The Souls of Black Folk (Audio and ePub)

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

W.E.B. Du Bois


  The Forethought
I.   Of Our Spiritual Strivings
II.   Of the Dawn of Freedom
III.   Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
IV.   Of the Meaning of Progress
V.   Of the Wings of Atalanta
VI.   Of the Training of Black Men
VII.   Of the Black Belt
VIII.   Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece
IX.   Of the Sons of Master and Man
X.   Of the Faith of the Fathers
XI.   Of the Passing of the First-Born
XII.   Of Alexander Crummell
XIII.   Of the Coming of John
XIV.   Of the Sorrow Songs
  The Afterthought




“It Wasn’t Me!” Post-Intent and Correlational Racism – More Better, More Terrible

Excerpt from More Beautiful and More Terrible
The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States

by Imani Perry

American history is longer, larger, more various,
more beautiful, and more terrible than anything
anyone has ever said about it.
—James Baldwin

Chapter 1
“It Wasn’t Me!”
Post-Intent and Correlational Racism


Today, there is no longer any single articulating principle or axial process which provides the logic required to interpret the racial dimensions of all extant political/cultural projects. 1

—Howard Winant

Since the mid-1960s, Americans have lived within a nation that announces racial equality, democracy, and fairness as fundamental to its creed. During the same period, Americans have witnessed little movement in the most egregious signs of racial inequality. Although the percentages of African Americans and Latinos in professional schools and occupations have improved over the past several decades, these groups are still significantly underrepresented in virtually all professions relative to their percentage of the general population, 2 and, while Asian Americans and African immigrants have become distinguished as two of the most highly educated sectors of the U.S. population, 3 these groups are minorities within minorities. Ongoing and dismaying racial gaps in health, employment, education, wealth, and imprisonment persist. The American Dream is not lived by all hardworking and upstanding residents of the United States. While the borders to achieving that dream are more porous than ever, the forces diverting many from the dream are extremely powerful.

In the early 1990s, scholars studying race began to alert the nation that we were failing in our equality mission. 4 Their accounts were divergent, even competing or conflicting, but few could neglect the reality that the twenty-first century would arrive with the problem of race unresolved. Although academic interest was high in the 1990s, this message hadn’t translated to an understanding in popular culture for the most part, with the general public reporting a belief that racism was dead or dying. 5 But things began to turn at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and while 9/11 forged a thin nationalism across our differences, it also highlighted our hysterical fears of difference. 6 The deep partisan division in American politics reignited debates about race and racial ideology. And, by 2006, the public at large acknowledged that we were faced with some sort of race problem, as evidenced by the decision of CNN (a cultural common denominator of sorts) to run a special series on race 7 and, in 2008 and 2009, to offer featured programs titled “Black in America” and “Hispanic in America.”

Most of us, from our various points on the political spectrum, look to the current state of Black and Brown people in the United States—the persistent gaps in income, education, health, crime, and other measures—with frustration. Yet we are divided, in the midst of our shared frustration, about where we place blame, why we are frustrated, and what we think ought to be done about the situation. These divisions do not fall along simple race, class, ethnicity, gender, or political party lines. However, in the midst of a complicated set of responses to this landscape, there are two dominant explanatory frameworks provided in both the academic and the popular literature to describe why racial gaps persist, despite our nation’s transformation under the moral authority of the civil rights movement. One says that racism has been largely ameliorated in our society but that gaps persist because of deficits (moral, cultural) among these particularly low-achieving populations (especially poor Blacks) and because of misguided remedial efforts that encourage dependence and victim complexes rather than striving and achievement. The other argument says that the civil rights revolution failed to resolve the structural inequalities that are responsible for ongoing poor outcomes for people of color. We are still seeing the effects of a historically, as well as contemporary, racially discriminatory society with inadequate policy and judicial responses to racism. 8 Although universities today are filled with those who have devoted entire careers to presenting sound evidence of persistent racial inequality, our popular culture sways in the direction of the former explanation. We are all quite familiar with the argument that, given that the society no longer embraces formal or philosophical racism and yet gaps persist, they can best be explained by behavioral failures or lack of human capital among sectors of communities of color. Depending on the political perspective of the authors of these explanations, the inequality may result from moral or cultural problems inherited from the oppressed generations past or from paternalistic social policy that offered handouts and expected little responsibility. 9

Mainstream media conversations about racism in the twenty-first century have frequently been episodic responses to celebrity episodes of one sort or another. Sometimes public figures make racially inflammatory statements that hearken back to old-fashioned racist discourse and yet also prompt accusations that the subjects of racist language are “too sensitive” or “can’t take a joke” because, after all, we aren’t really a racist society anymore. Other episodes are framed around the treatment of a public figure who is a person of color. The treatment looks undeniably like racism to some and like innocent or easily explained behavior not involving racism to others. In both scenarios, what follows is a headache-inducing soup of outcries, humiliations, hysteria, public apologies or standoffs, a flurry of anonymous hate speech, cries of unfair treatment of Whites, abstraction from individual episodes to general truths for people of color, public outcries from civil rights activists, right-wing backlashes, and then the proclamation of racial exhaustion. These moments, which have the potential to be highly instructive, often leave us simply confused, angry, or self-satisfied (either because we are not like “that” or because “that” is unusual). The reality is that the media and most educational institutions do not train us to think about race in its complexity. We don’t learn how to put together our understanding(s) of race in terms of material realities; everyday race talk; new, old, and corporate media; law; religion; geography; patterns of consumption; economic competition; and human interaction. Sure, Americans generally disavow a belief in an ideology of racism. 10 But we must understand the terms of that disavowal. What, precisely, is being disavowed? What is the definition of racism that we have rejected in our purportedly racially egalitarian society? In U.S. race talk, we generally define racism as comprising two components: intentionality and determinism. More specifically, racism requires both the intent to disadvantage someone on the basis of race and the belief that a person must necessarily be a particular way or have particular characteristics because he or she belongs to a specific racial group. Likewise, in constitutional law, with the exception of the employment discrimination context, in order to prevail, one must show intent to establish racial discrimination. 11 This is an extraordinarily difficult standard to meet and often requires a “smoking gun”—virtually irrefutable evidence of intent to discriminate. Rhetorical gestures (e.g., “judging by the color of your skin,” “color-blind society,” “I’m not a racist,” “White guilt”) reflect the way constitutional interpretation has dovetailed with the popular interpretation of the messages of the civil rights movement. Racism, in the minds of many, is a question of blame, what is in someone’s heart, and the impoliteness of race altogether. There is an analogy to this popular perception in our constitu tional law. In constitutional law, courts fixate on a concept of equality that depends upon treating “like” in “like” fashion, that is, treating person A in the same fashion as person B, irrespective of differences in race or national origin. The absurdity is that, in our culture, we know that our behavior isn’t consistent with the principle that we are all fundamentally (a)“like.” Federal courts have not completely abandoned the idea that remediation of cultural and institutional practices of discrimination is lawful, but they are seen as barely legitimate departures from the principle of equality. The dependence on “likeness” as a principle central to equality also creates discomfort for many people over the differences we see and about our awareness of the aggregation of certain “differences” in groups. Who can deny the concentration of certain ethnic groups in service jobs and their invisibility in other professions, the state of disrepair in certain neighborhoods, and the rarity of certain types of people in others? In acceptance of a narrow multiculturalist poetics that was adopted in the late twentieth century, we can generally celebrate differences in food, clothing, traditional music, and (sometimes) language, but the differences that aren’t decorative or entertaining aren’t so easy for us to engage.

