The teacher has learned a lesson or, in the case of Prof. Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz, four lessons.
He listed them in detail in his latest communication with the college community following unrest over his remarks, remarks he admits were racist in nature, concerning the rap album made several years ago by the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 19th District, Antonio Delgado.
His first lesson is clear, the foundation for the other three: “For me, and for other white people who think they are not racist or in other ways biased, unguarded moments may reveal deeply entrenched premises or predispositions that result in the unintended invidious categorization of others.”
His second is puzzling: “Confront and condemn racism in politics. … Direct or indirect, racist arguments in any campaign anywhere exacerbate conflict and division, making civil discourse harder, even impossible. They are never acceptable.”
Apply that today in the 19th District and Gerald Benjamin has to directly condemn his friend John Faso, a man whom he supported in the last election serving as one of those prominently featured in endorsements.
Instead, Benjamin has been trying to explain himself to his college, has apologized to Delgado and asked to meet with him. As Benjamin said, Delgado “graciously accepted and agreed” to meet after the election.
While those two have moved on, however, Faso is still where this started, still putting out statements about how “offensive, troubling and inconsistent with the views of the people” in the district are Delgado’s views. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee supporting Faso, is still ranting that Delgado’s “out-of-touch liberal views are too extreme for New York's 19th Congressional District and his own words prove it.”
Faso has criticized Delgado, who grew up in Schenectady, for leaving the district for his education and work and then moving back before he decided to run for the House seat. He never fails to remind voters what an outsider Delgado is.
Given all that, anyone who bothers to check the map of the district might be surprised to see that it surrounds Schenectady on three sides, isolated by only a few miles.
Faso and the PAC that supports him are engaging in the familiar practice of dog-whistle politics, saying one thing — outsider, extreme, not one of us — to get across a more sinister message. Donald Trump long ago abandoned the dog whistle for a bullhorn but the more subtle message is still more effective in a swing district.
So while Benjamin is hoping that he has now explained himself and can greet the imminent arrival of students for the new semester with confidence, he has yet to tell them, his fellow faculty members or the community that has honored him regularly whether he has learned the crucial fifth lesson.
If he now understands, as he says he does, the need to act to confront “the pervasiveness of racism,” if he truly believes that “We need a politics that builds community, rather than persisting in a politics that fosters hate and division,” then he needs to directly and unambiguously oppose the candidate he once supported in word and deed.