The professor, the Minister, lessons in Racism 101 - and what to do about it

By Richard B. Muhammad -Editor- | Last updated: Mar 24, 2013 - 12:58:48 PM

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( - The University of Illinois Chicago is teaching an unintended, painful but important lesson with its cancellation of a program to discuss Black economics, Black families and Black progress that was scheduled at the school for March 30. Dr. Boyce Watkins, a writer and analyst who moonlights as a Syracuse University economics professor, was shocked when he got a call saying Minister Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, was unwelcome on campus.

Dr. Watkins was stunned because university officials knew from the beginning that the Minister was to be featured at the forum on “Wealth, Education, Family & Community: A New Paradigm For Black America,” which is part of his empowerment series planned for 30 cities.

The professor was also struck that while the university canceled the gathering because a financial supporter of the event backed out, the school offered to gladly host the event if the professor and the Minister would pay for it. Dr. Watkins never knew the university or any outside group was paying for the venue. He thought it was simply the school donating space to deal with an important topic—or perhaps stimulate discussion and action as any good educational institution tries to do. It would also have been a program of service to Chicago.


The lesson? “If we are waiting for White folks to give us their approval for us to be where we are supposed to be, we’re going to be waiting for another 10,000 years. This incident shows us how people see us and it’s interesting to me that we are still in a day and age where a message of Black self-reliance is still interpreted as White hatred,” said Dr. Watkins.

The university cited student concern about the Minister’s “racism” and “anti-Semitism” and the forum’s focus on Black people, saying it was not inclusive enough. Again that puzzled the professor as he said the Minister is neither anti-Semitic nor racist. And the whole point of the forum was to reach—you guessed it—Black people. “We were entirely transparent about whom we were bringing and what we were going to do from the beginning,” said Dr. Watkins in a March 15 phone interview. “I think it’s any surprise when Minister Farrakhan or I go anywhere and don’t talk about Black people, it’s pretty much what we do.”

In addition, when Dr. Watkins was shopping around for a place to host the forum, UIC jumped at the chance and “seemed especially eager to host it.” There was a tour of the facility, talks with administrators, and discussions of lighting, sound, the Green Room where Min Farrakhan would wait before the program started. But it appears trouble set in when an e-blast from the school was sent to the student body, said Dr. Watkins.

He isn’t worried about finding a new place as plenty of offers to host the Chicago forum and Min. Farrakhan have come in.

But there is something else: “It’s a great lesson for all of us about the importance of sticking to our current effort and maintaining our commitment to self-reliance,” said Dr. Watkins. Sometimes the turmoil of rejection can be rewarding if processed the right way, he explained. The fact that everyone was told what happened has led to a conversation on campus with some Black students and White students outraged by UIC’s decision. “We can’t allow the most vocal, most ignorant people in our institutions to define the direction of those institutions,” said Dr. Watkins. “I don’t like that the extreme element can be allowed to dictate the dialogue.” He decided to tell people what happened and keep moving forward.

Hundreds of students have signed up and thousands are excited about attending the forum. Coincidentally less than a month ago, Min. Farrakhan delivered his Saviours’ Day address at the UIC Pavilion and spoke about “Muhammad’s Economic Blueprint: Ending Poverty and Want.” Under the blueprint, if about 16 million Blacks collectively saved 35 cents a week, the saving would yield over $291 million in one year for Black investment and economic development. The Nation also paid for the ability to host thousands of people in the packed arena to offer such a vital message.

The Family Empowerment Series is Dr. Watkins’ tribute to his late brother who died last summer and whose life could have been a “statistical stereotype” and textbook example of what Black men are going through, the professor explained.

“The goal is really to reclaim our families. Over the last 40 years the Black family has been absolutely decimated primarily due to mass incarceration, in conjunction with the delivery of thousands of guns and tons of drugs into our community to literally just destroy the structure of our families and the integrity of who we are. And I believe in order for us to overcome this, we are going to have to make hard choices.” His goal is to support people like the Minister in putting out action plans and specific instructions to strengthen individuals first, families second and then communities. “We have to do this and we have to do it now,” said Dr. Watkins.

The empowerment series is almost one-third of the way through its run. After Chicago, quickly upcoming stops will include a forum in New York hosted by intellectual leader Cornell West followed by sessions in Detroit with Ed Gordon of BET-TV fame and Santita Jackson, the daughter of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and then there is a forum in Los Angeles. Get the details and information at

(Final Call editor-in-chief Richard B. Muhammad can be reached at editor@ You can also follow him on Facebook and @RMfinalcall on Twitter.)