In the mid-1980s, Rice University sociologist Chandler Davidson began the first session of his course on race and nationality by posing a difficult question: Is all racial humor racist?

Davidson, who died in April, was best known for his scholarship about how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed America. But he was also an award-winning teacher, who wasn’t afraid to challenge his students. Of course, he knew that white people had used humor across the centuries to demean, denigrate, and humiliate racial and ethnic minorities. The question was which jokes were racist, and why.

We don’t ask that anymore, in class or outside of it. Witness the fate of Arizona Diamondbacks announcer Bob Brenly, who made a joke on a broadcast earlier this month about New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman’s head covering. “Pretty sure that’s the same do-rag that Tom Seaver used to wear when he pitched for the Mets,” quipped Brenly.

Marcus Stroman is Black, and Bob Brenly is white. The comment went viral and the blogosphere went after Brenly, who shifted quickly into damage control. First he issued an apology, calling the joke “insensitive and wrong.” He then announced he would take a voluntary leave of absence to undergo “awareness training related to diversity and inclusion.”

OK, we get it: He said a bad thing, and now he has to do penance. But why?

That was the question Chandler Davidson put to his class, which he started with an ugly barb that I remember not so fondly from my own youth: Black entrepreneurs had bought Toys “R” Us and had decided to rename it “We Be Toys.” There was scattered laughter before an African American student rose and walked toward the door. Davidson, who is white, asked him why he was leaving. The student said the professor’s joke was racist.

“I can assure you that it wasn’t,” Davidson replied. “I think it’s important to distinguish between a joke with racial content and a racist joke.” The first kind was simply about racial differences, but the second kind denigrated a particular race.

“I’m not sure I see the difference,” the student said. And besides, Davidson’s joke had obviously mocked how some Blacks talk. If the professor had been Black, the student said, it might have been OK. But not coming from a white guy.

The student slammed the door as he left and then came back in, revealing what some members of the class had already suspected: The whole exchange was staged. Davidson had given the student a script of it beforehand.

The effect of the exercise was “electrifying,” Davidson later recalled. It focused students’ attention on a “complex sociological issue” that was rarely discussed in academic settings. And, most of all, it freed them to share their perceptions of it.

Davidson then conducted a written survey of the students, asking them if they had told or heard racial jokes. For homework, he had them interview peers about the same. In the next class, Davidson shared the results of his poll and the students described what they had gathered in their interviews. Most of all, they talked about what made certain jokes racist. One common feature was that these remarks traded in well-known negative stereotypes, like Davidson’s staged joke to the class had.

Also, a joke was more likely to be perceived as racist if the person telling it was not a member of the group that the joke targeted. But even then, Davidson’s students pointed out, people in that group might not agree about whether the joke was racist or not.

Bob Brenly’s joke about Marcus Stroman would have provided yet more fodder for the students to dissect. And while I can’t tell you what they would have concluded, I can imagine the questions that Davidson would have raised.

Does a do-rag represent a negative stereotype of African Americans, along the lines of the grammatical style that Davidson’s joke mocked? Isn’t it possible that Brenly was simply making a joke about the differences between races, not making fun of one or the other?

Davidson might also have suggested that the joke was actually at Tom Seaver’s expense, not at Marcus Stroman’s. For the record, Seaver was a straightlaced white Republican from Fresno, California. The idea of him wearing a do-rag is pretty funny, whether you think Brenly’s comment was racist or not.

At the same time, Davidson would have emphasized, Stroman did think it was racist. So did Mets manager Luis Rojas, who called Brenly’s remark “completely inappropriate.” Davidson would also have made sure the class knew this wasn’t Brenly’s first racial controversy. During a 2019 broadcast, Brenly quipped that San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. might find it “easier to run the bases” if “he didn’t have that bike chain around his neck,” referring to the large necklace worn by the Dominican-born Tatis.

But Tatis didn’t take offense, which is something Davidson would have shared as well. “I just laugh about it,” Tatis told a reporter, when asked about the remark. “I don’t know what [Brenly] is thinking about it. But I just find it fun.”

So if Tatis didn’t have a problem with the remark, Davidson might have asked, why should anyone else take offense? And whose interests are served when we assume that everyone is — or should be — offended by it?

We like to believe we are wiser than our predecessors, especially on matters of race. But my strong guess is that the people in Davidson’s class learned more about racism than most of our own students do. He made them say what they thought — we tell them the right words to say. He asked questions — we give instructions.

Real education is always risky, because you don’t know where it’s going to lead. And on this subject, we’re simply too scared to take that risk. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any professor today conducting a discussion of Bob Brenly’s jokes in the free and open manner of Chandler Davidson.

Would you?