If Santiago Piñón were teaching on the el-hi level, the email he sent out to selected students might sound like an effort to overturn Brown v. Board of Ed. But since Piñón is on the faculty at Texas Christian University, where he teaches religious studies, he can be accused only of race bigotry.
But even then, his efforts to give special treatment to “STUDENTS OF COLOR” (as he put in his email, using all caps) is not what it seems to be, since his notion of “of color” includes only people with Hispanic surnames.
Inside Higher Ed obtained a copy of the email Piñón sent out on Sept. 11 to students who had enrolled in his “Understanding Religion: Society and Culture.” The text follows:
At the beginning of the semester I usually like to invite all my students of color to get together and discuss the challenges they may face during the semester. However, the time slipped by and I didn’t get a chance. So, I would like to ask if you are interested in a get together [sic] on Monday afternoon? We can also discuss the exam that is coming up, if you want. I don’t mind if this would turn out to be a study session for my STUDENTS OF COLOR ONLY. [Emphasis added]
A student who received the email told Inside Higher Ed said that despite her Hispanic last name, she is only one quarter Hispanic and doesn’t strongly identify with that ethnicity, prompting her to write on Facebook:
I straight up just got segregated by my own teacher. I’m 75 [percent] white.
One of her followers wrote back:
Not trying to start anything, but if this had been an email saying he likes to meet with all the white students at the beginning of the semester, and then ended the email the way he did, but with WHITE STUDENTS ONLY, I guarantee you this would be all over the news in seconds.
Ultimately, administrators at the university got wind of the email, and the study session was cancelled. No action was taken against Piñón, who claimed after the fact that it was all “misunderstanding.” In a statement, he wrote:
I should have been more clear in that any study group is open to all students. I do like to offer myself as a resource to students (particularly those of color) who may face challenges and become discouraged; goal is to encourage and offer support, so I am troubled to think some students may have thought they were being excluded from a study session because that was not at all the intention.
The American Association for Affirmative Action declined to comment on Piñon’s case. The group’s executive director, Shirley J. Wilcher, said it doesn’t typically comment on individual personnel matters. Presumably the accusation of racial bias the organization leveled at DePaul University in 2010 after it refused tenure to Quinetta Shelby (the only black faculty member of the school’s chemistry department) doesn’t count.
For its part, TCU said via e-mail that the university “expects that professors provide equal opportunities to all students.”