Holding journalists and representatives accountable
Rap music, as it was intended, has lit a fire and got white people in their feelings. In an opinion column written last week by opinion editor Eli Flesch on what is now termed the “Chance the Rapper Controversy,” a host of ideologies were invoked to obfuscate the racial realities for Black and Brown people in higher education. We’re gonna be doing a read, and breaking it all the way down.
Before we delve into the many ways in which this article supports white supremacy and a racist institution, we feel compelled to address the title: “Identity politics risk polluting the American university.”
Black and Brown people have long been considered a “polluting” force to American institutions. Intentionally or not, the article’s orientation is that the work of Black communities in higher education and the reactionary violence which arises from that work are “polluting” something pure. Such harkening back to “better days” is the same logics we see every day from Trump, white supremacists and fascists. Purity narratives both rely on history, while denying its realities.
The narrative that identity politics serves as an “infection,” downplays the structural and political choices faced by Black people on this campus. What Flesch calls “identity politics,” otherwise known as an uncritical position based solely along the boundaries of identity, is for us a starting place of solidarity and the representation of a politics more complex than comprehended by the liberal anti-Blackness presented in Flesch’s argument.
Acknowledging that power structures exist in the liberal tradition doesn’t do anything to further anti-racist actions within the University. When Black people address that there are physical and material ways to intervene in the everyday structures of racism, they are often violently attacked. That scenario doesn’t implicate the politics of victimhood — it’s the manifestation of structural privilege which demands that Black bodies be sacrificed for white feelings.
In other words, if white feelings were not such a delicate commodity to protect, we would not have Black sacrifices.
This denial of historical reality is intimately wrapped up in the claims of a so-called “culture of victimhood.” Stephen Steinberg, a writer and scholar on American race relations, confronts the fascination of the liberal imagination with “culture” and argues that to understand the products of so-called “culture,” we must always look primarily at the structural forces shaping their livelihoods. By obsessively focusing on culture, we support the dual notions embodied in “American meritocracy.” Either you have the “right” set of cultural values and so are successful (the Horatio Alger Myth), or you have “bad” cultural values which keep you from being successful (the culture of poverty thesis). Both ignore the criteria for success and blame those experiencing structural oppression.
And so there is no culture of victimhood, only a continued call by the oppressed to those who benefit from structural racism to acknowledge that their lives are shaped not by their individual choices or mentalities, nor by their love or hatred for any one person, but they are shaped by the histories and structures of white supremacy into which they are born.
It doesn’t matter if I, as a Black person, hate or love white people because I lack the power to systematically deny them access to life, justice and humanity. By focusing their attention on the “attitudes” of the oppressed, liberals can find themselves supporting the systems of oppression they ostensibly stand against.
I have some true tea for y’all; it’s not our attitudes that expose us to violence — it’s the insistence that nothing is happening even as we drink lead-filled water, live in poverty and are killed or incarcerated by white supremacy. That’s on y’all.
The problem then is two-fold here, both an issue of representation and one of journalism. The Associated Students of UC Davis are supposed to be student leaders, self-proclaimed representatives of the student body and yet there is only a single Black person in their body. It’s unsurprising then that their body reflects their broader politics.
Although they claim to represent Black students on campus, they remain silent on structural reforms for Black students unless it is fought for tooth and nail. The continued silence on the problems of The Aggie, its blatant anti-Blackness and misogynoir, is a form of white supremacy. By doing nothing, you’ve put the work of anti-racism onto those most affected by anti-Blackness. You’ve put it on the students you say you represent. You abdicate responsibility, and in doing so benefit from a system that thrives on Black exploitation.
We call on you to do better — to be proactive in lifting up Black voices and leaders — and also in proactively taking up the issues facing Black students on this campus. We are here. We live in a racial reality, even if it’s not talked about.
So how do these racial realities end up so far from our conversation at The Aggie? This is not the first time that we’ve seen non-Black authors at The Aggie utilize the words of Black people as weapons against the righteous anger many of us feel at the structural and interpersonal injustices we face every day. Dr. Cornel West is a part of our community’s ongoing conversation, but let us be clear — he is only one voice.
