Some Thoughts on the Firing of James R. Riley at University of Alabama

Posted on September 22, 2019

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An announcement made on Sept. 5 was terse and expressed the opinion that the case was closed: “Dr. James Riley has resigned his position at the University of Alabama by mutual agreement,” Chris Bryant, a spokesman for the University, wrote in an email, adding “Neither party will have any further comments.”

Case closed. I thought about it a bit, especially as an old University faculty member and an observer in this column of the changing political, social, and economic culture in our country.

In a few tweets back in 2017 Riley had expressed some of the following thoughts:

“The [American] flag represents a systemic history of racism for my people,” Riley wrote in the tweet. “Police are a part of that system. Is it that hard to see the correlation?” And in a separate tweet, Riley said white people have “0 opinion” on racism because white people cannot experience racism.”

“I’m baffled,” he wrote “about how the first thing white people say is, ‘That’s not racist!’ when they can’t even experience racism,” Riley wrote in the tweet. “You have 0 opinion!”

Aside from some simple-minded reasoning—he’s entitled to that in a country that protects freedom of expression—I think he crossed the line of what’s acceptable and what’s not when he drew the American flag into his monologue.

In fact, thousands, tens of thousands, American men and women have given their lives in wars for over 200 years to protect what that flag represents: our liberty and our nation. If Dr. Riley wished to denigrate a flag, he could have nailed the flag of the Confederacy which defended slavery. He might have raised a few hackles, but if we are going to tear down statues of Robert E. Lee and feel good about it, the flag of old Dixie is an easy target. But not the American flag.

I am one of the millions who have served in the military and I am proud of our flag. Hundreds of African Americans were killed in World War II serving under the flag. It is not a sacred icon to the country, but it is a symbol of our heritage, both real and what we aspire to.

That racism, even though according to Dr. Riley, as a white I have 0 opinion in the matter, has run like an ugly thread through our history is true. That it is diminishing is also true. That people will distinguish between themselves—as they have for millennia– is just plain human nature. What we work to do is eliminate formal and legal separation and segregation and we’ve come a long way.

Why was Dr. Riley so candid? He has a lot of degrees and a very successful record at other universities. I think—without knowing him—that he began to breathe his own fumes as the old adage goes.

And I suspect someone up the line, someone more important in the University of Alabama system than even the President of UA, Stuart Bell, got wind of the Riley tweets and said: enough. This guy has gotta go.

I also suspect that whoever pulled the trigger, and persuaded others to join him, was either a veteran or part of a veteran family. I have not queried nor investigated the matter. The Faculty Senate is now calling for an investigation. The Black Faculty and Staff Association and other groups are now lobbying the President to come forth with an explanation.

The issues are not simply racism, but fairness, diversity, sensitivity and the whole range of political issues that really have little to do with true education. They are, however, lifted up as what a whole higher education is about.

I usually respond with my Nick Saban story. Did he build the football juggernaut at Alabama by going after student athletes for some other reason than ability and desire to be the best? Was he interested in making sure their feelings as African Americans or Hawaiians were tended to and nurtured and not hurt or damaged? Are there safe places for football players who may feel picked upon and criticized unfairly by the coaches?

C’mon now. You can follow the thread easily. Why should the University be any different? It should be devoted, let me emphasize that word, devoted to excellence across the board, driven by the goal of teaching our students what they need to know to function in a complex world.

If one wants to stress diversity and race rather than excellence, so be it. But if you want to drive down one of our greatest symbols—our flag–of not only excellence and goodness, but also of our freedom and liberty, then go someplace else.

Published as “Our flag is a symbol of freedom, not racism” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Sept. 22 2019