Identity politics risk polluting the American university

DANIEL GREGORY [CC BY 2.0] / FLICKR
DANIEL GREGORY [CC BY 2.0] / FLICKR
What the Chance the Rapper controversy says about our growing culture of victimhood

If there was any question of whether UC Davis is immune from caustic division along lines of race, class and gender, it was answered when the event page for October’s Chance the Rapper concert erupted into a furious debate over the politics of music. The episode, notable for how quickly it escalated, reflects a broader move to a culture of victimhood and shame in which both minority and majority groups are quick to condemn others publicly and viciously.

“All the white people who got floor tickets to see Chance the Rapper need to give them up to Black people or Brown people,” wrote a UC Davis student in a post on the Facebook event page. “The album wasn’t even made for you and you don’t even know what he is talking about or can’t even relate to it lol.”

What was most striking about the ensuing response was its pessimism and lack of clear ideology. Whether you agree or disagree with the idea put forth in the Facebook post, it was one of the only ideas that suggested an affirmative way black students could, as one commenter put it, “heal” at a university considered by many on campus to be anti-black. The language of the post itself (demanding or requesting? Divisive or brave?) could be debated endlessly to no clear answer.

But the charges made in the comments that the post’s author was actually the racist, or that anyone critical of the original post was a racist, resembled the kind of thoughtless free-for-all social media makes all too easy.

Cornel West, writing on the nihilistic threat to black America his seminal 1994 Race Matters, argues for the need of a “love ethic” and “politics of conversion” starting on the local level to help combat what he describes as “a kind of collective clinical depression in significant pockets of black America.”

That must feel familiar to many black students at Davis, for whom the promise of a progressive university clashed hard last year with multiple hate crimes and a slow-to-act administration.

When a historically-oppressed group perceives a threat to its very identity and safety but gets no response in return — and when this happens year after year for decades — it’s not hard to see how a desperate feeling of hopelessness can potentially infect the group. But the answer too often now has been to retreat inward. This is wrong. It causes members of a group to guard one another without skepticism and to have a default mistrust of those outside the group. That is the definition of identity politics. And it’s ripping the social fabric of our society.

To begin to understand how identity politics emerges from the culture of victimhood, look at campus protests and activism.

Activists cite power structures when they choose to reject the kind of push-and-pull style of compromise that requires the mutual cooperation of both groups. How can black students, for example, possibly feel like they’re on equal footing with the university when America’s long history of oppression has taught them otherwise? How can the Students for Justice in Palestine enter a fair dialogue with people they consider functionaries of a colonial state?

A common answer to these questions, that you can’t be on equal footing, promotes the culture of victimhood. There’s no ideology in it. Small differences in opinion can become perceived as threats to a person’s identity. An ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality arises.

A victim of a robbery could not be expected to have a conversation with the robber. Groups that feel victimized would similarly find it absurd to enter into a set of negotiations with their oppressor.

Dialogue breaks down and finding solution through give and take becomes more difficult, if not outright impossible. And individuality breaks down in a culture of victimhood. Demagogues like Donald Trump, who purport to represent victims of bad trade deals and weak leadership, are able to cast entire groups of people, like undocumented immigrants, as the source of the problem despite clear evidence otherwise.

And when nothing is accomplished, the attitude becomes pessimistic. The 1971 prison riots in Attica, New York showed that the social upheavals of the 60’s didn’t resolve issues of police brutality and state-sponsored racism. The 70’s never ended. We are still a pessimistic nation.

We see it here when one comment on a Chance the Rapper page becomes a campus controversy in less than 24 hours.

UC Davis ranked second last year in a New York Times study on colleges that did the most to promote upward mobility. And yet the sentiment on campus was that this was a university going off the rails toward a neoliberal disaster. Increasing privatization, nepotism, misuse of student funds — all very real issues — didn’t perfectly gel with other, more positive, realities.

But what does this ranking mean if upward mobility is viewed unfavorably by minorities as assimilation to what might fairly be considered a white, upper-middle class type of existence? It’s possible that the tough sanctions of identity politics contribute to an increasing desire on the part of minority students to return to their own communities after college — to resist assimilation to a culture largely seen as oppressive.

In his revealing New Yorker essay on political and racial tension at Oberlin College, Nathan Heller describes how one black student, responding to what she saw as a white-dominated curriculum, said, “I’m going home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”

The scrums we see playing out on college campuses today cannot fully be resolved until student leaders are able to simultaneously acknowledge that they may be victims of longstanding oppression but are also able to self-love and aspire to a higher goal. Simply opposing Katehi did not inspire moral satisfaction. But contributing to the search effort for a Chancellor that meets the standards required to run a large public university will. Simply opposing Trump brings nobody to make phone calls to battleground states. But truly believing that Clinton (or another preferred candidate) can positively impact the country can.

Colleges, which provide the tools of self-affirmation through education, operate on a level that is fundamentally local — it’s exactly the environment in which Cornel West argues a love ethic can be cultivated. But you can see it all over. It’s DeRay Mckesson of Black Lives Matter running for mayor of Baltimore, against guaranteed loss, and sending the message that activism can’t shy away from government if it’s to have any worth in the end. There’s reason to be hopeful here at UC Davis, where the #BlackUnderAttack demonstration last year effectively pressured elected ASUCD leaders to rally around the protestors’ cause.

Rising above identity politics, on this campus and nationally, will begin when students find their own moral purpose and pursue it with a vigor and optimism. “To be an activist you have to be hopeful,” said Kyla Burke, a co-founder of Davis Stands with Ferguson, in a March interview. “Because if I don’t think things can change, why am I putting my efforts to change them?”

Written by: Eli Flesch — ekflesch@ucdavis.edu

 

(UPDATE: 10/30/2016, 11:35 p.m.: Editor’s note: The name of the student whose Facebook post is quoted in this article has been removed for purposes of the said individual’s safety.)