A Racist Exam Question—or Was It?

“It was an oddball question for a Health Science class, eh?” writes my colleague, when I text her the article about the controversy surrounding Cal State University, Long Beach lecturer Matthew Fischer. “By the way, did you hear about the perv who was filming guys at the urinals in the men’s restroom? Never a dull moment at CSULB!”

She’s right, of course. There never is a dull moment (okay, some) and the question is an oddball one for a final exam in Health Science:

Which of the following gangs generally do the least graffiti?
A. Black. B. Asian. C. Hispanic. D. White.

Maybe the student who took a screenshot of this question and put a big blue circle around it before he posted it to Twitter, has a point. Maybe his professor is a racist.

But hold up. Maybe I’m dismissing Fischer’s case too easily. Maybe some context is missing? Maybe Fischer’s question isn’t as random as the media report is making it out to be?

“I’m guessing the kid didn’t attend class often enough to get the context,” my colleague writes. “Then again, some teachers are fucking nuts.”

After working at the university for fifteen years, both of these possibilities seem likely to me.

Oddball or not, certainly there must be some statistical answer to Fischer’s exam question. To assume it is racist is to assume the professor is suggesting that the answer to “which gang does the least graffiti” must be white? An assumption that to me seems pretty racist itself. Shouldn’t someone in the media at least try to find that out? Did any reporter even bother to ask him the answer to this question? Nothing in these slight articles, whose details are being recycled by ABC and NBC and the Los Angeles Times, suggests as much.

According to news reports, Fischer isn’t answering any more questions. Otherwise, I’d ask him myself. Then again…

“Tread lightly,” says my colleague, when I express interest in investigating the controversy. After all, I am an employee of the same university. Maybe she’s right. And what if it turns out Fischer really is a racist? I find his Facebook page. It says he’s from Huntington Beach, which notoriously has a white supremacy problem. Suspect. Or is it? 201,874 people live in Huntington Beach and most are not white supremacists. This is how easily one starts to write a false narrative.

I go back and read the article again.

Cal State University, Long Beach officials have launched an investigation into the conduct of a health-sciences education lecturer after a student this week posted a final exam question to Twitter that he said was racist.

‘The college takes situations like this very seriously…’ says Monica Lounsbery, dean of the College of Health and Human Services. ‘Once we have completed the investigation, we will evaluate all of the information and determine an appropriate course of action.’

Which leads me to my next question: what exactly is the university planning to investigate in this case? Whether Fischer purposely put this question on his final exam to offend his students? This would imply that he’s not only a racist but a masochistic dogwhistler, who can hardly contain his racism, risking his job for an out-of-context question in the middle of a Health Science final.

Then again, a quick two-second scan of the course description for the class H SC 411B Health Science for Secondary Teachers on the CSULB website reveals that his question may not be so out of context after all:

Contemporary teaching of health education in secondary schools; emphasizes coordinated school health, integrating health content and instruction into other subjects, drugs, sexuality, nutrition, child abuse, violence, community and human ecology. Based upon California Health Framework, meets state credential requirements.

Why did not one responsible journalist, department chair or administrator at least check the facts before making a statement?

And if there is context, what then would the investigation be determining? That an oddly framed question reveals the professor’s unconscious bias? That he’s guilty of thought crime? Unconscious thought crime? Is there any other corroborating evidence to justify opening an investigation? A questionable grade for a student of color? A previous incident? Will anyone at the university approach him in good faith and just ask him what he meant? And if he answers as he does in the article—in which he apologizes and says, “Wasn’t meant to be racist in the least. I’m sorry they were offended by it”—what will be the appropriate course of action? And what about the student who posted a final exam question on Twitter, which surely violates academic honesty codes of conduct?

Like my colleague and I, Matthew Fischer’s official job description is lecturer, which, here in the US, means an adjunct, part-time employee, with none of the protections of a tenured professor. Fischer has been teaching at the college for sixteen years—which means that every one–three years he is evaluated by a colleague in his department and every semester he is required to distribute evaluations to his students, who are presented with questions like Did anything interfere with your learning in this course?

It also turns out, after a little more digging, that he did provide the context to at least one reporter, in an article published by Inside Higher Ed.:

The query in question refers ‘to one of the leading causes of death (homicide due to gang violence) among teens,’ Fischer added, saying that the answer is Asian gangs: ‘Asian gangs are less likely to tag/write graffiti as they typically do not claim a geographical territory as some other gangs may.’

But a quick Google search already reveals him to be the Cal State professor who included a racist question on his final exam. A new comment on his Rate My Professor profile says, “This racist puts questions about gang graffiti on a health quiz.” Prior to this, if you scroll back in time, you’ll see that he’s a “super chill guy,” maybe a little too easy, maybe a little too jokey, maybe a little too disorganized. And if you go back even further, all the way to 2012, you’ll see another comment by a student that says, “If you get offended easily, don’t take this class.”

Perhaps, this will all blow over.  I love my university and trust the good people there will do the right thing no matter the outcome. I can even understand the moral panic and the fear of looking racist by not taking such an allegation seriously. I feel a similar fear at writing this article. But I don’t think I should let somebody else’s life be ruined because of that fear.

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15 comments

  1. This is an example of the epistemological problems created by excessive indulgence in call out culture by the indignation junkies on the far left. They want simply gathering information to be suppresed. They would rather be ignorant than acknowledge any data that makes them uncomfortable. This is anathema to learning, among other problems. Note to you: knowledge is not racist. It cannot be. What you do with it could be.

