Friday, May 18, 2001

Outspoken prof confronts racism

Clinton Hewan tells it as he sees it

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — Clinton Hewan refuses to shop. He cannot stand being followed or eyed suspiciously simply because he is black, he says. So he heads straight for the cash register, points to what he wants and buys it.

        “I'm very sensitive to being insulted,” he says.

        And very willing to say so.

        Over 13 years as a political science professor at Northern Kentucky University, Dr. Hewan, 64, has embraced confrontation and pushed the envelope on outspokenness.

[photo] NKU political science professor Clinton Hewan is reviled and revered for his comments about race.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        At a public forum recently, he used the term “S.O.B.” to describe the white Cincinnati police officer who killed Timothy Thomas, a black teen-ager. Mr. Thomas' family should “quietly stalk the S.O.B.” and “take him out,” Dr. Hewan said.

        He insists he didn't mean this literally, and colleagues agree that he would not promote violence.

        At the same time, few were surprised by the strength of his language. For years, the fiery associate professor has tested the notion that ideas - no matter how contentious - ought to be sacred on university soil.

        “Sometimes you're going to stir people up. You're going to make people angry. But it's got to be done within some boundaries, or you're going to lose your legitimacy as a professor,” says NKU President James Votruba, who issued a stinging rebuke of Dr. Hewan's remarks in an e-mail to all faculty.

        He later softened his criticism. Dr. Hewan's effect on the university and its community can be taken into account on his next performance evaluation, Dr. Votruba says. But in general, the tenure system protects professors from dismissal for their views or writings.

        The public may be getting its first glimpse of Dr. Hewan, but NKU students and faculty are well-acquainted with his style. For years, critics say, he has intimidated students with his rhetoric, labeled all opponents racist and threatened lawsuits at every turn.

        But supporters appreciate his refusal to cloak harsh truths in niceties.

        As an immigrant from Jamaica, which is 75 percent black, Dr. Hewan sharply resists the daily slights and insults that American blacks have been conditioned to accept, they say.

        “I think Dr. Hewan is a blessing. I think he's a godsend,” said Dr. Michael Washington, director of Afro-American studies at NKU. “In order to have effective struggle, you have to have someone willing to speak out.”        

Retaliatory violence

        In his cubbyhole of an office, Dr. Hewan disgustedly tosses a piece of paper on his desk. Scrawled in big letters are three sentences, filled with profanity and racial slurs, suggesting that he should be “taken out.”

        It's a reference to his own remarks at an April 19 “Speak Out” on campus. One in a series of speakers commenting on racial unrest in Cincinnati, he talked about the potential for retaliatory violence when minorities are oppressed and abused.

        It's not a new idea. In response to lynchings in the 1920s and '30s, for instance, black writers explored the same themes during the Harlem Renaissance. The poet Claude McKay — also a Jamaican immigrant — famously captured the moment in a sonnet titled, “If We Must Die.”

        But on April 19, any teaching opportunity was lost in the inflammatory nature of the professor's remarks, Dr. Votruba says.

        He was not present at the forum but questioned six to eight people who were.

        The controversy began when NKU's campus newspaper, The Northerner, quoted Dr. Hewan with regard to the family of Timothy Thomas.

        “I do not advocate any violence as an initiate,” Dr. Hewan said. “But in the case of willful murder, the family should go out and get that policeman.”

        Dr. Hewan says he was merely posing a hypothetical scenario and asking how society would react. Members of Students Together Against Racism, which organized the event, agree with his account.

        The reporter, 22-year-old Dan Mecher, says he did his best to record the professor's words.

        “Basically, I was just printing what he said. I don't know what he meant by it. I don't know what his intentions were. I was just trying to do my job as a reporter,” said Mr. Mecher, who dashed to the forum without his tape recorder when he learned no one from The Northerner was present.

        Both he and Dr. Hewan were shocked by the firestorm that resulted.

        “It seemed like it was a free speech thing, and he could say whatever he wanted,” says Mr. Mecher. “I don't think he meant to go out and kill people or incite anyone to kill people.”

        When outside media picked up the story, an onslaught of public response followed.

