Students and administrators decry talk on ‘Black Privilege’

By: Sean Callahan, News Editor

A talk given at Saint Vincent College by David Azerrad, assistant professor and research fellow at Hillsdale College’s Graduate School of Government, as part of the Center for Political and Economic Thought’s (CPET) annual culture and policy conference, became the subject of controversy for many members of the SVC community as well as the local community. As of Apr. 15, the content of the lecture and the following controversy has been reported on by local Westmoreland County media such as TribLive and WPXI.

(Credit: Dc.Hillsdale.edu) David Azerrad, one of six CPET speakers on Apr. 8, held a 2:30 p.m. lecture, which was the subject of controversy among SVC students, staff, and faculty.

Azerrad’s talk, titled: Black Privilege and Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America, centered on the idea that black people today hold more “visible” privileges than white people. According to the beginning of his lecture, which can be found on YouTube, Azerrad went on to comment about the “consensus amongst our elites” that “Black citizens should not be held to the same standard of conduct as white people”, especially in higher education, and that “standards are continuously lowered for the sake of diversity” in order to fill a quota in universities’ desires for a more diverse student population.

The content of the lecture generated conflicting responses from the SVC community. Some found the lecture enlightening and thought-provoking. Others felt its ideas were poorly phrased, racist, and hateful.

A business student, who wished to remain anonymous due to the ongoing controversy surrounding the lecture, attended most of the Apr. 8 lectures, including the one led by Azerrad. The student attendee found Azerrad’s talk deeply disturbing. The student felt that, while Azerrad appeared to aim for a theme of “love each other.”, the student found this hard to believe due to, “the use of a derogatory phrase towards our Vice President, demeaning the black women who worked at NASA from the movie, Hidden Figures.”

“It just removed all legitimacy from his point of view,” the anonymous student said. “When you say something that divisive and blatantly racist, it completely distracts from your message.”

The anonymous student also found it concerning how “a google search” could have supposedly revealed previous examples of Azerrad’s alleged hateful comments.

A history student, who also wished to remain anonymous, attended only Azerrad’s lecture. The student thought it was an interesting talk, but disagreed strongly with Azerrad’s ideas–which the student felt were being used under the emphasis of “racism is wrong.”

“The speaker dressed up a commonly used argument in fancy clothes. It led me to believe he has a terrible opinion while being a good person at heart,” the anonymous student said.

Faith Taylor, sophomore criminology major, also attended Azerrad’s talk. She was intimidated when she walked into the lecture room full of students, monks, and faculty, some of whom she felt were “definitely overly enthusiastic to very racist things [Azerrad] was saying.” She described her discomfort upon hearing that students who hadn’t attended the talk defended Azerrad, and expressed anger at the counterargument of college being a place where people are challenged.

“Both sides being shown doesn’t apply to this. Racist perspectives shouldn’t be shown,” Taylor said. “Either you’re racist or you’re not.”

Taylor cited several examples of Azerrad’s talk she found problematic, such as his claim that black people have more freedom of speech, and that they can be more anti-Semitic and homophobic. She also reported that Azerrad claimed black people were not prepared for higher education because of the promotion of black underachievement.

Taylor described being proud of the respect and resiliency her friends demonstrated in asking Azerrad questions after the lecture, despite the emotional distress some of them were in. But she remains frustrated by the experience.

“We pay so much to go to this school, to have this experience,” Taylor said. “And we’re sitting there being yelled at about how we’re handed everything and how we have the most privilege in our country.”

Following the talk, multiple students across campus sent emails to Fr. Paul Taylor, O.S.B, President of Saint Vincent College, expressing frustration towards the content of Azerrad’s talk and the treatment of the students asking questions. Fr. Paul Taylor responded to student emails during the afternoon of Apr. 10, indicating, “[Dr. Gary Quinlivan, co-director of CPET and Dean of the McKenna School,] indicated to me that it was inappropriate and not consistent with our Benedictine values of hospitality and respect.” Taylor said he asked Quinlivan “to provide a more thorough vetting process for conferences” in the future.

On that same day, Quinlivan posted a news release statement to the SVC website, addressing the reaction to Azerrad’s talk. He echoed Fr. Paul Taylor’s sentiment that the talk was “not consistent with SVC’s Benedictine values of hospitality and respect” and Quinlivan added that the Center regretted presenting the talk at the academic conference.

“We pledge our continued support for the efforts of all those who in good faith seek to eradicate bigotry as part of their mission to serve God and God’s people,” Quinlivan said.

The Review reached out to Quinlivan for further comment, but he wishes to let the statement stand as is.

The Review also reached out to Dr. Bradley Watson, professor of political science and co-director of the CPET alongside Quinlivan, for comment. He provided the following statement:

“I was not aware of the formal apology that was issued by Dr. Quinlivan. I was not consulted in any way in its drafting, and I would not have issued it,” Watson wrote. “It is clear to me that the administration does not want my input on this matter.”

Watson said he will respect those wishes by not giving further on-the-record comments to The Review.

As of Apr. 15, the full video of Azerrad’s talk is available via YouTube: Black Privilege and Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America by David Azerrad - YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFAUeZZQ0vo).

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