In this moment of political clarity in the United States, when the burdens faced by people of African descent have been made — once again — shockingly clear, and the inability or unwillingness of the institutions of state and society to reform themselves adequately have been strikingly underlined, there is a need for all “people of good will” to look within themselves and ask what they can do to make possible a real and lasting change in the governing institutions and society. This demand is intense today in the United States, which has never overcome its central societal fault line, caused by the inheritances of slavery and white supremacism.
This need for introspection and action extends beyond the United States, to all places where ongoing exclusion and, worse, risk to life itself, is felt by historically stigmatized racial and ethnic minorities. This is one reason sympathetic protests are occurring throughout the world. These burdens continue in many European settler colonies where minorities have suffered from displacement, colonization and subordination – such as Canada and Australia, where indigenous people suffer elevated chances of violent death, and much higher risks of death generally. They are present elsewhere too – for instance in India, where caste-related killings are far too numerous.
The requirement to act falls upon all, and not only some. That is in the very nature of a demand of social justice.
What role can academics play in all of this? We academics may not like it, but the answer is most often: little. Those who have crossed a boundary already and become public societal actors, linked deeply to political movements, or those who do so now, can play a crucial role in such a moment, giving voice to what is otherwise inadequately expressed, and providing understanding and context. Others play a role in their classrooms and through their research and writing, recognizing that this is the work of years and even generations, not of moments. Still others simply play their role as citizens.
But intellectuals – not the same as academics, since not all academics are intellectuals and not all intellectuals are academics – necessarily face a difficulty. Thought is not merely activism. It has many currents, and can run in many directions, even contrarily to that which activists travel.
All of this is but prelude. I shall now become more personal, which I generally resist, but sometimes it is necessary. I teach in an institution that styles itself as highly progressive: a bastion of critical thought, even radical. The vast majority of the faculty is white, mostly although not exclusively from the United States. What happens in such a moment?
First, there is a presumption that it is known what it means to be on the right side. The faculty trip over themselves to undertake “virtue signaling”, volubly underlining that they are on the right side as evinced for example by their having participated in demonstrations (perhaps adding a frisson by mentioning the police violence that they narrowly escaped) or simply by expressing “solidarity”. They write screeds underlining their recognition that there is “structural” racism and that it is a terrible thing, that fascism is being or must be resisted, and so forth.
Second, the faculty eagerly publicize their proximity to the struggle, for example by emphasizing their individual relationships with those who are prominent actors within it (for example, the activist-intellectuals mentioned earlier, who are “friends” or friends of friends). Plans are hatched for seminar series, special issues, statements of conscience, and petitions, that may mobilize the friends and the friends of friends. Many of these productions are unlikely to gain much public attention. They are of, by and for the academics. Nevertheless, it is considered a matter of utmost importance that one must participate. Moreover, dividing lines are immediately drawn, between those with the right analyses and those with the wrong ones. Small uses of words become signals of allegiances.
Second-hand reports and citations are trotted out, often inadvertently showing ignorance. Few if any relevant personal experiences are related, as it is only other people who perpetrate and who experience racism. Actual experiences of racism are neither solicited, nor would they generally be heard. Their own institution is seen as a haven, and an ally in the struggle – indeed local proclamations come down from on high underlining that this is the case. Blithe generalizations are made. Opposition to the “system” is expressed. It is stated with relief and approval that the proper form of the struggle is “multi-racial”.
The academics in question remain all the while oblivious to the role of what a colleague of mine has referred to as the “wall of whiteness” which they themselves create. They engage every day in easy presumptions of who has something worthwhile to say and who does not, whose voice counts most and whose least, which experiences matter and which don’t, what is interesting to study and what is not, which issues are important to address and which are not. They take no note of the slights and injuries they perpetrate through their everyday acts of indifference and condescension. They do not attend to the ways in which their stated commitment to fairness gives way in the face of a still greater commitment to insiders. They are keen to attack inequalities, but not those that are nearest at hand. They fail to recognize the “systems” that they themselves uphold, through diverse acts of omission and commission. They are eager to legislate, in the small and in the large, but not to reform. They do not think it necessary to observe (although some are eloquent advocates of “ethnography”) let alone to listen. They support critique — but not self-critique. It is enough to know that they are in favor of the right things and against those who are against those things. After all, they know best, are the most good, and generally have much to say.