(ThyBlackMan.com) In the March 7th 2016 edition of the Boston Review in the article, “Black Study, Black Struggle” Robin Kelley initiated a discussion of the state and future course of Black Studies. Here are excerpts from the piece and responses to it.
“In the fall of 2015, college campuses were engulfed by fires ignited in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. . . . I want to draw attention to the contradictory impulses within the (student) movement: the tension between reform and revolution. . . . I want to think about what it means for black students to seek love from an institution incapable of loving them—of loving anyone, perhaps—and to manifest this yearning by framing their lives largely through a lens of trauma. . . .Trauma is real; it is no joke. . . But reading black experience through trauma can easily slip into thinking of ourselves as victims and objects rather than agents, subjected to centuries of gratuitous violence that have structured and overdetermined our very being.
“Mainstream America is less threatened by the ‘trauma’ theory because it doesn’t place economic justice at its core and takes the focus out of the realm of justice and into psychology; out of the streets, communities, into the singular experience (even if experienced in common) of the individual. . . (T)rauma does not require dismantling structural racism, which is why university administrators focus on avoiding triggers rather than implementing zero-tolerance policies for racism or sexual assault. . . .(R)esistance is our healing. Through collective struggle, we alter our circumstances; contain, escape, or possibly eviscerate the source of trauma; recover our bodies; reclaim and redeem our dead; and make ourselves whole. . .
“(Also) I challenge student activists to not cleave their activism from their intellectual lives or mistakenly believe that because the university does not offer them the education they crave, it is beyond their reach. . . .(T)he university’s power over our lives is illusory. It lulls us into believing that politics—to lobby for access to, or control over, such institutions—is our only salvation. (S)tudents are asking the university to implement curriculum changes—namely, the creation of cultural-competency courses, more diverse course reading lists, and classes dedicated to the study of race, gender, sexuality, and social justice. They not only acknowledge the university’s magisterium in all things academic, but they also
desperately wish to change the campus culture, to make this bounded world less hostile and less racist.
“But granting the university so much authority over our reading choices, and emphasizing a respect for difference over a critique of power, comes at a cost. Students not only come to see the curriculum as an oppressor that delimits their interrogation of the world, but they also come to see racism largely in personal terms. . .
“Black studies was conceived not just outside the university but in opposition to a Eurocentric university culture with ties to corporate and military power. Having emerged from mass revolt, insurgent black studies scholars developed institutional models based in, but largely independent of, the academy. In later decades, these institutions were—with varying degrees of eagerness—incorporated into the university proper in response to pressure to embrace multiculturalism. . . . Certainly universities can and will become more diverse and marginally more welcoming for black students, but as institutions they will never be engines of social transformation. Such a task is ultimately the work of political education and activism. By definition it takes place outside the university. . .
“(W)hy hold on to the policies and promises of multiculturalism and diversity, especially since they have done nothing to dislodge white supremacy? Indeed I want to suggest that the triumph of multiculturalism marked a defeat for a radical anti-racist vision. True, multiculturalism emerged in response to struggles waged by the Black Freedom movement and other oppressed groups in the 1960s and ’70s. But the programmatic adoption of diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism vampirized the energy of a radical movement that began by demanding the complete transformation of the social order and the eradication of all forms of racial, gender, sexual, and class hierarchy.
“The point of liberal multiculturalism was not to address the historical legacies of racism, dispossession, and injustice but rather to bring some people into the fold of a ‘society no longer seen as racially unjust.’ What did it bring us? Black elected officials and black CEOs who helped manage the greatest transfer of wealth to the rich and oversee the continued erosion of the welfare state; the displacement, deportation, and deterioration of black and brown communities; mass incarceration; and planetary war. We talk about breaking glass ceilings in corporate America while building more jail cells for the rest. The triumph of liberal multiculturalism also meant a shift from a radical anti-capitalist critique to a politics of recognition.
This means, for example, that we now embrace the right of same-sex couples to marry so long as they do not challenge the institution itself, which is still modeled upon the exchanging of property; likewise we accept the right of people of color, women, and queer people to serve in the military, killing and torturing around the world. . . Tolerance in its multicultural guise, as Wendy Brown taught us, is the liberal answer to managing difference but with no corresponding transformation in the conditions that, in the first place, marked certain bodies as suspicious, deviant, abject, or illegible. Tolerance, therefore, depoliticizes genuine struggles for justice and power.”
Michael Eric Dyson agrees with Kelley. He feels that the university projects “an imperial version of racial tolerance that exploits the very multiculturalism meant to speak for the exploited; and of the dangers of staging the traumas of black experience while leaving aside the political source of black suffering.” And Barbara Ransby is also on board. “The price of entry has often been for those students to accept the notion that they are different and better than their cousins, neighbors, and even siblings who are either excluded from entry or—worse—tracked into the parallel prison industry. Truly transformative demands have to reject that divisive formula, shrouded in the myth of meritocracy. The demand for open admissions and free tuition strikes at the heart of the matter.”
However, there are dissenters too, Randall Kennedy for example. “It is galling to see academics participating in the vilification of higher education. I have taught at HLS (Harvard Law School) for more than three decades. . . If by some miracle the predominant ethos of HLS were to become overnight the dominant ethos of the United States, America would be a remarkably better society. . . I advise progressive dissenters to use these institutions respectfully and collaboratively and desist from making them into enemies.”
And Aron Brady says, “In the years since 2008, many of my graduate student colleagues have followed our students in leaving the university. Most of my generation of academics—we who went on the job market after it crashed—have faced a different reality than the generations of academics before us. Like our students, whose four-year tenure in the university was always going to be brief and fleeting, my generation is not in danger of mistaking the university for a refuge. Instead we know it as a vocation stripped of its profession, a devalued form of labor that we must nevertheless struggle to do.
“I would not presume to instruct Robin Kelley on how to be in the university. But if I were still an instructor of record, I also would not presume to instruct my students on how to protest the university, or how to leave it. If there is one thing professors with lifetime employment lack authority on, it is the world their students inhabit, in which the university is simply a brief interlude. I had to leave the university to understand that.”