To say “I don’t see color” not only is likely to be inaccurate but also reveals a central anxiety about race. Indeed, it is perhaps the fact that “no one wants to be called/considered a racist” 12 that animates our mainstream sense of racial justice. And yet the disparities and distinctions between groups are so visible that they cannot be denied. As a result, no explanatory frameworks for the “seeing” and “not seeing” of race emerge. In this vein, one deeply troubling trend is the proliferation of what Howard Winant has identified as a civil privatist vision of racial equality. This “civil privatist” vision is one in which “equality is strictly a matter of individual actions, of striving, merit, and deserved achievement on the one hand; and of intentional discrimination against specific individuals on the other.” 13 Hence, the apparent disparities appear not because we “see” race in ways that lead us to act in a racially discriminatory fashion but because of the accumulation of behavioral failures in the underachieving “group” or the accumulation of behavioral successes in the achieving group.

But, as shall emerge over the course of this book, social scientists continue to demonstrate that in fact people do act in ways that reveal both “seeing” and distinguishing and advantaging or disadvantaging on the basis of race. And so the civil privatist vision is clearly false.

In truth, the racism we see in the United States is more appropriately called “correlational” racism, in which disfavored qualities or, for preferred groups, favorable qualities are seen as being highly correlated with membership in certain racial groups and dictate the terms upon which individual members of those groups are treated, as well as the way we evaluate the impact and goals of policy, law, and other community-based decision making. Correlational racism is communicated in a plethora of ways that provide powerful counterscripts to the idea of “racial equality.” Certainly, the fact of disparities in education, wealth, and power can and do support correlational racism so long as those disparities are not explained in the light of historic and current practices. Additionally, the ideology of correlational racism is communicated outside the formal talk about beliefs in race and in informal ways that people can easily write off as not reflecting sincere racial beliefs but rather as offering entertainment or emotional release, such as jokes, pornography, comics, the talk of intimate association, adolescent social banter, and workplace chatter. 14 There are clearly both external and internal evidences of this practice. An external example can be found in research that shows that people associate Black faces with primates, even though it is socially unacceptable to walk around now saying, “Black people are monkeys.” 15 An internal example can be found in the evidence of the impact of stereotype threat and stereotype lift 16 on student performance, even though it is unacceptable to walk around saying, “Black people are intellectually inferior.”

That said, while biologically deterministic ideas of race (i.e., the idea that “Black people are stupid”) may be out of the mainstream of popular currency, they intermittently recycle back in through publications like Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, 17 which identified Black people as having lower levels of intelligence in general, and through the comments of DNA pioneer James Watson about the intellectual inferiority of Africans. Although public outcries ensued over the work and comments of these men, the construction of their statements needs to be watched for indications of an increasingly popular riff on racial determinism; indeed, these statements can arguably be reconciled with the antideterminist and correlationally based racism of today. This is a result of the idea, present in both arguments, of “in-group difference.” Neither has said that people of African descent cannot be intelligent—in their eyes, there is the prospect of intelligence among Africans— but both believe that the levels of intelligence among Black people as a group are significantly lower. For example, Watson has said that, while he hopes everyone is equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.” But he also says that people should not be discriminated against because of their color, because “there are many people of color who are very talented.” 18

The search for subcategories of Black people who possess deficiencies through practices like looking for a “crime gene” 19 indicates the presence of a form of “new biological racism.” At the same time, the concept of in-group difference allows a logic to emerge whereby people consider themselves nonracist even when they feel disdain for the overwhelming majority of the members of a racial group.

The kind of racism that we currently generally decry but that had broad currency in an earlier era includes the following elements: a belief in the inherent racial inferiority of non-White people, a belief based either in biology or theology or some combination thereof, along with the belief that such distinctions should find expression in our social and political lives, through mandated or informally practiced segregation and domination. In the social science literature, this kind of racism has been given several names, including redneck racism, 20 blatant racism, 21 and classical racism. 22 While there are distinctions between biological/theologically rooted racisms and other kinds of racial bias, there is a murky space in which “behaviors” are attributed to racial groups without accounting for whether the cause is found in biology or in culture. Here is a sphere in which correlational racism exists and even draws in believers with widely divergent political perspectives. The stereotypes of Black people as lazy, stupid, amoral, loud, violent, and out of control have been in circulation for many years even as popular explanations for these traits have changed. 23 Even those who believe that such behaviors reflect social inequality may be likely to believe that social misbehavior has greater currency among African Americans or within African American culture than in the majority population.

There have been many theories developed about “new racism,” including symbolic racism, 24 modern racism, 25 subtle racism, 26 racial resentments, 27 ambivalent racism, 28 laissez-faire racism, 29 and aversive racism. 30 And these theories have their critics. One line of criticisms has questioned whether racism today is actually any different from what it was in the past, suggesting that those with racist attitudes have simply learned to superficially mask their attitudes. Others have said that focusing on the sentiment behind the racism is a troublesome diversion, because it doesn’t matter whether the racism is rooted in biological or in cultural arguments if the negative impact of the racism is the same. This approach is philosophically consistent with the “victim-centered approach” to problems of racial discrimination espoused by the critical race theorist Alan Freeman as early as 1978. 31 It suggests that the immediate causal explanation for the discrimination is less relevant than the impact of racial inequality and the structure of racial hegemony, which may take different forms at different moments but ultimately supports one particular ideological position—the superiority of Whites.

While impact is of paramount importance, if we want to move through remediation and ultimately achieve a society where racial fairness and equality are the norm, we have to look at how to stave off the perpetuation, the practices of inequality. And we have to do so in both practical and informed ways. One problem with ascribing old-fashioned racism to these times is that it implies that little has changed since the social transformations of the civil rights movement, and, whether one is satisfied or not with the current state of affairs, it is undeniable that significant changes have taken place with respect to racial inequality. Moreover, given that no one wants to be called a racist and that few will admit to being racist, why would we remain committed to a definition of racism that is dependent upon a self-consciousness about racist beliefs? Do we try to force people to admit they hold racist beliefs that they don’t believe they possess because we have an inapt definition of racism? Do we encourage people of color to always assume that inequality has conscious malice associated with it? 32 As an ethical matter, if we imply that the practice of inequality is nothing more than a contemporary manifestation of old-fashioned racism, then we run the risk of accusing millions of Americans of deliberate hypocrisy, rather than developing opportunities to revisit how we define and respond to racism. Another problem with holding fast to the concept of old-fashioned racism, and even the term “racism” generally, to describe practices of inequality is that it limits our interpretive frame. Dave Chappelle’s ironic skit about the blind black racist is satirical as well as instructive. We consider it absurd for a black person to be racist against black people. But, in fact, it is not so unusual for African Americans to hold negative in-group stereotypes about African Americans. African Americans have countercultures around race but are part of the larger project of racial socialization and so participate in the practices of racial inequality even as their efforts have been key to eradicating many of the most egregious forms of racism. Or, take for example this response to Glenn Beck’s accusation that President Obama is a racist, which I read on many a message board: “He is biracial, so how can he be racist?” This, to me, is an illogical response, although I was sympathetic to the expressions of support for the president. One’s parentage, lineage, and intimate associations do not determine the existence or nonexistence of practices of inequality. They may have an impact upon them, but that impact cannot be assumed, given how complex our lives and relationships are. We must look to how people make decisions to treat or respond to others, not just how they are situated.

