Some academic institutions use ideologies and strategies from the past to control and monitor black people (opinion)


The current moment of political transformation glaringly demonstrates that for black lives to truly matter in higher education and for black people to be safe, substantial reinvention and restructuring of academic institutions must take place.

In 2018, we wrote an article titled Plantation Politics and Neoliberal Racism in Higher Education: A Framework for Rebuilding Anti-Racist Institutions. Our intention was to highlight the parallel organizational and cultural norms between many contemporary higher education institutions and plantations. “Plantation politics” meant something that had been weighing on us for a while, namely the psychological and political warfare black people are subjected to in traditionally white institutions that render them invisible while exploiting their labor for profit. As co-editors, we continue this work in our next edited volume, Plantation Politics and Campus Rebellions: Power, Diversity, and the Emancipatory Struggle in Higher Education (SUNY Press, March 2021). The book is an examination of the ways in which academic institutions can use past plantation ideologies and strategies to control, repress, and monitor black people and their resistance.

We began thinking about the similarities between plantations and universities in 2015, when students at the University of Missouri and other institutions advocated for racial justice and rebelled against their administrations. As Bianca and Frank wrote in the introduction to our book, “These protests and acts of resistance — what we call ‘campus rebellions’ — often explode when universities matter. body as present but are not prepared to make the necessary changes to ensure Black people are welcome, safe and treated equally.

In our analysis, we found that many demands in 2015 mirrored similar demands made by black and brown students in the 1960s and 1970s. These demands resulted in liberal applications of diversity and inclusion, such as the hiring of black staff and professors. However, because administrations often did not alter exploitative promotion and tenure processes, commit to retaining staff, or transform racist departmental cultures, these demands rarely met the desired emancipatory potentials, such as scholars such as Roderick Ferguson and Michael Omi and Howard Winant have shown this.

Thus, the “plantation politics” helps us identify the machine of white supremacy in higher education – how it works, how it perceives us, what entities act as obstacles to fairness and justice, what we have to tear down and how we could build something new. For example, one chapter of the book explores the links between the role of the contemporary diversity manager and the plantation driver, while another examines how diversity initiatives are frequently used to maintain plantation cultures and economies in traditionally white institutions.

Currently, the pervasive impact of systemic racism in education, health care and prison institutions is being highlighted in the context of the coronavirus and police violence, revealing how remnants of the plantation past continue to drive disproportionate suffering for black people. Recently, a resurgence of interest in reforming, defunding, and abolishing policing has made its way into the public lexicon. While such discussions have existed for years, the rebellions in response to the murders of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are driving calls for change in policing, including at universities.

History shows that modern policing stems from “slave patrols,” which were common in states that claimed people as property. They were made up of white volunteers who were weaponized by enslaved blacks by the police, including to crush uprisings and dismiss emancipating people. After the Civil War ended, these patrols were disbanded and replaced by informal white mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, and police departments that upheld Jim Crow laws. In The condemnation of darkness, Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes how police departments engaged in violence against black people, were riddled with white corruption, and aided white mobs by disarming black people protecting their homes. In short, police departments were created to “protect and serve” settler colonial whiteness.

Although time moves on, Derrick Bell Faces at the bottom of the well reminds us that the systems of oppression that disempowered and denigrated enslaved black peoples are still present – ​​that the tentacles of violence, surveillance and exploitation they lived through are entwined with the “unique dangers” that black people face today. He writes, “In these perilous times, we must do no less than them: fashion a philosophy that both matches the unique dangers we face and allows us to recognize in those dangers opportunities for committed life and service. human.

These unique dangers gave rise to the Movement for Black Lives and the call for the abolition of police departments, including those on college campuses. The core of an abolitionist framework is the total defunding of police services, the dismantling of their current structures, and the redistribution of those funds to social services and community approaches to address community concerns.

Police departments exist on more than 90% of college campuses, with most sworn officers having the ability to use a handgun, chemical or pepper spray, and batons, and 70% of these departments have police protocols. agreement with outside law enforcement agencies. Universities have used these law enforcement tools and resources against students, faculty, and administrators in campus rebellions and on a daily basis. Additionally, a number of campuses have militarized their police forces with US military surplus, implicating them as arbiters of deadly violence as well as damaging racial fatigue.

Meanwhile, campus safety and security budgets average $2.7 million, and they can be much larger. Temple University, which has one of the largest campus police departments with 130 officers, had a proposed budget of $27.5 million for campus security in 2019.

Hit the reset button

Right now, traditionally white institutions have a chance to press the reset button and start transforming their systems and structures in favor of black lives and racial equity. It is time, in the words of our colleagues Charles HF Davis and Jude Paul Matias Dizon, “to consider new approaches to community safety and well-being based on compassion and the value of human life”. Interrogating the existing remnants of the plantation past will allow these institutions to reimagine how they can create safer and more inclusive learning environments based on norms determined by the community – not by the hands of the police.

As student affairs professional and lecturer Jaylyn Jones argues, “We have been doing this for years on a smaller scale” when we place well-trained resident assistants in our student residences who are “unarmed and trained in community resources, conflict mediation, crisis response and de-escalate situations…Because these employees live in the communities they serve, they have faster response times, stronger relationships with community members, and a better understanding of needs, trends, and social dynamics from the community.

Abolition offers an opportunity to rethink the capitalist enterprise that higher education has become: a business that preys on black people for their unseen and unpaid or underpaid labor, time and energy. We recognize the differences between our current circumstances and the conditions of trauma, violence and exploitation that our ancestors endured as captives and treated as chattels. Simultaneously, we understand the significance of Katherine McKittrick’s argument that “the legacy of slavery and the labor of the unfree shape and are part of the environment we now inhabit.”

Universities cannot escape the haunting of their history, especially since it has played a fundamental role in the processes and the accumulation of capital that have enabled many academic institutions to exist. However, we can take advantage of this catalytic moment, unseen in this country for 50 years, and use it to define a new vision of what universities can look like: one where black people are safe and their essential contributions (and sacrifices ) at the academy are valued. Where people see their basic needs met by institutions genuinely dedicated to the public good and the dismantling of systemic oppression. This is a university, not where the police roam the campus and neighborhood profiling black people, but where people understand that “safety” means caring about each person’s full humanity to ensure that they has everything she needs. In this new reality, Black Studies, Gender Studies, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, and other necessary programs are fully funded, providing students with access to an education that nurtures a complex understanding of this country. and our global communities.

We are excited about the current call for a newly envisioned higher education. It feels like a first step in addressing higher education’s history of slavery, while preparing for needed repairs. While it remains to be seen whether this moment will bring about substantial transformation, as organizers and scholars explicitly demand abolitionist practices in their institutions and communities, one thing is clear: the way we do higher education must change.

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