  2. Even with context, I don’t think the lecturer gets a pass. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what the answer to the question is — the fact that the answer was any one race is still, by a dictionary definition, racist (or, the now convoluted replacement, “racially prejudiced.”) Even if it’s “positive” racism, in that “asians are better at math” kind of way, it’s still racism, and it’s still unfair (even positive racism pigeonholes groups into roles and assumptions, and sets expectations that may not apply to individuals).

    But even if it isn’t negatively impacting in the sense that positive racism can, it’s still sociologically wrong, and it’s still rooted in cultural presumptions and preconceptions. Perhaps, statistically, Asian gangs (what is an Asian gang, anyway?) aren’t territorial. But is that inherent to being Asians, or is that inherent to their circumstances in Asian cities? Would a “black gang” in Tokyo be territorial because they’re black, or not territorial because they’re in Asia? Probably, if anything, their territoriality would be based on their existing experience in American cities, and it would probably have to be adapted to Asian city structures.

    I also would imagine that “black gangs” and “Asian gangs” are not apples and apples. (Even the notion of such things is racist — can white people not join the Bloods? I suppose black people can’t join the Aryan Nation, but that’s not because it’s a “white gang,” as much as it’s a racial identity gang, which is sort of a unique thing in gang world. On the other hand, I am reminded of the anecdote of the Jewish inmate allowed to join the Aryans because he did their taxes.) Were I to think of an Asian gang off the top of my head (admittedly not being steeped in them), I would probably think Yakuza, or Triad. But those are often compared to organized crime a la Mafia, and the Mafia — a “white gang” — doesn’t do much graffiti, not because they’re not a gang, or because they’re predominantly white, but because their normality is representative of a particular culture that isn’t into graffiti. Certainly they do have territory. So graffiti and territoriality have little to do with each other in terms of a direct relationship; lack of graffiti does not mean lack of territoriality.

    Besides, what good does that answer do in a health studies class? Should students be more Asian to avoid the impact of violence? How is that even a thing? I don’t even see how it’s relevant. Maybe the implication is that you should hang out with more Asian people? Still, that’s racist to other races who are thus less worth hanging around in that calculus.

    So the lecturer may not be a white supremacist. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some identifiable race issues in his curriculum.

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    1. He doesn’t need a pass because he’s hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s a factual question relating to information in the course curricula.

      1. Also, by your logic, the whole notion of white privilege is positive racism (which I assume is still viewed as problematic). Good stuff!

  3. This essay is best defined as an opinion piece and on no way shows proof of its so-called validations. What a waste of time to read let alone comment. But I shared my two cents to warn of this kind of crap people are innocently fed into believing is real or occurred because it starts harmful delusions.

    Free speech has its price like the publishing of crap essays anyone cares to submit such as this one and others on Areo.

    Readers beware and start ascertaining what is real and hyped up b.s.

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  4. Seems like a lot of assumptions were made by test takers about the actual answer to the question. Why would anyone think the answer should be white, if they themselves aren’t cloaked in their own squeaky clean white privilege? This is the problem when one group of people think they get to write the narrative about everyone else. Usually it’s a false narrative.
    And as for white gangs, has no one heard about the mainly white male republican congress led by the nut case in the white house lately?

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  5. The only white gangs in his sense that I can think of are motorcycle gangs like The Outlaws or Hells Angels. The problem here is that there are valid reasons to study gang behavior but evidently you no longer can do so.

  6. context has been obliterated for an entire generation via standardized testing tied to school funding, and social media that favors the 140/280 character idea over the TL;DR “walls of text” that people commonly boast of not comprehending.

  7. I was interested in the answer to the question. I already understand that any public reference to anything concerning race or sex is tabu. Having lived in a few countries in Asia, and having known a member of an Asian gang, I was still flummoxed. I’ve never heard of white gangs except in prison, and would an Asian gang be more reticent and low key the way Asians tend to be? The answer, that it marks territory, and Asians tend not to have territorial gangs, was interesting. I hope some day we can move beyond the PC constraints of the left.

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    1. I think white gangs would be skinheads and the like.

      then again, the answer would seem to not include mafia-type gangs, who I don’t think are particularly known for their graffiti tagging, but also aren’t quite the presence today as they once were.

      1. this to me is interesting, because it seems to me gang generally have a strong tendency towards racial segregation, be they mafias or street gangs. I always laugh at the quaint portrayal of gangs in movies like The Warriors, Colors or the Death Wish movies, which feature what I call “Rainbow Coalition Gangs”. it stands out as unrealistic, because gangs tend ultimately to be culturally protectionist entities. they don’t let in outsiders, or if they do they limit their opportunities for advancement. being “made” in the Italian mob, for example, requires that you be able to trace your ancestry back to Sicily. you can work for them if you can’t, and you can do business with them if you’re of a different ethnicity, but you’ll never be a “made man”. because gangs are generally about preserving identity and securing advantages for their groups in the context of a larger society that shuts them out.

        I think overwhelmingly gangs are essentially racist institutions. and it makes me laugh sometimes when film and TV try to portray them as a melting pot. they show them going around stealing, beating people up, killing people, selling drugs on schoolyards… but hey, at least they’re cool on diversity!

    2. What does it really mean to move beyond the PC constraints of the left? What does it actually look like on a day-to-day basis? Because we tried that already and it led to a lot of wasted human potential…

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