A supporter of UGA doctoral student Irami Osei-Frimpong says: “...lots of white people are grossly misinterpreting Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s comments and even the definition of ‘racism’ in general.’
Photo: UGA
Photo: UGA

Opinion: UGA teaching assistant shouldn’t pay for pointing out racism

 An African-American teaching assistant at the University of Georgia continues to face a backlash for his social media posts about "fighting" white people. 

Among the statements by philosophy doctoral student Irami Osei-Frimpong that led some UGA graduates to threaten to withhold donations: "...some white people may have to die for black communities to be made whole in this struggle to advance to freedom."  

Osei-Frimpong has a website called "The Funky Academic" in which he's been blogging about philosophy, white supremacy and race relations since 2015. Now, his blog and comments have caught the attention of UGA. 

As the AJC reported:

UGA said in a statement it "has been vigorously exploring all available legal options. Racism has no place on our campus, and we condemn the advocacy or suggestion of violence in any form. We are seeking guidance from the Office of the Attorney General as to what actions we can legally consider in accordance with the First Amendment."

But the 40-year-old also has his defenders, including Brent Andrews, a 1996 UGA graduate who has taught in the Clarke County School District since 2001. 

Active in the community, Andrews serves as education initiative director for Athens For Everyone, an organization seeking to advance social and economic justice in Athens. Andrews has four children in Clarke County schools and says he “tries to be a good ally."

As do other supporters of Osei-Frimpong, Andrews says the doctoral student’s comments have to read and understood in context. 

By Brent Andrews

Just how much is the University of Georgia willing to sacrifice to appease wealthy donors? Academic freedom? Integrity? Their supposed commitment to diversity and equality? 

Georgia will discover the answer soon as UGA seems to be pursuing grounds for firing doctoral student and teaching assistant Irami Osei-Frimpong for “racially charged” comments made on his show “The Funky Academic” and various social media. 

I’m struggling with where to begin with this issue. How about the fact that the comments were made on Osei-Frimpong’s own show, which has no connection to UGA or that none of the comments in question were made in his role as teaching assistant? Or that professors are entitled to academic freedom and protected free speech?

Or that Andrew Lawrence, who wrote the letter imploring donors to withhold funding unless UGA fires Osei-Frimpong, is a correspondent for Campus Reform, a political action group focused on getting professors with liberal viewpoints fired? Or that UGA had no intention of firing Osei-Frimpong until donors began responding to Lawrence’s letter? 

Or that lots of white people are grossly misinterpreting Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s comments and even the definition of “racism” in general? 

Let’s start with academic freedom. Technically, Osei-Frimpong is not a professor but a teaching assistant so maybe UGA can fire him at the demands of wealthy donors. That doesn’t make it right, UGA. Does integrity still matter to UGA as an institution? Has integrity ever mattered to UGA? 

Universities should be places where young adults are confronted with worldviews different from their own in order to grow their capacities for complexity of thought. But the truth is that politicized money flows into every institution in America. Just take a stroll through UGA’s campus and look at the names on the buildings. 

At least two buildings are named for Richard B. Russell, a staunch segregationist and white supremacist who co-authored the Southern Manifesto with Strom Thurmond and who participated in the filibuster to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Since Russell clung tightly to his ideology of white supremacy until his death in 1971, it’s ironic that his name appears on the building for Political Research and Studies.

Another UGA building is named for Mildred Rutherford, a prominent defender of “Southern traditions,” the “Lost Cause” and even American slavery through public speaking, efforts to fund and erect monuments to Confederate figures across the nation and attempts to rewrite history textbooks to show the Confederacy in a neutral or even positive light. Money from white people with racist ideologies has succeeded in spawning countless monuments portraying Confederate generals as heroic and principled tragic figures. 

Wealthy racists have also largely succeeded in whitewashing history textbooks to reflect stances of the “Lost Cause” such as the myth that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights.” We all know what “right” the Confederacy fought for. Yet, it is astounding to see numerous elected U.S. officials, including our current president, defend and praise Confederate monuments and generals and even justify flying the Confederate battle flag as a patriotic homage to history. I can’t even...which leads me to my next question. 

Do white people even understand what the word “racism” means? According to Merriam Webster dictionary, racism means “1) a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2a): a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles; 2b): a political or social system founded on racism.” 

Although Irami constantly speaks of the need to dismantle institutions and policies that propagate racism and criticizes those who support such policies, nothing he says fits the definition of “racism.” Does he make provocative statements about race? Sure, but there are centuries worth of history to justify statements about “crappy white people.” 

Pointing out racism in its myriad forms in American society does not make one a “racist.” Malcolm X is also often referred to as a “racist” by sensitive white people. Once again, condemning institutional racism and government-sanctioned economic oppression while vowing to fight the evils of racist policies “by any means necessary” does not make one a “racist.” 

For those who seize upon Irami’s comment that “some white people may have to die for black communities to be made whole in this struggle to advance to freedom,” I point to our nation’s leaders’ unequivocal denunciation of the murder of Heather Heyer, a white woman who died in 2017 protesting against racism in Charlottesville, Yet, those same leaders maintain silence each time an unarmed young black man, sometimes a child, is killed unjustly by police officers. There is a long history in America of white people being indifferent to the deaths or struggles of black people. 

In response to a previous article about Irami Osei-Frimpong, a commenter asked, “Are white people responsible for black communities and their dysfunctional behaviors?” 

The answer is yes. 100 percent. Through centuries of racial terrorism, white people have ensured that black communities are dysfunctional by enslaving, murdering, lynching and silencing their members. Our country has continued this reign of terror through economic policies and mass incarceration. 

The Federal Housing Administration originally intended to protect home values for white homeowners by redlining communities of color, preventing black people from moving out of their devalued properties, and encouraging racial covenants in neighborhoods. Black people were largely excluded from the New Deal measures that built the white middle class. Often, black Americans had no protection if white people attacked them or their communities because police departments and local governments were often run by white supremacists.

If white people want to prove racism is a thing of the past, they can listen carefully when black people articulate racial injustices inherent in our society and call on our national, state, and local leaders to grapple with and eliminate these barriers rather than getting their feelings hurt and crying out “reverse racism.” 

And if UGA administrators have any integrity at all, they will refuse to negotiate with economic terrorists and try harder to live up to the following claim from its website: “The University of Georgia is the flagship institution of higher education in the state of Georgia. It has a duty to prepare its students to function effectively, to be leaders and to be citizens of the state, region and nation. Part of this duty is to prepare students to work in a diverse environment. This duty includes an obligation to expose students to a robust exchange of ideas within a student body representing the greatest possible variety of backgrounds. Such exposure is an essential part of our obligation to prepare students to interact in an increasingly diverse workforce and society, both domestically and internationally. In order to provide a diverse learning environment, the University will adopt policies and practices to increase diversity among its entering students.” 

Firing a teaching assistant for engaging in a “robust exchange of ideas” in his personal time is certainly not the way to live up to this mission. I encourage readers to email UGA President Jere Morehead at president@uga.edu

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.