Moreover, if we identify racial inequality exclusively in terms of impact, institutional formations, and unconscious bias, we limit our belief in our capacities to change the society in which we live. If we locate the problem outside our conscious actions, we also move it beyond the realm of individual or small-scale community intervention. In order to advance racially democratic principles, we have to maintain some belief in will, deliberation, and agency. Research in the fields of metacognition and “critical thinking” are established enough that we should all know that we have the capacity to think about and revise both our thinking and our learning. There is ample ground for hope in human agency and capacity for change. So, while our definition of racism need not be dependent upon intent or determinism, we must be intentional and determined or, in other words, willful about addressing racial inequality. We have to challenge the assumptions that accompany “correlational” racism and racial narratives in all their guises. As Banaji and Bhaskar write regarding evidence of unintentional bias, “Unawareness of the discrepancy between intention and behavior as well as the discomfort that accompanies awareness of such discrepancies cannot justify the characterization of these errors as anything but errors . . . conclusions about decision-making that are disturbing ought not be mischaracterized as benign or correct.” 33

The demands of addressing race today are distinct from those of a previous era. It is clear that the civil rights generation understood that the terms of the particular social, cultural, and historic moment had to be considered in strategizing action. For instance, the movement changed significantly after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision because, for the first time in nearly sixty years, advocates enjoyed the prospect of having the law on the side of racial justice. Likewise, part of working for racial justice in the twenty-first century is developing a nuanced understanding of the politics of race in this particular moment.

That said, the fact that I am arguing that we should look beyond intent and determinism as signature elements in the definition of racism does not mean that intentional racism and racial determinist ideas are gone from the American consciousness. Any look at an online message board that has even a marginal reference to race will reveal extant old-fashioned intentional and deterministic racism. Even though the cyber world allows angry individuals to overrepresent themselves through repeated entries, the ubiquity of these assertions cannot be ignored. Following Obama’s election to the presidency, White supremacist militia activity dramatically expanded. 34 Old-fashioned racism is still around, but that’s not the normative form of practices of inequality.

We should no longer frame our understanding of racially discriminatory behavior in terms of intentionality. It is too unsophisticated a conception of discriminatory sentiment and behavior. It doesn’t capture all or most discrimination, and it creates a line of distinction between “racist” and “acceptable” that is deceptively clear in the midst of a landscape that is, generally speaking, quite unclear about what racism and racial bias are, who is engaging in racist behaviors, and how they are doing so.

If articulating a deep antipathy for a people is against the rules, not just as a matter of politeness but as an ethical norm, that doesn’t mean the antipathy necessary disappears. Rather, it means that the terms according to which that antipathy is ordinarily communicated and taught are no longer a matter of simple articulation. Our continued devotion to defining racism by the simple articulation “I don’t like X people” reflects two things: a resistance to really addressing the antipathy and an anxiety about how diligently we must monitor the simple articulation precisely because the ethical norm of racial egalitarianism seems so frail in American society. Both situations demand a better toolkit.

To say we must think post-intentionally is also a means of escaping a problem with what is meant by intentionality. One could read post-intent as simply referring to the growing body of cognition research showing that there is a great deal of unconscious bias. But, at the same time that there is unconscious bias, there are quite conscious racial narratives about groups and places that are expressed all the time, in our humor, our entertainment, our schools, our news, our government, our places of employment, and on and on. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let us be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character,” perhaps he wasn’t prepared for the widespread impugning, in the twenty-first century, of black character, not on a deterministic basis but through what appears to be race-neutral evaluations regarding behaviors, culture, and morality. 35 As Glenn Loury notes, “It is a politically consequential cognitive distortion to ascribe the disadvantage to be observed among a group of people to qualities thought to be intrinsic to that group when, in fact, that disadvantage is the product of a system of social interactions.” 36 It is not a simple matter to assess whether we, collectively or as individuals, are saying or thinking what we mean when it comes to race. So, rather than say that racism is now unintentional, I am saying that intentionality isn’t a good measure any longer, in part because the notion of intentional racism truncates the realm of intent. An employer can intend to hire a particular person and make that decision while being highly influenced by racial stereotypes and yet not intend to be “racist.” One can promulgate racist imagery and ideas without having any interest in identifying oneself as a racist. One can decry racist jokes and opinions as morally untenable while acting in ways that diminish others on the basis of race. Americans have a long tradition of reconciling inconsistencies between professed values and cultural practices. These inconsistencies have existed in arenas as diverse as domestic norms, sexual mores, economic policies, political rights, and democratic principles. Therefore, we do not experience cognitive dissonance when such inconsistencies arise; rather, we cultivate explanations that allow them to operate in tandem.

In sum, our cultural logic allows us to easily distance ourselves from both the people who make mean-spirited racist remarks and the inequality of the society we live in. The problem is that such a neat package neglects a great deal of research that has been accumulating for decades about the persistence of race-specific inequality, its operation, and its meaning, research showing that our habits, attitudes, behaviors, entertainment, and a plethora of choices we make actually work to support racial inequality. The question with regard to this evidence can no longer be “What is wrong with the Black and Brown poor and how can we fix it?” Rather, the question must be “What is wrong with a nation where people act against the racial equality we trumpet, and how can we fix it?”

  1. Howard Winant, “Difference and Inequality: Postmodern Racial Politics in the United States,” in Racism, the City and the State, ed. Malcolm Cross and Michael Keith (New York: Routledge, 1993), 110.
  2. See Victor M.H. Borden, Pamela C. Brown, and Amy K. Garver, “The Top 100: Interpreting the Data,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education 23 (June 2006): 36-39, and “African Americans Continue to Flock to Graduate and Professional Schools,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 40 (Summer 2003): 10-11


Commencement Address at Hampshire College

“Obviously, they don’t mind illegals coming in. They don’t mind drugs pouring in. They don’t mind, excuse me, MS-13 coming in. We’re getting them all out of here…Members of Congress who will be voting on border security have a simple choice: They can either vote to help drug cartels and criminal aliens trying to enter the United States, like, frankly, the Democrats are doing. Or they can vote to help American citizens and American families be safe. That’s the choice. Who do you want to represent you? We’re finding the illegal immigrant drug dealers, gang members and killers, and removing them from our country. And once they are gone, folks–you see what we’re doing–they will not let them back in. They’re not coming back.”
— Donald Trump, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, April 29, 2017

“The free world…all of Christendom…is at war with Islamic horror. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”
— U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, Louisiana Republican, June 5, 2017

“You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birth rate up, and that you need to teach your children your values.”
— U.S. Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, March 13, 2017

THE FANTASY-fueled discussion that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 ushered the United States into a post-racial period has come to a stark and dramatic end. Far from post-racial, what we are seeing at the highest ranks of government is open fawning toward white supremacist and white nationalist ideas and politics.

The Ku Klux Klan and David Duke endorsed Donald Trump. His candidacy was met with enthusiasm from white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other organized racist hate groups. Steve Bannon, a self-described architect of the so-called “alt-right,” is Trump’s chief strategist and has an office in the White House. It is not hyperbole to say that white supremacy is resting at the heart of American politics.

And it is a deadly serious matter. It can be measured by the weight of the bodies of those, known and unknown, who have paid the price for the normalization and sanctification of racism, bigotry and hatred in this country.

Ricky John Best. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche. Richard W. Collins III. Nabra Hassanen. Srinivas Kuchibhotla.

