in silent protest in the Diag at noon on October 4th. My profile of Professor Valentino delves into the purpose of the response to these fliers as well as why this issue is so important to him, and how it sheds light on much larger issues that not only students at U of M are faced with.
Her Campus: What is your favorite aspect of our campus culture since you’ve been a professor here?
Nicholas Valentino: Well, I’d have to say it’s the diversity of intellectual, musical, and cultural outlets that we have here on campus. There are so many student groups that are so creative and engaged. Being around young creative minds is what’s so wonderful about my job. It’s the best job I could ever imagine having because each year, I get introduced to new, young people full of creative energy. Both creative in a scholarly way, as in they can identify new questions and new problems that they can ask, and I can learn from, but, also, in an expressive way. Like the accapella culture here is fantastic, and the jazz culture here is fantastic. I’m just really impressed with it all.
HC: Recently, several individuals posted racially offensive fliers about “Why White Women Shouldn’t Date Black Men.” With the current issues in regards to racially biased police use of force, do you think this was an attempt to make our campus culture more racially charged? Why or why not?
NV: I don’t know if it was an attempt to make [our campus culture] more racially charged. I do think that it reflects the issues we are debating nationally around criminal justice and police use of force and the role of race in those issues. I think recently the tone of the debate has emboldened groups that are quite violent and hostile in their rhetoric as well as in their intentions. The emboldening of these groups, I think has led to this kind of expression on campus, which I haven’t seen before in 20 years. I think [the fliers] intent is to intimidate and scare people. [Their] intent is to intimidate and scare black men and women, to intimidate and scare white people who would otherwise be in relationships and friendships and all sorts of other types of interactions with African Americans, but might be afraid to do that if they are being physically threatened.
HC: One could argue that if an incident like this occurred at another university or college some professors would address it once and then not address it again because they fear addressing it again will exacerbate the issue. Many people would say this is no longer an effective response to incidents involving racist rhetoric or actions especially with the social culture surrounding racial issues in the United States at the moment. What are your thoughts on this?
NV: That’s an interesting debate to have, and I think as social scientists maybe we are in a unique position to actually research this, and maybe get some sense about whether or not it makes it worse to talk about these kinds of statements of hostile racism. Whether that encourages those groups because they can get attention. Where as if they had been ignored, they would just go away. There is actually disagreement among the faculty about what the best thing to do is in reaction to these kinds of fliers and hostile statements. I think reasonable people disagree. I think it’s because what we all really want is a safe campus where everybody is appreciated and differences of race and gender and sexual orientation and a whole bunch of other differences are valued and cherished and are not used as weapons against each other. That’s everyone’s goal. Is the right way to reach that goal by ignoring these kinds of threats, or is it to engage and say no we disagree, and we are going to stand together against them? That question, I think is a really important one. My position is that we can’t stay silent about this. I don’t know if it makes things worse or not because the evidence isn’t clear about whether it makes these groups engage in this more often or not. I do know that on the other side of the argument, there’s something really important, which is in regard to people who are being targeted by these messages and whether they may feel isolated. Whether or not they know that faculty and other students are with them. So, even if I did know, whether speaking out against this rhetoric encourages it, I would still think it was worth it because I don’t care how these groups feel about this, and I don’t care if this encourages them. I want the students here to know that we care about them, and we know what they’re going through, and we want to support them, and, if anything happens to them, it’s happening to us too. I think that’s really something that gets forgotten regardless of whether its causing this kind of racial rhetoric to continue or not. We still have a responsibility to each other, to check in with each other, to show each other that we care.
HC: On Monday, in class, you mentioned that the faculty wrote and distributed a response to the fliers. Can you go into greater detail about what the members of the faculty wrote, and what they hoped to accomplish by writing this?
NV: The goal of the response entitled “Putting Racist Fliers at U-M in Context” is to create a scholarly response to these claims about racial differences by saying people who study this topic agree, there is no substance behind these claims, and we, as a faculty, contest these claims, and we would support this at greater length with anybody who cared to debate us in a legitimate forum. The second thing we were doing with those statements was trying to convey that we stand with students who are being targeted by hostile and violent rhetoric, and show that they are a part of this campus, and they belong here, and anything that happens to them, happens to all of us. It really was to spread ideas rather than hate, and to stand together as a community by saying we support you guys and nothing that happens to you is going to be ignored by us.
HC: How do you believe that we, as individual students, faculty, academics, etc., can go out onto campus and into the community at large and inspire change that might ameliorate some of the greater social issues our country is currently faced with?
NV: That’s a great question. My answer is to look back to history and see what happened in our country and in other countries when they were faced with these problems in the past, and the way that folks in previous generations dealt with exactly these same kind of crises. In fact, maybe even much more serious crises that occurred, particularly in the civil rights period. I think what you will find is they worked, for the most part, through the electoral system to challenge peacefully with peaceful protests and political organizing policy issues. This led to a real shift in who had power in this country, and that change in who had power and influence in this country allowed for laws to be changed. The institutional biases, that we see, can be changed. We can change institutions of government, we can change institutions that are biased against groups like for example policing policies. We can change policing policies. Instead of spending money arming policemen to the teeth, to the point where they look like they are shock troops going into war, we can spend more money on training and making sure they do community policing and have more resources for that. We can spend more money, so the communities being served by these police officers feel safe when they around police, and they can talk to the police about problems that they are having rather than feel afraid. Right now, I think there’s a lot of distrust with the police, which leaves law abiding citizens in limbo. I think this is just not a tenable situation for us as Americans. We need to have faith in our institutions, faith in the political system, and we need to rebuild that one brick at a time. We can’t just imagine that its going to get better by electing a single president or a single mayor or any other individual to office. I think we have to get active as citizens and say we want real change in policy. We want change in policing policy, so that police officers don’t have such huge racial biases when they come upon a scene. They shouldn’t be so quick to shoot any individual. They should spend more time evaluating the situation as safely as they can before they open fire. There’s a lot more questions than answers in all of this, and I don’t know all of the answers. I just know as a scholar of race and politics in America, I am very disconcerted about the changes in the way we’re talking about these issues. I think they are more conflictual and hostile rather than being constructive and supportive of each other as Americans. I want to see change in the way campaigns are being conducted and run, and I would like to see a change in the way we talk to each other, and see an improvement in our civil discourse.
Images courtesy of University of Michigan LSA Political Science and Melanie Taetle.