Faced with a race-baiting cheater, a history professor backed down — and wrote about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The professor scrambles the order of questions on quizzes so it’s obvious when students copy from a neighbor.
Here’s how we know they cheated: Seat J8, for example, correctly answered the second question — “What President initiated the Bank War in 1832?” — with the response “Andrew Jackson.” The feckless chump in J7, however, answered his second question — “What Indian nation was displaced during the Trail of Tears?” — with, you got it, “Andrew Jackson.”
Faced with the evidence, seven of eight cheaters confessed to copying. The eighth was a black student.
But here was Mr. J7, heels dug into my floor, arms crossed tightly, studiously avoiding eye contact, and disarmingly armed for what he must have known was coming. I took a deep breath and began my well-rehearsed question, but before two words left my mouth he aggressively interrupted, “Here we go again. It’s the same thing everywhere I go. I know what you’re going to say, so don’t even bother. It’s so predictable.”
The student yelled wildly at the professor till he saw the quizzes.
His tone changed dramatically as he explained, quite calmly now, how he hadn’t studied for the quiz. He just guessed, at random, without even reading the questions and, well, I talked about Andrew Jackson in lectures all the time so, well, it seemed like as decent a random guess as any other. Soon he was smiling. Sure, it was quite an amazing coincidence but, as he so eloquently put it, “Shit happens, sir.” And then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any more confusing, he went for the jugular.
“As far as I see it,” he concluded, “you owe me a huge apology.”
Mr. J7 is black. In addition to being green, I’m also white. I know that he cheated. He knew that he cheated. But, after his performance — a brilliant but subtle flash of the race card conveyed through body language and facial expressions more than words — the once-crystal-clear context that had me in charge evaporated into the stale air of my office. We both knew he’d won this game. I ripped up the quizzes and tossed them into the trash. He left my office without a word. I felt horrible.
After telling my department chairman about the incident, I asked myself a series of difficult questions: Did I think J7 was going to hit me because he’s a big, black guy?
Well, did you?
Should a black kid have any reason to tell the truth to a white figure of authority?
Am I gutless?
Should I have been truly race-blind and treated J7 as I would have treated a wealthy white frat boy?
On some level, do all white people owe all black people an apology?
Did this kid just play me like a fiddle?
“Pathetic,” writes John Rosenberg of Discriminations. Yes.