Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Censure of BCC math teacher just doesn't add up
The railroading of Peter Ratener could be a tale out of Mao Zedong's China. I tell it here from the viewpoint of his friends at Bellevue...
The railroading of Peter Ratener could be a tale out of Mao Zedong's China. I tell it here from the viewpoint of his friends at Bellevue Community College, most of whom will not dare put their names in print.
The story begins at the end of winter quarter. A black student encountered a question on a math test that posited "Condoleezza" throwing a watermelon. It was about the velocity of the watermelon. The student complained to the head of the math department, who apologized and ordered the test destroyed.
That could have been the end of it. But at the beginning of spring quarter she returned with Wayne Perryman, an African American who bills himself as "a fact-finding investigator in discrimination cases."
Perryman and many others assumed the question was an intentional reference to the stereotype of blacks eating watermelons. But there was reason to doubt. The stereotype is old. I knew of it — media people have to know it — but as history only, and without the history there is nothing derogatory in a watermelon. And surely no white academic this side of an asylum would knowingly slip racial slurs into a math test.
Perryman is an enterprising man. In 2004, in promoting his book "Unfounded Loyalty," he had sued the Democratic Party to demand reparations for slavery. Perryman went to BCC with the complaining student and demanded to know who had written the question. He also called the media.
KOMO-TV did a story, and Ken Schram did an accusatory editorial. James Kelly, president of the Urban League here, denounced the test question as "an example of hate and bigotry."
BCC's math faculty, some of whom had approved the test, covered for its author. After a few days of demands that he step forward, he did. He was Ratener, 61, a slight man of Russian-Jewish descent. At a public meeting of BCC's Board of Trustees, he apologized profusely. He said he had intended no slur. He cried.
There ensued a kind of struggle session. A few, including a couple of black students, defended Ratener, but many were outsiders there to defend their race. They were righteous. They didn't accept his apology. One called him a liar. Several demanded that he be fired.
"They just crucified that man," a staff member said. "It was the longest two hours of my life," said another.
Had Ratener done it on purpose? To find out, someone might have looked into his record of 25 years. Said a colleague: "There was never, from anybody, an attempt to find facts."
The campus left wouldn't hear any defenses. "For many of them, the case was already closed," says one professor. "If I say I know Peter, my opinion is immediately discounted — because I'm white. Everything I say is interpreted in terms of my personal interests and power."
A teacher stands accused of incorrect political thought, and no defense is tolerated from the class enemy. That is Maoism.
The battle went beyond Ratener. It was about BCC. For several years, a group on campus had claimed that BCC was institutionally racist — meaning it harbored a pervasive bias undetectable by white people. Says one professor: "This vindicated them."
And the Board of Trustees validated them. It condemned Ratener for "offensive behavior" in a statement that implies, but does not say, he had intent to offend. The administration conceded in its reprimand he had no such intent, but demanded a week's pay because he had "brought disfavor" to BCC and "publicly undermined its meritorious work in pluralism." His union is fighting for his pay, though it did not defend him otherwise.
"What I learned last spring," says a BCC prof, "is that if I offend somebody, intentionally or not, and that person goes to the media, I'm screwed." A colleague fled BCC on a year's leave and is in another state.
Ratener, who received so many threats he had to move out of his house, is on leave with his wife in another country. Of his supporters, he writes, "They are immobile, sensing their own vulnerability."
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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