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The Subtle Clues to Racism

A white sociologist's nine criteria for spotting veiled bias become key to a lawsuit over tenure. Hanging in the balance is a black professor's career.

January 11, 2001|ERIN TEXEIRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Professor David Wellman takes the witness stand.

In his trembling hands are nine green file folders with dozens of Post-its sticking out. He awoke at 5 to review the notes, reminders of things he must tell the jury. He is testifying as an expert for the first time in his life.

Sitting in front of Wellman is Mohamed Osman Elsayed Mukhtar, the plaintiff, who has been hospitalized and sought counseling over the stress of this case. Elsayed is convinced that he was fired from his teaching job at Cal State Hayward because he is black, a Muslim, from Africa.

Elsayed's case is shaky. There is no direct evidence of discrimination, no leaked document, no overheard insult. Just a strong feeling that something--something--was wrong when the university has ignored the recommendations of several faculty committees and two arbitrators and refused to give him tenure, citing substandard teaching. This is the same professor whom students have twice voted mass communications "teacher of the year."

Elsayed's lawyers say Wellman's testimony is crucial, probably the only way to prove that the seemingly unbiased actions of university officials were discriminatory. He is a white professor who studies modern racism. Not the in-your-face racism of past generations, but the subtle, easily disguised sort.

During the trial, held in September, Wellman, 60, will tell the jury that, after decades of research, he has devised a test to decode hidden institutional discrimination. Each of those nine green file folders is devoted to a specific criterion. Wellman will use them to explain how university officials practiced a veiled--possibly unintended--bias against Elsayed.

His heart knocks around in his chest as he sits between the judge and the jury. He smooths his hair, freshly cut.

After a few minutes answering introductory questions, his mouth goes gummy. He reaches for a pitcher of ice water, only to have it cascade s over his lap, his papers, the witness stand. Jurors snicker and clerks scramble for paper towels.

Great start, Wellman moans to himself. Absolutely great.

The Only White Kid in the Neighborhood

Wellman, a UC Santa Cruz sociologist who lectures on race issues, grew up noticing race in 1940s Detroit, when his parents declined to follow other whites, who left as black families moved in. Eventually he was the only white kid in the neighborhood.

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s, he studied the civil rights movement and then became part of it. He protested blacks' exclusion from jobs in Bay Area hotels and car dealerships, and advised lawyers during Huey Newton's trial, at which the Black Panther was acquitted of killing an Oakland police officer.

Wellman agreed with Stokely Carmichael and other militant black leaders who said whites had crucial work to do in their own communities.

His doctoral dissertation became a book called "Portraits of White Racism." Whites in the late 1960s had learned to talk a good game about fighting prejudice and allowing equal access, Wellman wrote. But that talk shrouded resistance that surfaced whenever racial changes threatened the comfortable segregation of their jobs, their neighborhoods, their families.

"There was--is--a discrepancy between what white Americans say in the post-civil rights movement and what they do. There's this disjunction," he says now. "You need somebody who can help you interpret the codes that they have developed to make it look like there's no discrepancy."

Numerous surveys bolster that view. For example, most whites say in polls that African Americans should be able to live where they choose. But their comfort zone is fragile: They tend to leave a neighborhood once blacks make up more than 10% of residents.

Wellman developed a body of research on decoding white racism and began teaching, enduring loud, relentless objections from many white students.

They didn't believe that their skin color afforded them unspoken, unearned privileges. After a few years, he decided to leave race research behind. It was too hard, too exhausting. He began to specialize in the sociology of working-class America and won a grant to study longshoremen in San Francisco.

A few black professors, including Troy Duster, a race expert at Berkeley, sat him down. Whites such as Wellman, they said, were vital to white studies. Blacks could not change things by themselves. Don't leave--keep at the race thing, they urged.

He did.

Nearly two decades later, he thinks about Duster and his own upbringing and his book and his passion for race studies and wonders if it all happened that way so he could be ready for the Elsayed trial.

Glowing Evaluations From Students

Elsayed is a 47-year-old mass communications professor who was born and raised in the Muslim Nubian culture of northeastern Sudan. His coming-of-age ritual left small scars on his face and gave him tribal permission to wear waist-length dreadlocks. He speaks seven languages.

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