Late this January, the Lehigh University College of Business published a short video about poverty. In the video, professor of economics Frank Gunter sets out to debunk three myths about poverty: that it is mainly a matter of race, that it is a generational curse, and that the poor have no power to change their circumstances. Gunter claimed, instead, that poor people, whatever the causes of their poverty may be, can escape poverty. The poor are not “victims of large impersonal forces.”
Naturally, people were outraged.
As the editorial board of Lehigh University’s student newspaper put it, Gunter’s claims “are not only false and damaging but are also blatantly racist.”
Some members of Lehigh’s Faculty Senate came close to agreeing. Gunter’s argument “dismisses racial inequities as a component of poverty and ignores institutional forces keeping people in poverty.” For that reason, it tends to propagate “ideas rooted in structurally racist ways of thinking.” But that’s specious.
Gunter’s approximately seven-minute talk, which was based on an op-ed, doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive theory of poverty. Instead, Gunter assumes the existence of opponents—whether they are straw men or not doesn’t matter for our purposes—who so emphasize the power of “institutional forces” that they leave poor people with nothing to do other than despair or organize for a revolution unlikely to occur in their lifetimes. Gunter thinks that’s harmful.
He assumes, too, the existence of opponents who emphasize that poverty disproportionately affects black, Latino, and Native American people to such an extent that they neglect poverty as a transracial problem. It is hard to imagine Gunter’s critics think he denies that discrimination matters. He does not. Nor can any good-faith critic of the professor’s claims affirm that Gunter believes children born into poverty have as easy a time succeeding as children who aren’t. Gunter did not argue that either. He differs, rightly or wrongly (and mainly as a matter of emphasis), on how policymakers should think and talk about poverty.
While some have demanded that Lehigh “retract [Gunter’s] statements, educate about why they were wrong, and commit to anti-racism,” others thought they ought to be addressed through counterspeech. As one faculty member puts it in a blog post, “both Prof. Gunter’s comments and my reactions to them should probably be seen as the beginning of a conversation, not the definitive endpoint.” He encourages “both students and faculty at Lehigh to continue to have [such a conversation] with one another–respectfully.”
Lehigh’s College of Business is being given some credit for facilitating just such a conversation. InsideHigherEd calls its story on the incident “Opening the Floor.” The story’s author, Colleen Flaherty, outlines Lehigh’s thinking. The topic of poverty deserves more than one, admittedly polemical, video. It needs “a more thorough analysis.” So, “after temporarily removing the video for review, Lehigh reposted it alongside additional context from other scholars.” Perhaps this might offer a “potential framework to other institutions” of how to “make room for and model academic critique” when an argument is deemed offensive.
Not exactly, as Flaherty’s story amply illustrates. Lehigh didn’t take down the video to make room for academic critique. They took it down because they agreed, or thought they had better seem to agree, with those who alleged that allowing it to stand unrefuted would be an act of racism. We know that because Lehigh puts the view of Gunter’s harshest critics in their own mouths when they repost Gunter’s video along with a response from Lehigh’s Department of Sociology. “We listened to feedback from the community, including criticism regarding the selective use and manipulation of the available data which framed the findings with racist context,” the department insisted. “It was clear” that “we needed to do more.”
That “criticism regarding” is doing a lot of work. Come listen, Lehigh says, to this video, which we removed because of “criticism regarding” its misuse of data and implicit racism, and this other video, which, had we not put it up here, would have left Gunter’s malpractice and unexamined prejudice unchallenged.
In fact, the sociology department has some worthwhile arguments to make that fill in some of the gaps in Gunter’s brief and polemical argument. Viewing the two videos together could be the beginning of worthwhile reflections on poverty and antipoverty policy. But the powers-that-be at the Lehigh College of Business don’t trust students or their external audience to undertake such a reflection. Whether out of fear of a public relations debacle or out of conviction, they had to offer up Frank Gunter, an award-winning scholar who has been at Lehigh since 1984, as a pro-wrestling villain to be pinned by Lehigh’s noble sociologists.
That’s not opening the floor or making room for academic critique. It’s a mockery of both.