Since the election of Donald Trump, people who may have been considered the racist fringe have been emboldened and activated to engage in intimidation, violence and even murder. From Washington, D.C., to Portland, Oregon, from the East Coast to the West, racist violence has been documented.

In the 10 days after Trump was elected, there were 900 reported incidents of hate crimes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 40 percent of those cases, Trump’s name was used when victims were attacked.

Between January and March of this year, the Council on American Islamic Relations received 1,597 complaints. Of the verified reports, nearly half involved abuse by representatives of federal agencies. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Homeland Security officers were implicated in 23 percent of those complaints.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

CAMPUSES OF all varieties have been targeted for racist hate speech. Between November and the end April, there were racist incidents at 284 primary and secondary schools and 330 incidents on college campuses. These numbers did not include a flurry of neo-Nazi and other racist posters that went up in the weeks after the election and then during Black History Month in February.

The right views college campuses as sites of political struggle. At its national meeting in April, the National Rifle Association’s vice president, Wayne LaPierre, said, “It’s up to us to speak up against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.”

Its no coincidence, then, that college campuses and universities are under attack by groups like the NRA and right-wing media sites that publicize and more fully articulate their agenda. Part of the attack includes trolling students and faculty members–parsing closely every word they write or say and then deliberately twisting and distorting those views to egg on and fuel their readerships and viewerships. In effect, right-wing media, in particular, organize racist and sexist cyber-mob attacks not just on faculty members of color, but they specifically target any faculty who speak out against racism.

Campuses have become easy targets for manipulative campaigns aimed at scaring administrators into admonishing, but more importantly disciplining, or if possible firing radical and left-wing faculty. When administrators act in this way, it is an act of surrender that will not bring quiet, but feeds the mob and invites a continuation of these orchestrated attacks.

And it is orchestrated. Fox News published a story–based on a story originally published by Campus Reform–about my commencement address at Hampshire College. In my opinion, both news organizations published the story with the intention of activating a racist mob made up of its readers and viewers. Fox ran various news stories about my 19-minute speech four days in a row over a holiday weekend.

As a result, I received 54 e-mails in a span of five days. Here is some of the content of those e-mails:

“would not piss in your mouth if you were dying of thirst, lib bitch FUCK YOU, FUCK LIBS”

“I read about your nasty tirade against the president.. Have you ever, just for a moment, considered counseling, a good shrink, or if all else fails, a .44 round to the brain?”

“If Trump is what you say, you are a dirty ass coon dyke cunt. Jus sayin…Cunt..”

“Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a stupid FUCKING NIGGER!!! Burn in HELL Nigger!!”

“Saw your tirade bout Mr. TRUMP…u like your isms, “race ism, corp ism,” and so on. Be clear, what you preach is 105 percent NIGGER ISM…fuck you and your hate speech!”

“Hey nigger keep you keep talking down on the President of the United States we will try you in federal court for hate crimes and have you lynched”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FOR THE right wing, it’s not just the thrill of victory in humiliating weak administrators, but there is the agenda of isolating, intimidating and ultimately silencing radical faculty, staff and students. The university is one of the few places in this country where, if you are a faculty member, you can freely express your politics and radical ideas.

The right seeks to kill that atmosphere while simultaneously benefitting from it. If nothing else, the right wing recognizes that part of the political struggle is the battle over ideas. That is why alt-right, neo-Nazi Richard Spenser was on a campus speaking tour in the spring that will resume in the fall.

The right doesn’t want to just have fistfights over its presence on campus, though they love the free attention that comes with it–but they actually do want to speak on campus. They believe that their ideas can get a hearing. And make no mistake about it, they can get a hearing on campus and off campus.

But the onslaught of racism and repression are not just about hate speech, the racist cyber mob or nasty fliers placed on campuses. It has real implications when those sentiments are reflected in the government itself. It leads to violent attacks. It has led to murder.

And it has to be organized against in numbers that demonstrate that they are a minority and our side–the side against racism, murder and the terrorism of the right wing in this country–is the majority. They are confident right now because our side has yet to mobilize in a way that reflects that we are the majority.

But the violence of the right is obviously not the only problem. The most profound and dangerous aspects of the Trump agenda can be found in the growing list of policy initiatives to remove regulatory protections while emboldening agents of the state to act against oppressed and exploited individuals across this country.

In other words, the actions of the racist fringe have been amplified in the policies of the Trump administration. Consider as a single example the case of Jean Carlos Jiménez-Joseph.

Jiménez-Joseph, a 27-year old Black Panamanian immigrant, was taken into custody by ICE in March. He was placed in solitary confinement for 19 days after he hopped from a second-floor landing to a first-floor landing, instead of using the stairs, breaking the detention facility’s rules.

After spending 19 days in solitary confinement, he hung himself. When officials in the private detention center where he was held found him, an ambulance was called, and he was driven to a hospital 35 miles away, where he was pronounced dead at the hospital.

In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, ICE has arrested more than 41,000 people–a 37 percent increase over the same time period last year. ICE agents are arresting, on average, 400 immigrants a day. Some 11,000 immigrants of those immigrants had no criminal record at all.

The Muslim travel ban, in combination with a policy of endless war across the Middle East, underpins an unrelenting campaign against Muslims led by the Trump administration.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE GROUP of people who may ultimately absorb the brunt of Trump’s policy changes are African American. Black people suffer from disproportionate poverty and certainly from racism in this country. As a result, African Americans have historically called upon the federal state to intervene to defend against racial discrimination that runs rampant in the private sector.

Because Black people have been poorer because of discrimination, we have relied on the federal state to improve conditions through vigorous defense of existing civil rights legislation as protection against discrimination, while also pursuing affirmative policies aimed at lifting and improving the material conditions of Black citizens.

The efforts to dismantle the “administrative state,” as Steve Bannon puts its, will have a devastating impact on those who need those protections. This is clear in the Department of Education, where officials seem to be avoiding even platitudes professing a commitment to racial equality in education.

It certainly applies to the misnamed Department of Justice, where the administration is calling for an official return to the kinds of law-and-order policies that created the conditions of “mass incarceration” by rationalizing racial profiling as a crime-fighting tool and signaling to police departments across the country that there will be no pretense of reform or oversight–and that they are empowered to harass, arrest, beat, detain and even kill whomever they choose.

These moves are known and understood by many, but the rollback of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protections is just as dangerous.

Black and Latino communities live in closer proximity to toxins, whether in the form of poor air quality, abandoned industrial site, active industrial sites, highways or railroads, and more. As a result, nearly half of Latinos live in counties that do not meet EPA air quality standards, for example.

The Flint water crisis has tellingly demonstrated the intersection of racial discrimination and environmental degradation. It is not only evident in the fact that city officials allowed Flint’s water supply to have dangerous levels of lead, while doing nothing to clean it up.

But when a city employee in Flint was asked about the water crisis, he said, “Flint has the same problems as Detroit — fucking niggers don’t pay their bills, believe me, I deal with them.” This wasn’t a public official, but given the fact that Flint’s water is still polluted today, it would not be difficult to envision a public official saying the same thing.

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THESE ARE the three components of Trump’s racial regime: anti-immigrant hysteria, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.

But racism in America is never just about racism for racism’s sake. It is always in the service of a larger agenda.

In the case of Trump it is obvious. It is no coincidence that the racism animating much of Trump’s politics accompanies a harsh and draconian economic agenda intended to gut the living standards of the entire working class.