The Aggie’s history around cherry-picked quotes and uncomplicated narratives around Black history aids in constructing anti-Black articles while simultaneously claiming they are doing us a favor by talking about race. This habit isn’t limited to historical figures either.
Eli Flesch used quotes from Black students without their permission and with blatant disregard for context. With the plethora of Black writers and cultural voices we’d like to expand the conversation so it looks more holistic within the Black tradition. Malcolm X, Franz Fanon and Stokely Carmichael all advocated on behalf of Black self-determination because they recognized that whiteness is not solely about identity but a set of structural and economic relations.
By putting West in conversation with these other voices, we see that action must be taken out of radical love; a love for our communities and our futures. It means the kind of love Assata Shakur spoke on when she said we must “love and support one another.” What it doesn’t mean is accepting that the urgent matter of liberation, of living, of being held second to dialogue or to white feelings.
It means rejecting whiteness, and the social and material relationships of exclusion founded on slavery and Native genocide. It means that utilizing the logics of whiteness won’t get us free; that we must be inimical to those logics. It means that being oppositional can be a radical form of self-love and empowerment. To assume our anger leads to nihilism only means we’ve become complacent to the fact that the rules structuring our society are built on anti-Blackness.
Both the original comment and the responses supporting that post argued not simply that oppression exists but that it must be dealt with for us to live. When a simple suggestion that we displace whiteness at a concert brings threats of violence, beatings and more — when as small a request as that leads to violence — it demonstrates that Black calls for structural and material change are inimical to the liberal discourse of the university in which we all are expected to occupy the same positions of power. We don’t, but we could — if non-Black people weren’t so quick to protect their material investments “they earned” off the structures of anti-Blackness.
This is the fundamental limitation of liberalism. Dialogue and conversation do nothing to change actual structures of power.
Let’s bring this down to a practical level. When the women’s senior lacrosse players had a party themed after racist caricatures of latinx folks, the University’s response was that they needed more education. But the realities of anti-Blackness and white supremacy on our campus is not rooted in ignorance, and to ground these realities in simple prejudice or unconscious bias misses the fact that access to structures, institutions and resources are what is at stake here — not simply a matter of knowing.
Providing these students education on the topic of white supremacy and anti-blackness does not remove the heavily ingrained behaviors and ideologies that they were raised with and internalized. It is simply a scapegoat for white-serving institutions to wipe their hands clean of the incident without keeping people accountable for the harm they continue to perpetuate and normalize.
We should be clear, our position is radical and not liberal — thus there are areas where we will fundamentally be at odds. Our analysis extends beyond single identities to address politics of solidarity, of class, sexuality, disability — our politics extend beyond “identity” to the material and social conditions which make these identities pertinent. Conversation only goes so far, and as many of us face the material realities of death, discrimination and poverty, we must move beyond the liberal position of conversation and discourse.
Oppressed peoples have spent an enormous amount of time and energy educating and talking with their oppressors. And that work will still continue. But that work must always be paired with actions that change the lived realities, the material conditions, under which we live.
As the neoliberal university continues to spin diversity and tolerance as the buzzwords of the day; while they continue to do little to address hate crimes happening to our communities; and while they refuse to do the hard work of evaluating the roots of higher education in racism we must necessarily move beyond words.
Instead of policing the work of Black people, instead of calling for more dialogue, it’s time to address what actions and structural changes must be made to deal with these problems. Polemics like love and hate focus our attention on individuals, on internalizing policing methods, hiding the fact that structural access to affect and emotion and their attendant material freedoms is a critical part of whiteness. Black people can be angry. That doesn’t make us victims or nihilists. It makes us aware of our social and material position.
James Baldwin says, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Do not mistake our anger for nihilism. Our anger is also our hope — that the way things are is not what it will be.
Arguing that working within the system, rather than for its dismantling, is “better” is to believe that the rules are fundamentally fair — that justice will be served if we work within the framework of current politics.
We too think that justice can be served; we’ve simply realized that our political imaginations should not, and cannot, be contained within a system built on our blood, sweat and tears.
SWERV, UCD Sociology Dept.