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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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A Sense of Entitlement

Marc Parry of The Chronicle of High Education interviewed Dr. Carol Swain.

Carol M. Swain, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, considers Islam a dangerous religion that is incompatible with Western notions of freedom. She calls the Black Lives Matter movement a "very destructive force." She has suggested that the women who marched on Washington were "fighting for the selfish right to kill their unborn babies.

"Such views have made the Christian conservative Republican an outlier in the upper precincts of academe. At Vanderbilt, where she has been a professor of political science and law since 1999, students called her a bigot and petitioned for her suspension.

Now she’s had enough. Ms. Swain, 63, announced in January that she would take an early retirement. "I will miss the students and the rhythm of campus," she wrote, "but I will not miss what American universities have allowed themselves to become.

"Her exit comes at a moment when the rise of Donald J. Trump has brought fresh relevance to her research. In a widely read New York Times opinion piece, published in December, Christopher Caldwell pointed to Ms. Swain’s 2002 bookThe New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration (Cambridge University Press), as a prescient analysis of the worldview now known as "alt-right.

"In a conversation with The Chronicle, Ms. Swain looked back at her travails in academe and forward to the positive changes she expects for the country under President Trump.

What precipitated your retirement?
I look at life as a journey, with different seasons. I felt that that season of my life had come to an end — and that I could have more impact if I had flexibility with my time. I could be more productive, even critiquing the university, from the outside. I’ve watched higher education change dramatically over the last 10 years, in a way that I would consider negative.

Can you elaborate?
Universities are no longer marketplaces of ideas. They’re more about indoctrination, rather than teaching students how to think and how to be productive human beings.

It’s driven by administrators, who are catering to students. What bothers me is that the students, in many ways, they’re children. They don’t know everything. They’re there to learn. They should not be setting the rules for the institutions. I don’t want to single out Vanderbilt. I see it happening across the universities. This whole demand for safe spaces, the expectation that professors will give trigger warnings, the search for microaggressions: I believe it encourages students to always have their ears perked, to make sure someone is not slighting them. It doesn’t prepare the students for life outside of the university.

You were an odd fit at Vanderbilt. You’re one of what I assume are very few conservative black female professors. You were also targeted by a student petition campaign that called you "synonymous with bigotry, intolerance, and unprofessionalism." What did it feel like being someone of your background and beliefs on campus?

My life as a faculty member changed when I became a public Christian. When you think about campus environments, being a person of faith is a lot harder than the race aspect of it. It’s not just Vanderbilt. Christians are marginalized in academia if they are conservatives — if they are Bible-believing Christians. You’re not treated as if you’re very smart. It doesn’t matter your credentials. If you look at my credentials, I’ve won the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, the highest prize a political scientist can win. It’s the closest a political scientist will get to a Nobel Prize.

After my opinion piece in The Tennessean [criticizing Islam], which led to the attacks and the student protest, of course I was deeply hurt. Part of my identity has been caught up in the students. It was a massive rejection, even though it was a minority of students, and none that had been in my classes.

Help me understand your politics. You are credited as one of the first to grasp the significance of the new white nationalism, which you called an underappreciated danger to civil rights and racial integration. But now you enthusiastically support Trump, whose election and appointments electrified white nationalists. That seems like a contradiction.

I’m not sure what you just said is true. And it’s not a contradiction. My work has always been ahead of its time.  
With The New White Nationalism in America, I was initially writing a book about affirmative action when some high-profile incidents of interracial violence occurred. That caused me to wonder about how people come to the point that they hate others — to the point that they’d want to kill them. I was at Princeton at the time. I commissioned interviews, using a white interviewer, of 10 white-nationalist leaders. The questions were designed to find out about their childhood, what they thought was important. We were trying to figure out how they became who they were. And among that group were two Jewish people with Ph.D.s, and then there was Jared Taylor, who is considered one of the leaders of the alt-right.

I consider alt-right a rebranding of what I called the new white nationalism. What I had in my group were some highly educated people that were using social-science data, FBI statistics, and census data to make a case. They could be very persuasive, and they were addressing concerns and grievances that a lot of people had, whites and blacks — about immigration and affirmative action and stuff like that — that were not being addressed by mainstream politicians. With that book, I had policy recommendations, and I issued a warning, because I felt like we needed to hear what they were saying, to be able to address the concerns that were legitimate.

At the time it was relevant because everyone was looking in the wrong place. They were laughing at the Klansmen on television with the beer gut, the missing teeth. The real threat were the people that were more intellectual, that could put forth a persuasive case using the language of multiculturalism and civil rights. Part of the argument that they were using was that it’s wrong to discriminate against anyone. White people are being discriminated against, and no one is standing up for them. Then they would argue that every group should be able to celebrate their unique heritage: White people can’t celebrate who they are, and that’s wrong. Just basically taking that language we hear on college campuses and pointing out that there was a double standard. That, I felt, would be persuasive to young people, and I thought it was very dangerous.

The support for Trump — that’s what seemed like a contradiction. That you were warning about white nationalism, yet now you support Trump.

I don’t see Trump as a white nationalist. I see him as someone that has his pulse on the concerns of all Americans. I don’t think his supporters are racists. People that may be supporting him that are more extreme — did you really think they were going to support Hillary?

You attended the inauguration, your first. How was it?
I was very excited. I have hope for America. I have hope for the future of African-Americans. A lot of the lawlessness — the carnage in places like Chicago and in some of the urban areas — something we’re doing is not working. All of that needs to be rethought. And when I think about my own rise from poverty, and the mind-set, the resources, that helped me to overcome my circumstances, I really feel like the messages that we send our young people are totally wrong. If I had heard those messages when I was young, I’m not sure that I would have tried. I still might be in Bedford, Va., in poverty. So I see his election as a great opportunity to change the messages we send to young people.

What wrong messages are you referring to?
The message that if you’re black, or a minority, that the world is stacked against you. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. I always believed in the American dream: that if I worked hard, I could be successful.

In media conversation about the alt-right, is there anything people are overlooking?
One of the points I make in the book is that racial interest-group politics — that’s problematic. As Americans, we need to identify as Americans. If you’re going to have black identity, brown identity, Asian identity, then you’re gonna also have white identity. You are finding white people more self-consciously than ever before thinking of themselves as white people and thinking of themselves as being marginalized.

There’s a book by a guy named J.D. Vance called Hillbilly Elegy. He’s a guy that started off from poor white trash. It’s almost like below the underclass, his family. And he was able to go into the military and graduate from Yale Law School. And so he’s written about his family and the kind of poverty that those whites in Appalachia live in. That’s part of our reality, too.

We need to have a different conversation in America when it comes to race. A lot of things that seem to be about race are really about social class. If we really wanted to improve America and race relations, we would move away from racial-identity politics and move more to focus on social class and the things that people have in common. We need to create opportunities where people, regardless of their race, can overcome the circumstances of their birth.

You might think about the universities. My experience is that there were almost no people like me, from the kind of poverty that I came from. The blacks that I encountered were very affluent, very elite. They had gone to the best schools. They did not do as well as I did. There was a strong sense of entitlement. And usually they’re the ones leading the marches. They’re speaking for the underclass. They don’t have a clue, for the most part, about the real conditions or what the people need.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.