Character and Accountability

The Seattle Times Op-Ed authored by Wendy Barrington in the April 12 print edition is a pitch perfect exposition of what some might call Woke, i.e. a focus on systemic injustices and current racial disparities. I appreciate her clarity.

Barrington lays out for us the question of accountability, an important issue to discuss. How should we hold people accountable for their actions when others claim to have been harmed? Addressing this question is a basic function of society; how we answer it lays the foundation for the type of society we create. 

As America progressed from a narrow view of who our leaders could be to a much more inclusive view over time, we generally did not assess damages for past actions. Rather, we just moved on, hoping new generations would flourish in the way that newly appointed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson has done. We are left, however, with disparate views of accountability for past action. 

People such as Ms Barrington posit that if we are truly anti-racist, we must assess steep penalties for past actions. She cites the cases of 1) a Ballard High School principal and 2) a UW faculty member and Fred Hutch HIV researcher who lost positions of authority (in 2021 and 2022) to make room for new, anti-racist leadership. The principal had the support of many people who attested to his character and positive impact on the school. The researcher also had the support of many who attested to her good character and leadership skills. But Barrington argues that the need for accountability trumps character in situations such as these.

The researcher’s error was wearing blackface to a Michael Jackson themed party in 2009. The principal’s error was transferring a student to a similar class while the details of his complaint against a teacher were being investigated (in 2020). The transfer was interpreted as retaliation for making the complaint. In both cases, the character of the individuals was considered irrelevant to the need to hold them accountable.

The consequence of losing positions of authority, and sometimes losing employment entirely, is often referred to as cancel culture. Whether or not you like the term, it seems important for us, as a society, to consider what consequences are appropriate for actions that are deemed by some to be racist. For example, we used to be able to utter the N* word when reading aloud Huck Finn, or when retelling a childhood event, but we knew we couldn’t use it in a derogatory way against a person in real time. Now, many just say “the N* word” instead. Blackface at a party was once accepted if one was in costume as a black person because? Because: costume, for heaven’s sake! Must a researcher of good character today lose positions of authority for wearing blackface in 2009? I’m one who thinks not.

The story of the high school principal has many elements that make it difficult for an outsider to know and judge what happened over a period of time. Was transferring the student a racist act of retaliation for raising a concern about a lesson? What did the student expect to happen in the near term? Did he expect the teacher to immediately be removed from the classroom? I’ve no idea, but I would hope the principal would not rush to judgement on the basis of one complaint without taking time to sort out the incident. It seems possible to me that transferring the student was a way to separate a student from a teacher the student considered racist with minimal disruption to his education. 

I thank Ms Barrington for laying out this conundrum of accountability so clearly. But, there’s a lot to discuss here; this is not “case closed.”

Why shouldn’t the character of a person today count when considering how to hold them accountable for an action that took place 13 years ago? The Fred Hutch/UW researcher and teacher is a scientist working on an important project (an HIV vaccine) that impacts people of all colors around the world. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that she earned her position.

I’m going even further. I’m assuming that going to a party as a certain character might legitimately involve dark makeup, or light makeup, or clown makeup, unless we just never allow a person to depict a character unlike themselves, and then what fun would a costume party be? (I once went to a party dressed as my husband. I was so clever that few could figure out who I really was. Is cross-sex dressing also verboten?) 

And, then: a qualified scientist/teacher wears dark makeup to fool people into thinking she’s Michael Jackson. Thirteen years later, she is required to give up leadership positions. To make room for a new leader who agrees to be more anti-racist. Presumably this person has always acted in a manner consist with today’s mores. Honestly, this doesn’t make any sense to me. Yes, people wore blackface to costume parties in the past. It was a thing people did. I suspect some of that was in bad taste, but perhaps not all of it. Theater, after all. 

George Washington owned slaves. It was a thing people did. No, people should not own slaves today. Blackface and owning slaves are not equivalent. But the question of a consequence for an action that was part of the culture at the time is still a valid question. This merits discussion; this is not “case closed.”

The principal’s case is more challenging because there were more moving parts. Teacher presents lesson; student takes offense; student reports teacher to principal; principal decides to place student in a different, but comparable, class; student claims transfer is retaliation; the district begins an investigation; investigation concludes that the teacher and principal fostered a hostile school environment, though most of the students interviewed did not regard the teacher or the assignment as racist; (but one student thought the teacher’s comment that “Malcolm X was articulate” was racist).

Yuk. I’m so glad I’m retired. Back to Wendy Barrington’s assertion that we need more anti-racist leaders: “To truly be anti-racist, we need to stop using character as a substitute for accountability.” Also: “The racial identity of these leaders is salient because of how whiteness works…” Also: “So, what needs to happen to foster disruption, reconciliation and repair?”

Do you believe that these demotions will foster disruption, reconciliation, and repair? Disruption for sure. Reconciliation? How would that happen? Are the people from the 2009 Michael Jackson themed party feeling better now that Dr. Julie Overbaugh has been called on the carpet? Is Ballard High School better off without Principal Wynkoop? I’m betting any white people left standing are now hyper vigilant. 

I assert that context is relevant when determining whether or not an act is bad. It is my opinion that a person’s character is relevant when considering consequences for a bad act. Furthermore, I have no confidence that replacing decent people with people more acceptable to “anti-racist judges” will repair our country. 

I do, however, believe in your right to disagree.

Resources:

Seattle Times: To be anti-racist, don’t confuse character for accountability

UW Statement re: Dr. Julie Overbaugh

Seattle Times re: Wendy Olsen and Keven Wynkoop

Eric’s Heroes re: Keven Wynkoop

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