In other words, Trump and the Republican Party explain the inequality experienced by workers–white workers in particular–as the fault of Mexican immigrants who steal jobs; or the fault of Black criminals who make us unsafe; or the fault of Muslim terrorists who make us spend billions on defense. And meanwhile, they pursue policies intended to destroy the living standards of those same workers.

The ruling elite doubled down on the idea that the least powerful among us is responsible for the hardship experienced by millions in this country–while the rich white millionaires and billionaires at the helm of the government are innocent bystanders.

During the campaign, this was not just an appeal to white workers–Trump used scapegoating to appeal to Black workers as well. Donald Trump’s campaign drafted a “New Deal” for Black America, which included a 10-point plan. Number seven of that plan was a crackdown on “illegal immigration.” Trump’s campaign website explained:

No group has been more economically harmed by decades of illegal immigration than low-income African American workers…We will suspend reckless refugee admissions from terror-prone regions that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. We will use a portion of the money saved by enforcing our laws and suspending refugees to reinvested in our inner cities.

Scapegoating and lies: the essential ingredients of the Trump candidacy and now the Trump presidency.

But here is where the cynicism of both liberals and the right converge. Both think very little of ordinary people–the much-maligned working class.

On the right, they believe that a steady diet of racism and war is enough to satisfy the appetite of working-class white people. This is what Kellyanne Conway meant when she got into a post-election argument with Clinton surrogates and sneered, “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters?” It is also what Donald Trump meant when he bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose any support.

Among liberals is a similar attitude, in which ordinary white workers are boorish Neanderthals who eat and drink racism, bathe in their privilege and are an unchanging ignorant bulwark against any and all progress in the United States.

Of course, what has been lost in this stultifying picture of race, class and consciousness is that the bulk of Trump’s support did not come white working-class people. According to the most recent reports, only a third of Trump voters made less than the national median income of $50,000. Another third made between $50,000 and $100,000, and another third made over $100,000. According to one study, Trump received one in four votes from whites without a college degree making under $50,000 a year.

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THE TWO main things that stand out about the election are: one, Trump lost the election by more than 3 million votes. And two, tens of millions of people did not vote. There are 238 million eligible voters in the United States, and slightly more than half of them voted. That means that more than 120 million people did not vote.

Of course, we know that the Republican Party continues to try and find ways to strip Black voters of their right to vote, but there is an even bigger reason for such a dramatically low turnout. Neither party offers a serious attempt to grapple with the vicious inequality that exists in this country. They used to say, “There is no alternative” to the status quo and to inequality. Now we can look at them and say, “They have no solutions.”

Those people who continue to insist that we give our support to the Democratic Party while getting nothing in return have lost touch with reality. The reason that 120 million people did not vote in last year’s election is quite simple: tens of millions of ordinary people do not believe it is capable of delivering the changes that are necessary to make their lives better. You cannot run a candidate who is a millionaire and who collects speaking fees from the most powerful banks in the country on Monday and then turn around and insist she’s for ordinary and working class people on Tuesday.

Barack Obama promised to change Washington. He promised hope and tens of millions of people believed him. And then we experienced eight years of the status quo, and in some cases, worse than that.

Angrily repeating that Trump is worse–and he undoubtedly is in every way–won’t change the fact that people want something to vote for–and simply saying that they are not Trump or the Republicans is not enough. What are you for?

Instead of grappling with this issue, the Democratic Party stays transfixed on Russia. The mass media is obsessed with finding the smoking gun that finally connects Trump to some Russia scandal.

Meanwhile, they ignore the ongoing assault on working-class life and living standards in this country. They turn the hardships and anxieties of white working-class people into a caricature to explain their supposedly unquestioned support of Trump, while simultaneously ignoring the hardships and anxieties of Black working-class life altogether.

How else do we make sense of the utterly vapid commentary from the Trump administration in response to the crisis of guns and violence in Black communities across Chicago?

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the spokesperson for Trump–if you can imagine a worst lot in life–said last week that shootings in Chicago were an issue of morality. It was as callous as it is ignorant. But it is also the exact same thing the Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama have said for years, whether it was Obama complaining about the absence of role models in Black working-class neighborhoods or Emanuel blaming Black parents.

What none of these elected officials will do is tell the truth: that poor and working-class African Americans in Chicago have been abused and abandoned. Through a combination of public policy and the private actions of banks, real estate brokers and universities on both ends of this city, residential segregation has been entrenched and enforced for almost 100 years.

Segregation has created substandard and inferior housing. It has cut Black people off from the best jobs. It has strangled public schools, public hospitals, libraries, parks and clinics of desperately needed resources. It has isolated and demoralized young and old. Fifty percent of young Black men in Chicago aged 20 to 24 are not in school nor are they employed–35 percent of Black women in the same age group are also unemployed and out of school.

These are structural and institutional problems created by an absence of human and material resources. And this is the exact reason why the political and economic establishments cling to their explanations that blame and punish. What would it mean to tell the truth about the real reasons behind the social crisis in Chicago and in every city around this country?

It would two things. It would explode the myths the capitalism and its free market can actually end poverty and suffering through privatized provision. And second, it would require that they do something about these material conditions, rather than ignore them. Put simply, structural problems demand structural answers. Instead, in Chicago and across the country, human need is met with cruel shouts of “personal responsibility” and policing, policing and more policing.

Of course, we will see the full-throated revival of rhetoric like “culture of poverty” because it has always been a way of blaming the victims of free-market capitalism, instead of looking at a system that has produced poverty, misery and human suffering on scales that seem unimaginable in a world as rich as this one. How do they get away with it? They blame the victims for their hardship, and they get everyone to believe it.

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AND IT is not only Black and Brown people who experience this. As more ordinary white people become visible markers of the failure of capitalism, conservatives increasingly blame white poverty and social crisis–most notably drug addiction–on a morality crisis.

In Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, he blames declines in white working-class living standards on high divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, dwindling church attendance, and men who can’t hold jobs. Murray, of course, became infamous by insisting that disproportionate rates of poverty in Black working class communities were because of biological differences between Blacks and whites. He rehashes these ideas to analyze white poverty and also concludes that low IQ and biology are factors–but instead of between Blacks and whites, the biological differences are between rich and poor white people.

The much lauded but underwhelming Hillbilly Elegy also argues that white Appalachian poverty is driven by poor choices behavior and morality, and not material deprivation. But perhaps the most succinct contempt for poor and working class white people came from an article published in National Review:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy–which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog–you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be…Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence–and the incomprehensible malice–of poor white America.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

Of course, liberals don’t provide a credible alternative to this uniquely American cruelty when they parrot the same contempt by reducing the experiences of ordinary white people to “privilege” in ways that do not resemble and certainly do not make sense of the actual experiences of working-class white people.

There are 20 million poor white people in this country. The imprisonment of white women is “surging,” according to recent reports, because of growing alcohol abuse and drug addiction.

Life in poor and working class white enclaves is increasingly defined by economic insecurity, alcoholism and opioid addiction. And while it is important to point out how elected officials are very willing to paint a sympathetic picture of opioid addiction as a health care issue and not a criminal issue, as they did with the crack phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s–because opioids affect white people and crack was centered in Black neighborhoods–I would caution against believing all of that rhetoric that opioid addicts are getting loving care from the government.

