When two black students arrived late to Mark Wattier's class at Kentucky's Murray State University, the professor compared them to slaves. "Well, it's OK, I expect it of you guys anyway," he said, according to one of the students. Asked what he meant, he reportedly replied: "It is part of your heritage. The slaves never showed up on time to their owners and were lashed for it. I just don't have the right to do that."
One of the students made a formal complaint, Wattier was suspended without pay and, thinking his 30-year tenure at MSU was over, he filed for what he called an "early" and "forced" retirement in March.
But on Friday MSU rehired Wattier as a part-time faculty member, reported the Murray State News.
This pattern isn't unusual.
The sportscaster Sid Rosenberg was fired from Don Imus' show on WFAN-AM in 2001, after he called tennis hotshot Venus Williams an "animal" and said that she and sister Serena would have better luck posing nude for National Geographic than Playboy.
Imus called Rosenberg "a moron" and "a degenerate" during the show and fired him immediately. But after Rosenburg made a tearful on-air apology, Imus rehired him because he "wasn't expressing any deeply-held racist views about black people being an inferior species."
Philippe Virgitti didn't know who John Galliano was, when the creative director of Christian Dior hurled drunken anti-Semitic abuse at him and a friend in a Paris bar in March. Dior swiftly dismissed Galliano from his eponymous label, and Galliano spent the following months going between rehab in Arizona and Switzerland, and a courtroom in France (a country where anti-Semitic insults are illegal).
Galliano's sentence is pending, and the House of Dior hasn't budged in its position. But public sentiment has slowly turned in his favor. Kate Moss commissioned Galliano to design her wedding dress over the summer, and when Moss' father thanked Galliano at the party, every guest rose in a standing ovation, according to Vogue.
Virgitti himself came to the designer's defense. "I am convinced that his words overtook his mind. I do not believe he is racist or anti-Semitic," he is quoted as saying in the AFP. "John Galliano doesn't deserve this. I don't want him destroyed like that.
After talk radio host Laura Schlessinger berated a black female caller with the N-word 11 times last year, she decided to end her 30-year radio career. "My contract is up for my radio show at the end of the year," the socially conservative therapist told Larry King, "and I've made the decision not to do radio anymore."
Except she didn't make that decision. In January, Sirius XM Radio welcomed Schlessinger to the fold with a multiyear deal.
These patterns of firings, retirings and rehirings expose the often conflicted attitude of Americans to incidents of racism. In cases of racial violence or discrimination, the law, as well as mainstream public sentiment, is pretty unambiguous in its opposition.
For example, a Catholic school principal, Frank Borzellieri, was fired from his Bronx post earlier this month, after a Daily News' profile exposed his writings and views to be linked to white supremacist groups.
Few have come to his defense.
But when racist expressions take glibber forms, from the mouths of individuals otherwise respected, reaction can be mixed.
Philip Roth broached this subject in his 2000 novel "The Human Stain," in which a classics professor, referring to two students who had never come to class, asks his seminar: "Do they exist or are they spooks?"
Professor Zuckerman didn't know that the two students were black, but the meaning of "spooks" in a racial context embroils him in a controversy that ultimately forces his resignation.
Roth's study of the contradictions and cowardice of 1990s political correctness is still relevant today.
When Wattier made the racist remark, the public condemned it, and Murray State University responded in stark terms. But since Wattier wasn't seen as guilty of "deeply-held racist views," in the words of Imus, the university ultimately decided that his career didn't deserve total ruin.
"If we didn't feel that he could do a credible job in teaching these courses, we wouldn't have brought him back on a retirement contract for the next year," President Randy Dunn told The Murray State News.
Enrollment deadlines are a week away at Murray State, but Wattier's American National Government class already has almost filled its 40-student capacity.
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