December 15, 2003

Editor's Note: The following is an open letter sent both to President Jim Wagner and to Emory Report . Beginning in January, ER will publish a regular column devoted to community; the first will be written by Wagner.

Dear President Wagner:

As black faculty and administrators at Emory, we are outraged over the events of the past few months stemming from a remark made by Department of Anthropology Professor Carol Worthman. We find it unconscionable that Professor Worthman, a former chair of the department, would make an offhand racial reference to "niggers in a woodpile," a phrase she casually used on Sept. 15 in response to a panel discussion observing the department's 25th anniversary. The phrase and its context suggest a perception of African Americans that invokes the fear of miscegenation, violence and lynching, harkening back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

As administrators and faculty members, we seriously question whether a professor whose thinking remains so obviously stagnant can be trusted to guide, without bias, the scholarship and development of African Americans, as well as other students on this campus.

Furthermore, we are greatly disturbed by published responses of some of our colleagues in defense of Professor Worthman. Some Emory academics have sought to frame her remark as a free-speech issue, rather than what it was: a racial epithet. Others have chosen to focus attention on the original meaning of the phrase. While the origin and meaning are interesting intellectual asides, they are irrelevant to the central issue. The use of what is undeniably a racial epithet is inappropriate speech, except when the term is being quoted or is the subject of the discourse. In other words, the term "nigger" has no place in the academy as a substitute reference for Africans or people of African descent (blacks, Afro-Caribbeans, African Americans, etc.), or for historically oppressed groups of any kind.

We believe that attempts by some of our colleagues to characterize Professor Worthman's statement as a comment made in an "academic context" is disingenuous at best, and insulting at worst. It amounts to condoning behavior that is deemed inexcusable and undebatable with reference to any other historically oppressed group on campus, including Jews, women, gays, etc. As African Americans, we intend to accept nothing less than the respect and consideration afforded all other groups in this community.

Moreover, we would like to express our deep displeasure over the handling of the formal complaint filed by Tracy Rone, an assistant professor of anthropology who was present when Professor Worthman uttered her offensive phrase. On Sept. 18, Professor Rone filed a complaint of racial discrimination with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. We believe her complaint did not receive a thorough investigation.

We appreciate the administration's decision to impose appropriate sanctions against Professor Worthman. However, we do not want to lose sight of the broader concern, which is this: the presence of an institutional culture that sustains a subtle (though occasionally overt) hostile racial environment at Emory.

While some of our colleagues have actively promoted the notion that Professor Worthman's remark was an isolated incident, in truth the remark was far from isolated. Professor Worthman's remark was merely the latest in a series of well-documented insults to African Americans--including blackface ridicule and outright racial confrontations--dating back at least 25 years. Such incidents, which have injured students, staff and faculty alike, have fostered a climate of intolerance and racial tension at Emory.

This most recent incident and the resulting tensions call for strong measures and clear signals at the highest level. We believe it is vitally important to address these matters promptly. To that end, we offer the following recommendations and note that most of them have appeared in previous reports to the Office of the President:

Implement an immediate action plan to address systemic problems of racism at Emory. Those actions should include some recommendations previously submitted to former Provost Rebecca Chopp in the Faculty Diversity Council Report of 2001.

Initiate an external review of the Office of Equal Opportunity Program's mission, policies, procedures and practices.

Support the hiring of a vice provost of minority affairs. Such an office would be responsible for implementing a longer-term strategic diversity plan that incorporates, among other things, hiring senior black faculty.

In addition to Professor Rone, another black junior faculty member, Professor Huda Nura Mustafa, has publicly expressed her serious reservations concerning the racial climate in the Department of Anthropology. The difficulties experienced by Professors Rone and Mustafa have greatly disrupted their research and writing schedules. We request an assurance from you that there will be no retaliation against these faculty members, whose courage in bringing these problems to light will undoubtedly benefit the entire Emory community.

As African American faculty and administrators, we are invested in helping to ensure that the University live up to its stated aims of promoting diversity and inclusiveness throughout the campus community, not only in rhetoric, but in action. We look forward to your timely response.


Delores Aldridge, sociology

Robert Brown, Emory College

Rudolph Byrd, African American studies

Joseph Cadray, educational studies

Eddie Chambers, art history

Leroy Davis, history

Noel Erskine, Candler School of Theology

Frances Smith Foster, English

Kharen Fulton, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Leslie Harris, history

Jacqueline Irvine, educational studies

Kimberly Arriola Jacobs, Rollins School of Public Health

Lawrence Jackson, English

Karyn Lacy, sociology

Nathan McCall, journalism

Huda Nura Mustafa, anthropology

Michael Owens, political science

Melody Palmore, School of Medicine

Tracy Rone, anthropology

Vera Dixon Rorie, Campus Life

Mark Sanders, African American studies

Tariq Shakoor, Career Center

Cynthia Shaw, Campus Life

Yvonne Singh, theater studies

Dianne Stewart, religion

Anthony Stringer, rehabilitation

Vanessa Siddle Walker, educational studies

Nagueyalti Warren, Emory College