For example, in Middletown, Ohio, a town of 50,000 people that is 87 percent white and where 532 people died of opioid overdose last year, a member of the city council has proposed that drug addicts get two opportunities for medical treatment in the event of an overdose–but if there is a third call for an ambulance or medical treatment because of overdose, there should be no response. The councilman says the drug is too expensive at $36 a dose.

This is not white privilege. This is capitalism in its most savage form.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE POINT of this is not to deny that racism exists among working class and poor white people. It obviously does. Not all working-class white people voted for Trump but millions did.

So the point is to not deny the reality of the depths of racism in our society–it is to understand why it exists and the conditions under which it can be challenged and changed. Of course, it is easy to uniformly dismiss ordinary white workers as hopeless racists, but in doing so, we uniformly give up on the chance or potential to build a genuine mass movement that can fundamentally change this country.

In a country where public officials readily serve up racist explanations for social and economic inequality, it should not be surprising when those ideas take hold. Of course, not everyone readily accepts racism to explain their life circumstances–most people just blame themselves and the people they know in their families or neighborhoods for their troubles.

But there is a difference between people’s perception of reality and reality itself. Even when ordinary white people buy into the idea that the stagnation in their standard of living is because of the presence of immigrants or because the presidency of Barack Obama improved the standard of living of Blacks at their expense, that doesn’t actually make it true.

But it takes more than an assertion or argument to convince people that their perceptions are not reality. So when well-meaning people suggest that the way white radicals can fight racism is to talk to their racist uncle or father-in-law at Thanksgiving, it is both a sign of the low expectations of the anti-racist movement, but it also reveals the extent to which people accept that racism is just bad ideas that someone can be talked into or out of.

Of course, political argument is crucial, but it actually matters what you are saying. It takes radical politics and struggle to uncover the true nature of any society, but especially one like ours, where the political establishment regularly uses rhetoric, lies and distortions to cloud the truth.

For example, the social eruption of Occupy Wall Street helped to lay bear how the wealthy live at the expense of everyone else, with the simple yet extraordinarily clarifying idea of the 1 Percent versus the 99 Percent.

The Black Lives Matter movement helped to expose the systemic and routine ways that police abuse and violence shape the social reality in Black communities. Despite the efforts of the Trump administration and the misnamed Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, to return to an era of mass incarceration of African Americans, millions of people, including white people, have had their consciousness change about the police.

Ten years ago, the immigrant rights movement brought millions of undocumented immigrants onto the streets and challenged the right wing’s efforts to criminalize their existence. Their struggle gave us the slogans “No human is illegal” and “Undocumented and unafraid.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline struggle made the powerful connection between land rights of the Indigenous and the need for and access to clean, unadulterated water. It also demonstrated what it means to struggle, and how struggle can transform an impossible situation into a winnable one.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

OF COURSE, none of these examples has been enough to completely transform the circumstances or conditions they have exposed. And how could they? Racism is the lifeblood of American capitalism. We cannot end racism and the inequality it produces within capitalism. It means that even when we move forward, the political and economic establishment responds quickly with their best effort to return life to the way it was.

We don’t necessarily forget our victories or forward movement right away, but unless there is an active effort to assess those victories, draw lessons from them and quickly transform those lessons into new strategies and tactics for moving forward, it is all too easy to regress.

No movement is guaranteed success simply by existing. We will not win just because we believe that our side is right. We have to know what it is we are fighting for, and we have to openly debate and strategize our way forward. And most of all, we have to be involved in protests and demonstrations and building social movements to win concessions from the political and economic establishment.

This is all true, but at some point in the feverish effort to build the next movement, and then the next movement, and the next and the next–we must ask: What is wrong with a society, an economic and political system, that will make you beg, fight and struggle for the basic rights of existence?

Why do we have to struggle for affordable housing when everyone knows that the human species cannot live without proper shelter? Why is housing not a right?

Why do we have to struggle for health care when everyone knows that the human species cannot continue without proper medical care? Why is health care not a right?

Why do we have to struggle for a living wage just so we can afford the ever-growing cost of food when everyone knows that our species cannot live without food?

Why do we have to struggle against Corporate America’s insistence on polluting the air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat?

The list could go on, but the answer is simple: Capitalism is killing our planet; it is destroying our future; it is destroying the lives of millions of people in this country and on this planet today.

These are crises that no political party in the United States can solve. They are the permanent problems of the market: misery means profit; hunger means profit; disease means profit; prisons mean profit; racism means profit.

What does any of this have to do with the struggle against racism? Everything. Racism is the central divide between ordinary people in this country, and without a struggle against it, it will be impossible to organize any coherent movement for anything. What I’m suggesting is not organizing on a false basis of unity for unity’s sake, but unity on the basis of solidarity and the understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IT IS no mystery why socialism is no longer a dirty word in the United States. It is no mystery why 13 million people voted for an open socialist–Bernie Sanders–in this country. Not only is this an indictment of capitalism’s failures, but it is also an expressed desire for a better way. We want real democracy, where the people who create the wealth in this society are entitled to have a say in how it is distributed. We want real freedom–freedom from racism, imprisonment, borders, detention, and second-class personhood.

This is not the first time in history that socialist ideas were dominant, and where ordinary people demanded a social prioritizing of human needs and not corporate profits. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, where for the first time in human history, the poor and the peasantry, led by the Russian working class, organized a revolution against capitalism and built a different kind of society.

The revolution was hailed by the working class around the world, which saw ordinary people like themselves take their country out of the First World War and take democratic control of the direction of society. In this country, the Russian Revolution inspired socialists and radicals and eventually Communists to get serious about political organizing and building a revolutionary alternative to the viciousness of capitalism and all of the horrors that came with it.

I am going to close with a long quote from American socialist Eugene Debs. This quote is from a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio in 1918 in opposition to the First World War. Debs is known for this speech because, as a result of giving it, he was found guilty of sedition and imprisoned. But this was so much more than an antiwar speech. It was a speech that was also imbued with the hope and optimism that found expression in the Russian Revolution. He said:

Socialism is a growing idea; an expanding philosophy. It is spreading over the entire face of the earth: It is as vain to resist it, as it would be to arrest the sunrise on the morrow. It is coming, coming, coming all along the line. Can you not see it? If not, I advise you to consult an oculist. There is certainly something the matter with your vision.

It is the mightiest movement in the history of mankind. What a privilege to serve it! I have regretted a thousand times that I can do so little for the movement that has done so much for me. The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars. It has taught me how to serve–a lesson to me of priceless value. It has taught me the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade. It has enabled me to hold high communion with you, and made it possible for me to take my place side by side with you in the great struggle for the better day; to multiply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born personhood; to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister–and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life.

Life Finds A Way: Bodies, Futures, Embodied Futures

Professor Ruha Benjamin presented at Future Perfect, a conference sponsored by the New York City based research group, Data & Society.

Full conference summary.

Future Perfect resumed with a presentation by Ruha Benjamin, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Benjamin used speculative ethnographic field notes to deliver her talk, entitled “Designer and discarded genomes: Experimenting with sociological imagination through speculative methods.” In order to “explore the antecedents and implications of the current era of genetic engineering,” Benjamin read a series of field notes from the Human Genome Project-Write initiative, a 2016 convening at Harvard for discussing the implications and logistics of producing synthetic human genomes. Benjamin subsequently read fictional field notes from 1816 and 2216 — 200 years into the past and future, respectively.