        The profanity-filled letter to Dr. Hewan was postmarked Cincinnati and unsigned. As if in anticipation of such a missive, he already had this quote posted on his door: “It is the nature of cowards to hide behind anonymity.”        

At NKU since 1988

        Dr. Hewan doesn't do much hiding himself.

        “I'm not going to come smiling at you and then stick the knife in your back,” he said in a recent interview.

        Born in Jamaica, he earned a master's degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1971, returned to his home country and became a diplomat. But his wife was from Cincinnati, and in 1984, the family returned so she could be near her parents.

        Dr. Hewan earned his doctorate from UC and began teaching at NKU in 1988, receiving tenure in 1996.

        In recent years, his outspokenness has dovetailed with a push by NKU to recruit more minorities.

        This year, about 3.7 percent of the school's 12,000 students were African-American, compared with 2.8 percent in 1996.

        Dr. Hewan is one of 19 black people in full-time teaching positions — 4.2 percent of the total.

        A frequent participant in campus dialogues on race, he has a reputation for rattling cages.

        In 1999, for instance, Dr. Hewan was one of six panelists in a campus forum on affirmative action.

        An Enquirer reporter was present and took notes. When a student in the audience asked, “What do you say about the black people who oppose affirmative action?” Dr. Hewan replied, “I'd say they're stupid.”

        Later in the same forum, he said, “I make no apologies, absolutely none, when I talk about people being racist in this country. People who are vehemently opposed to affirmative action, in my opinion, are racist.”

        One of the opposing panelists, a white student named Gene Brown, said he was so dismayed that he complained to the political science department. NKU eventually permitted Mr. Brown to waive a required course taught by Dr. Hewan, Mr. Brown said last week.

        “When Professor Hewan takes a point of view, you can't have any other opinion, other than the way he sees it, or you're a racist or a bigot,” Mr. Brown said.        

Some enjoy his style

        While some students bristle at the professor's style, others enjoy it.

        In a 1998 letter to NKU's provost, one student praised Dr. Hewan for encouraging questions and debate. The student's name was deleted by NKU officials when they released the letter to the Enquirer.

        Dr. Hewan simply asks people to “think critically,” the student wrote, and “I think it is this last bit which makes him somewhat of a pariah on campus. You see, when people begin to think critically and objectively, the answers that they arrive at often challenge their value systems and the world as they know it.”

        Indeed, Dr. Hewan's experiences with racism — the world as he knows it — have shaped what he says in the classroom.

        He doesn't hate white people, he says, only the scrutiny that comes with being black in the United States.

        Two incidents involving police officers especially rankled him. In 1999, Dr. Hewan was issued a speeding ticket in Cincinnati. He claims he was not speeding and that the officer rudely demanded to know where he worked and what he did for a living. Dr. Hewan filed a written complaint with the police department, which investigated and found the officer had acted properly, records show.

        But the professor's complaint was similar to others filed by African-Americans, and this year, the city agreed to attempt to settle a class-action lawsuit over alleged racial profiling by the police.

        On another occasion, Dr. Hewan was stopped and questioned by a white police officer while standing near his own home.

        The officer apparently was investigating a complaint about a black man selling magazines in the neighborhood, Dr. Hewan said.

        She was belligerent and had her hand on her gun, he said. When he asked her to speak more respectfully, she called for backup.

        Dave Guidugli, a council member in the city, said the police chief apologized to Dr. Hewan.

        He thought Dr. Hewan was overreacting at first. But the more he learned about the officer, who later quit and sued the city, the more he suspected Dr. Hewan was right about the encounter, Mr. Guidugli said.        

Disappointed in the U.S.

        To his NKU students, Dr. Hewan sometimes poses a question: How can America be the freest, most democratic country in the world if black people are essentially blocked from living in certain neighborhoods?

        Until the 1950s, some property deeds in the United States had restrictive covenants that barred ownership by blacks. That's illegal now but persists informally, with houses suddenly pulled off the market when black people show interest, Dr. Hewan says.

        He is keenly disappointed in the United States. And despite the recent controversy, he shows no signs of softening his views.

        Racism, he says, “is a cancer that's eating at the very core of this country, and we're not doing anything about it.”

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