‘Black Lives Matter’ Without Black People?

Many people deny that pervasive racism shapes colleges and how it's reproduced through routine, less overt acts of harm, argue Thurka Sangaramoorthy and Joseph B. Richardson Jr.

October 16, 2020
 
 

Racial justice demonstrations have intensified following the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man shot seven times in the back by a white police officer. This incident, which left Blake paralyzed, has revived national protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality that followed the vicious murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. In the months since, multiple murders and shootings of Black people -- including Rayshard Brooks, Deon Kay, Dijon Kizzee, Julian Lewis, Hakim Littleton, Charleena Lyles, David MacAtee, Tony McDade, Trayford Pellerin and Daniel Prude -- have continued to shine a spotlight on the long history of deadly anti-Black violence in the United States.

These incidents and actions have forced individuals and institutions in the United States to reckon with the realities of their own racism. Those in higher education -- department chairs, student groups and universities -- also rushed to add their voices to this conversation. They released statements of solidarity denouncing racist violence and pronouncing their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Several higher education leaders and observers have criticized such proclamations for being largely performative and lacking substance. Many statements failed to directly name the historical racism within their units and continuing harm inflicted upon faculty, staff and students of color. Further, they neglected to link hostile institutional climates to the lack of progress in increasing the proportion of full-time Black faculty at colleges and universities nationally. Universities and departments rushed to create committees, workshops and listening sessions on racial diversity and racism without delineating specific action plans to support antiracist work on campus and outside academe.

In our midsize department, which has no permanent Black faculty members or Ph.D. students, administrators made attempts to collectively engage our broad community of faculty, students and staff in composing a statement of solidarity. They expressed rage and sorrow at the death of George Floyd, denounced hatred and racism, tried to acknowledge the colonial roots of the discipline, and ended with ambiguous requests for community members to participate in building an antiracist institution. Written for a majority-white audience, this statement and subsequent conversations quickly became an exercise in collective navel-gazing.

Perhaps worst of all, it did not center on Black lives. There was little acknowledgment of the racism and discrimination occurring within the unit -- perpetuated by leadership, faculty, staff and students -- and its impact on Black people. There was no admission of individual or structural complicity in actively causing harm to Black, Indigenous and people of color within our own communities; no statements about upholding and benefiting from systems of inequality; no proclamations about taking an ethical stance or conclusive action when acts of racism occur.

In fact, there was no reflection at all about why we were a department without Black people.

Our experiences are far from unique. It’s not difficult for colleagues in higher education to focus on the brutal killings that have transpired and to call out this type of anti-Black violence that is visible and shocking. Some of us in higher education also are increasingly speaking out about how this violence becomes articulated through everyday structures: laws, policies and acts meant to segregate, marginalize and dehumanize. Yet many people still deeply deny how white supremacy and pervasive racism continue to shape institutions of higher learning and academic disciplines -- and how individuals continually reproduce these racist structures through routine, less overt acts of harm and violence that fail to create supportive and nurturing spaces for Black faculty and students.

In order to openly and honestly discuss anti-Black racism, academic institutions, administrators, faculty members and students need to reckon with the lack of Black, Indigenous and people of color within their academic units. Any meaningful engagement or solidarity statement must specifically delineate how an organization will take direct action by engaging with critiques from Black scholars and students and other people of color whose experiences from within are shaped by racism. These discussions need to be reflective of how organizational members actively participate in anti-Blackness by silencing, gaslighting and pushing Black, Indigenous and people of color out for naming their experiences. They should also include specific plans for confronting deeply embedded anti-Black norms of “professionalization” and fit, while building accountability and transparency into institutional culture.

Further, statements must directly confront how disciplines and scholars perpetuate power imbalances in traditional research practice by treating community members -- often from marginalized groups -- as research subjects and should commit to respectfully and equitably involve local partners in determining how knowledge is gathered and codified. Finally, discussions around anti-Black racism must address how dismantling white supremacy requires much more than gaining access to the language of liberation. These engagements should attend to how antiracist work requires: 1) navigating white centrism as one engages in this process and 2) challenging the myth of diversity and inclusion as a diversion from the need to radically give up power within white institutions. When institutions and individuals fail to do this, they perpetuate performative allyship that exists in the service of white comfort, and they fail to create intentional spaces of belonging for Black faculty and students.

At the same time, it’s imperative to guard against paternalism and charity often evoked through solidarity statements and expressions of sympathy for those who are harmed by anti-Black racism. Black people and communities are not simply exceptional objects for saving and benevolence. It’s important to not just call out their oppression but to also acknowledge and celebrate the fact Black people throughout the world, including in the United States, have been key to shaping the character and identity of the contemporary, modern world through their labor, knowledge, resistance and outright rebellion -- holding oppressive systems and racist individuals accountable as they are doing now. Academic institutions must be resolute in honoring Black people’s agency, participation and leadership, often undertaken at a great cost to themselves, their families and their communities.

Institutional efforts to produce solidary statements, create committees to examine diversity efforts, hold difficult conversations about anti-Black racism or develop action plans to recruit additional Black faculty and students are commendable. They should be considered necessary steps to engaging in long term change to address white supremacy in academe. But they are all Band-Aid, short-term solutions to problems that require deeper introspection. Without difficult, honest examinations of climate and whether an academic space is safe, inclusive or has enough support systems and institutional policies for Black faculty and students to thrive and grow as scholars and community members, even the best-intentioned recruitment and retention efforts are bound to fail.

Institutional administrators often recognize the benefits of diversifying faculty and student ranks but do not fully comprehend how crucial it is to understand and have the will to ensure that recruitment and retention processes are fully integrated into an environment of respect, trust, inclusion and meaningful engagement. Focusing exclusively on diversity programming and training without evaluating or facilitating ways to embed antiracism as foundational to the daily experiences, interactions and behaviors of academic communities leads to an institutional culture in which Black faculty and students do not feel valued. Transforming institutional cultures into those that represent national diversity require reckoning with academic social norms that perpetuate anti-Black racism as well as developing and applying the initiatives needed to eliminate those norms.


Inside Higher Ed reached out to the University of Maryland, which had the following comment: "Leadership in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and in the Department of Anthropology are actively working with faculty, administrators, staff, students and alumni to address the significant and shared concerns outlined by Dr. Sangaramoorthy and Dr. Richardson. Their critiques and recommendations serve as important self-reflection guides, not only for our college and university community, but for all universities as we continue our work to improve higher education, and the environments in which we work, teach, and learn. Retention, promotion, recruitment, and support of Black faculty and students remain important priorities for UMD and the college, and we understand the urgency and value of accelerating and strengthening these efforts. Without question, there is more work to be done, and this commitment is a shared responsibility across the university.​"

Bio

Thurka Sangaramoorthy is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, whose work focuses on global health and migration, infectious disease epidemics, and critical studies of racialization. She is the author of Treating AIDS: Politics of Difference, Paradox of Prevention and co-author of Rapid Ethnographic Assessments: A Practical Approach and Toolkit for Collaborative Community Research. Joseph B. Richardson Jr. is the interim chair of African American studies and the Joel and Kim Feller Endowed Professor of African American Studies and Medical Anthropology at the university. He is the principal investigator for the Center for Injury Prevention and Policy at the University of Maryland R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, where he investigates violence, trauma and the effectiveness of hospital violence intervention programs.

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