Benjamin drew attention to the changing standards of what constitutes “human life,” using her notes from 1816 to explore ideas of “humanity” as applied to enslaved peoples during the Middle Passage. Her 2216 notes explored speculative divisions between beings modified so that they no longer have to eat, and unmodified beings which still used food as an energy source. By doing so, Benjamin had the audience consider what part of “humanity” was discarded in the context of slavery. In the future, she asked, when we have the power to design “‘ideal’ genomes, what versions of humanity are discarded?” Benjamin concluded by observing that “fictions are not falsehoods, but re-fashionings.”


‘Filming the Future’ – Ferguson is the Future

Panel 2 of ‘Ferguson is the Future’

Filming the Future
Invisible Universe, M. Asli Dukan
Octavia: Elegy for a Vampire Talk, Dennis Leroy Kangalee and Numa Perrier
Black Radical Imagination, Erin Christovale and Amir George
Vow of Silence, Be Steadwell
Facilitated by Lisa Bolekaja


If They Take You in the Morning, They Will be Coming for Us That Night

I spent inauguration day not in front of the television but with my wife touring the Metropolitan Museum’s extraordinary exhibition by the artist Kerry James Marshall. The retrospective ranged from Marshall’s diverse depictions of black interior life to his sometimes playful and often searing considerations of various aspects of American history. For me, it was a powerful and necessary alternative to the shameful spectacle unfolding in Washington that morning.

Yet try as I might to take my mind off of the installation of the new president, and all that his ascension represented, it was impossible to fully escape from the looming dread of our new collective reality. As I neared the end of the exhibition, two sets of images in particular spoke to me about the need for vigilance and sustained, principled resistance under the new regime.

In the first, a triptych entitled Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), Marshall takes a well-known photograph of the 1930 lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, digitally “whitewashes” the gruesome scene, and isolates individual white bystanders captured looking directly towards the photographer’s lens. Marshall frames each of the women’s faces within a locket-like necklace. Though I teach about lynching in my courses and invite my students to dwell on questions of both individual and group complicity in the horrors of systemic racial terror, there was something about the guile with which Marshall highlights these “accessories” to the crime that stopped me in my tracks.

Beyond the artist’s statement regarding a specific historical moment or any simple condemnation of distant actors long ago, I was compelled by what I took to be Marshall’s challenge to the viewer: To what crimes against our common humanity are we all accessories?

Just around the corner from these images another of Marshall’s works delivered a message seemingly tailor-made for this fateful moment. The large scale abstract painting Red (if they come in the morning) (2011) dates from just a few years ago, yet it conveys the weight of decades of black struggle. The phrase that appears in large block letters filling the sweeping red canvas bookended by narrow black and green borders was immediately recognizable to me as an adaptation of the words of that signal American prophet, James Baldwin. In November 1970 Baldwin penned an open letter to activist intellectual Angela Davis, then incarcerated and charged with capital crimes for which she would later be exonerated following an international grassroots support campaign. Baldwin ends his letter with apotent statement about the need for people of conscience to act.

It is not enough, Baldwin insists, simply to be aware of a moral crisis. “If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name,” he writes. Baldwin then concludes:

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

I have read that letter often, shared it with friends and students. Encountering Baldwin’s caution, via the work of Kerry James Marshall, on the day an unrepentant xenophobic, misogynist, white nationalist took the oath to assume the nation’s highest office was auspicious.

Exactly one week later, the illegitimate president signed yet another immoral and unconstitutional executive order – the latest in a series of cruel, punitive, and profoundly short-sighted measures meant to consolidate his power, punish the vulnerable, and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. As promised, they had come for the refugees, the immigrants, the Muslims.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated,” the human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson reminds us. If I were to heed the lessons my mother had taught me, if I were to honor those freedom fighters who had made possible the considerable privileges I enjoy, if I were to be true to the history I write and teach about, then there was only one choice. I boarded the subway for the hour and a half journey underground through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eventually out to Queens: John F. Kennedy International Airport, Terminal 4.

I joined the protests in solidarity with the vulnerable populations targeted by this capricious decree; with the immigrant workers whose labor allows this city and this country to function; with the activists, organizers, and lawyers struggling on the front lines; and with my fellow New Yorkers wishing to embody and make manifest genuine compassion, democracy, community, and resistance. I joined the protests for my students – past, present, and future – who dare to speak up and speak out. I joined the protests for the migrant diaspora that is my father’s family, originating in eastern Nigeria and now residing in three countries and at least seven states. I joined the protests for my children who are (thankfully) too young to understand the viciousness and hatred of the current moment but to whom I will one day have to answer.

I have been to scores of demonstrations in my life in support of a wide range of causes. I have felt the euphoria of standing tall and “doing something” and the nagging despair that says that clever chants and razor-sharp slogans are meaningless in the face of entrenched power. I know well that protests and marches are not the only valid forms of resistance and that, for many people, participation in a mass demonstration is not an option. Letters and petitions, phone calls to elected officials and business leaders, strategic voting, investigative reporting, lawsuits, boycotts, strikes, slow downs, walk outs, sit ins, the full range of art and human creativity. We need it all.

But on this cold Saturday in January I knew I needed to be shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people of like mind, signs, fists, and camera phones in the air, voices raised in unison — facing down the agents of the state, demanding justice, and refusing to accept the unacceptable.

“Resist, fight back, this is our New York…”

Learned are the Unionized

Reprinted from The Princeton Progressive

By Seyitcan Ucin ’20 and Tajin Rogers ’20

On October 11th, with the classroom of McCosh 62 full well beyond its seating capacity, graduate students representing departments from Astrophysical Sciences to the Woodrow Wilson School gathered in the first open town-hall meeting to discuss unionization. Many, unsure of how a union would affect them, hoped the meeting would ease their worries. Others, ready to dive into resolving the grievances they had with the University, asked about how their specific wants could be negotiated with a union. One graduate student and father stood up and asked about improving childcare subsidies—as it stands, the University offers a childcare subsidy that awards, at most, less than half the average cost of childcare in New Jersey. An older graduate student argued for retirement packages; doctoral students can spend more than half a decade of their working life without accruing any significant funds towards their retirement. One doctoral student in the history department listed housing and cost of living as primary concerns that the University has failed to meet. As an example, graduate students on the base stipend qualify for public housing in Mercer County, although long waitlists make this an impractical solution. In an interview following the meeting, a grad student noted that although a studio apartment is the single most-requested option, there are only 34 in the entire graduate housing system. Another, from Europe, mentioned the exclusion of dental and vision care from the regular health plan—on top which, graduate students pay twice the deductible cost of regular faculty. The sentiments voiced at the town hall were not spontaneous outbursts; they indicate more deeper-running currents. In this time of change, they reëmerged at this meeting, itself many years in the making.


The National Labor Relations Act became law in 1935, as part of FDR’s Second New Deal. The US beginning to emrge from the Great Depression; the already precarious conditions of employment for laborers in the early 20th century, which had spawned an economic leftism not seen since in this country, were further stressed by recession and a swollen pool of unemployed labor. It was in this context that the NLRA, also known as the Wagner Act, sought offer a legal framework for unions and for the collective bargaining process, which had long been a chaotic (and sometimes violent) affair.

The Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board, comprised of Senate-approved Presidential appointees, to enforce labor law and both oversee and set the terms of union elections. Importantly, the NLRB rules on what comprises a “bargaining unit”—a group of workers that can be adequately represented by a single union. Regional Offices of the NLRB receive workers’ petitions and supervise the process of union elections directly. If, through the election, a union is formed, “the employer and union are obligated by law to bargain in good faith with each other over terms and conditions of employment”; the NLRB is charged with enforcing this law.

