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Davis, California

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Letter to the Editor: Defending the status quo isn’t brave

To the Editor:

Re “Responses to column about Professor Clover showcase university values” by Nick Irvin (column, Apr. 11):

“Forty-five percent of President Donald Trump’s supporters believe that whites are the most discriminated-against racial group in America; 54 percent of Trump’s supporters believe that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in America. There is a crucial distinction, of course, between feelings of resentment and oppression and genuine inequality and discrimination.” — Jason Stanley, “How Fascism Works,” Chapter 6 “Victimhood”

We need to talk about victimhood. Victimhood was originally understood as a status or subject of systematic erasure and violence. Conservatives have since transformed it, describing those who support hierarchical structures and domination as victims when others try to restructure or abolish these violent systems. This transformation has fundamentally obscured what it means to be systematically disadvantaged — it obscures the historical and power relations at work that make “feeling uncomfortable” different than “being oppressed.” Although conservative writers and thinkers have worked hard to erase these historical processes, there is a rhetorical and material difference between being a victim of oppression and being divested of the capacity to kill, destroy, exploit and silence oppressed people.

This transformation allows a writer like Nick Irvin to frame himself as a suppressed voice, as a brave fighter for freedom of speech and as a victim, even as he simultaneously uses his voice to reinforce carceral, harmful systems. Just one powerful example of how his speech is elevated and the speech of others is not: When antiracist organizers attempted to address how “Blue Lives Matter” is racist, no news venue — including The California Aggie — would print our writing until nearly a week later for fear of retribution and violence.

But Irvin was silent on that issue. Instead, he has taken the speech of someone on a public forum — well beyond the classroom — and attempted to attack them for their personal political stance. This seems contrary to his position on freedom of speech. It didn’t occur in a classroom, it didn’t pertain to the university, it didn’t personally affect him. It also runs contrary to the way Davis College Republicans framed Milo Yiannopoulos to the campus — as an innocuous free speech advocate — rather than acknowledging the material harms of his rape culture, transphobia and racism. The sudden reversal of Irvin’s adherence to traditional conservative “free speech” arguments becomes clearer when we take into account that the goal of conservative thought is to claim the status of victimhood while leveraging the power of the status quo.

Right-wing “organizers,” and I use that term loosely, have also attempted to use Professor Joshua Clover’s words as a way to undermine the organizing that has been happening on campus and in the local community following Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s decision to let the murderers of Stephon Clark go free. As a result, Clover’s words have become tools used to undermine the Black and Brown organizers and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. Whether or not Black and Brown people agree with Clover’s words, these organizers used old tweets in a blatant attempt to silence us by proxy. If even a white male professor cannot speak his truth, what hope do I have as a Black trans scholar? The idea that this was done as part of some “counter-cultural” display belies the fact that the “conservative victim” ideology obscures the erasure of Black and Brown organizers who have been on the ground doing this work.

Irvin, some ASUCD Senators and a number of folks on campus have also applied this “expanded” definition of victimhood to police. Referencing the “line between civilization and barbarity” (a dog whistle used in conservative circles to talk about the police controlling and incarcerating Black, Brown and poor people), Irvin argues that police are the true victims. Not the thousands dead at their hands every year, not the Black and Brown people they incarcerate, nor the people they steal from. No. For Irvin and his ilk, the police are the true victims.

In 1959, William Parker, police chief for the Los Angeles Police Department, popularized the ideas of the thin blue line and that police were the “true victims.” In his comments to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Parker said, “I think the greatest dislocated minority in America today are the police.” This is the same police chief who recruited police officers from the South in his attempt to militarize and shape his police force as a means to regulate and control their ever-expanding power. This is the intellectual and historical lineage upon which Irvin and other police apologists draw to make their arguments about victimhood today.

But police are not victims. Their structural and historical role within society has been to enforce slavery and segregation, break strikes and patrol borders. Their role is to dominate others. Attempts to rein in their power do not make them victims; rather, checks on police mean that they are less able to victimize people who are historically and materially oppressed. The resolution seen by ASUCD is one attempt to rein in the powers of the police — forcing them to rely on de-escalation techniques, community mental health professionals and others who are better equipped and more helpful in a crisis. Disarming police recognizes that police do not need lethal force to do their jobs. It protects victims. It keeps those of us at multiple structural margins ALIVE.

So who are the victims? I’d prefer to say those of us experiencing and living through systemic forms of violence and erasure are survivors rather than victims. But I’m not willing to accede that word to conservatives either. The people with social power do not get to frame themselves as victims when marginalized people say, “no more.”

Irvin and others like him aren’t victims, and neither are we. In their love of systemic stratification they would like to see us dead or exploited. We want to see us alive and thriving. THAT is the political difference between us.

The writer is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at UC Davis, studying white gay men’s participation in conservative social movements. As a Black trans scholar and activist on campus, they primarily work with labor and anti-racist organizations to build community capacity, a strong understanding of history and an intersectional approach to mutual liberation.


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