While graduate students at public universities usually fall under state regulations on the status of public employees’ unions, and thus escape the jurisdiction of the NLRB, private graduate students’ legal ability to unionize traces back to a petition brought before the NLRB by students at Adelphi University in 1972. Directly following the precedent set by Cornell just two years prior—which held that private universities were under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, using the university’s engagement in interstate commerce as justification—students at Adelphi petitioned to join the existing faculty union. The NLRB found that graduate students were primarily students and “do not share a sufficient community of interest with the regular faculty to warrant their inclusion in the unit.” Important to note, Adelphi didn’t indicate that graduate student employees weren’t able to unionize in accordance with the Wagner Act in their collective bargaining unit. However, in 1974, physics students at Stanford delivered a petition to NLRB to form an independent union for physics research assistants; the Board held that graduate student assistants were not “employees” as defined by the Wagner Act because they were “primarily students,” and thus were not entitled to the protections of the Act. This was the position of the NLRB for 40 years—with the exception of the period between the 2000 NYU ruling, when graduate students at private institutions were permitted to unionize, and the 2004 Brown University ruling of a Bush-appointee-heavy board that overturned NYU. Again, the Board concluded that while there might be some economic aspect to the system of compensation for teaching assistance, “it is clear to us that graduate student assistants, including those at Brown, are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”

In August of this year, the NLRB ruled on a petition from graduate students at Columbia, which had been received at the end of 2014. Reversing its Brown decision, the current Board’s argument hinged on that fact that “statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.” In other words, regardless of whether or not the academic dimension of graduate students’ relationship to their university outweighs the economic dimension, the mere existence of an employment relationship permits the formation of a collective bargaining unit. In an intentionally broad move (“it is appropriate to extend statutory coverage to students working for universities covered by the Act unless there are strong reasons not to do so”), the NLRB’s approved bargaining unit included graduate students, terminal Master’s degree students, and even undergraduates employed under certain conditions.

Today, graduate unions at several peer institutions are in the final stages of organization. The Graduate Workers of Columbia, affiliated with United Automobile Workers, will be holding their election on December 7 and 8.  The Harvard Graduate Student Union, also affiliated with UAW, held their election in mid-November, though the results were not finalized by the time we went to print. The Duke Graduate Students Union, affiliated with Service Employee International Union, has filed their petition to the NLRB to hold an election. The Yale graduate employee union, Local 33, affiliated with UNITE HERE has also submitted their petition and is awaiting an election date by the NLRB. Efforts for unionization at here at the “Southern Ivy” have lagged behind, as one might expect. But the history of graduate organization hasn’t always been so tepid.


The very first Princeton graduate student union was actually the Princeton Graduate Draft Union, formed in April 1967. While deferments continued to be given to undergraduates, in early 1968 the Johnson administration abolished the deferment for most graduate students (medical, dental, and divinity students excepted). There had been some earlier organization by the SDS on campus, but grad student organizers had called any active grad student resistance “latent”. In the late-sixties heyday of political organization on campus (it was in 1968 that students from the University’s SDS chapter carried the “Even Princeton” at the March on Washington, countering Princeton’s already-established reputation as a bastion of staid post-war conservatism), the Graduate Draft Union found some traction. The Daily Princetonian reported in May 1968 that it “attracted over 350 anxious graduate students to its first open meeting.” Still, the union shied away from the more direct and Left-affiliated politics of the undergraduate Princeton Draft Resistance Union, which focused on Vietnam as an unjust, neo-imperialist conflict: “The graduate union aims to reform the draft laws. Failing that it will try to find a way out for anyone who doesn’t want to go in to [sic] the Army,” the article concluded. So while this grad union student overlapped with the formation of the Council of the Princeton University Community in 1969, it eventually disappeared; by the time the US had pulled out of direct ground engagement, in 1973, it had become obsolete.

Graduate student unionization emerged again in 1988. “Strife Over Substance and Style Tests Princeton’s Leader”, read a December New York Times headline, tucked back in the N.Y./Region section, detailing the situation. Two years prior, Dr. Harold T. Shapiro GS ‘64 had succeeded the (late) well-liked William Bowen GS ‘58 as University President. In the spring, the University had projected a not-inconsiderable $3.5 million dollar deficit, out of a then-$400 million annual budget. While the University was still far from broke (in 1989, the endowment was a paltry $2.7 billion for 6200 students), President Shapiro oversaw some tightening of the purse-strings; “We are terribly well-financed, but we are not immune from choices,” he told the Times. Among the budget items offered up for cuts were graduate students’ access to counseling, security services, and weekend meals at the graduate college, prompting pushback. In an interview with the Prince, a grad student was quoted saying, “there is an aggressive policy being waged by Nassau Hall against us,” while another declared, “These cuts are symbolic of our marginal status at the University.” The disappointment and frustration was compounded by the previous elevation of grad students’ hopes: Dr. Shapiro had been the first (and remains the only) president to be a graduate alumnus of the University—all the previous had been undergraduate alumni. Grad students who hoped that this would lead to greater understanding and sympathy for the issues that they faced were let down. “I remember being incredibly disappointed that having a grad alum as president made so little difference,” one then-grad student recalls. “It was crazy, actually.”

The nucleus of a graduate student union, formed from meetings over the summer of ’88, consolidated its position in the fall of that year, when three-quarters of the grad student body responded to a survey on a whether they wanted a graduate organization. The decision was made with enthusiasm—97% of respondents were in favor of organization. Even at the time, some felt that the organization was “long overdue”. As one survey response read, “I have been to four different universities, and I have never before seen a graduate student body as demoralized and disenfranchised as Princeton’s.” Various ad hoc committees were formed, one of which was dedicated to establishing the structure and makeup of a larger assembly. In the end, the assembly was formed with representatives from different departments, residences, and identity groups.

When the Graduate Student Union first formed in 1989, previous NLRB rulings meant that collective bargaining wasn’t a viable option for the graduate students, though “we did indeed talk about that possibility in the abstract,” a grad student recalls.  Its motivation was nevertheless union-like, demonstrating to the Princeton community that graduate students “wanted to band together”; indeed, the decision to call it a “union” had “intentionally combative” tones.  In 1999, however, the Graduate Student Union was renamed to be the Graduate Student Government—and the changes went beyond the organization’s name. For example, the GSG’s constitution states that one of its purposes is “to provide a forum for free and open discussion of matters affecting [graduate students], and to provide financial and organizational support for social events within this community.” In contrast, the original constitution of the GSU focused on its role as a “representative organization to advocate the interests of graduate students at Princeton University.” An organization that was meant to represent graduate students’ interests to the University became one through which the University shapes graduate student life at Princeton.

This Spring, several graduate students began organizing in the event of a positive decision by the NLRB. The group began their efforts in secrecy, but the news of the decision meant that they could bring their work into the open to form a larger movement without University obstruction. The October 12 meeting prompted discussion of union affiliation. Graduate students voted to hold the voting for affiliation the following week. As some leaders of the group explained, the vote of affiliation—which national labor union to join in the event of an affirmative unionization vote—was not the same as the actual vote on whether to unionize, which must be undertaken by the whole graduate student body. Affiliating with a union before a vote on unionization itself gives organizers and graduate students access to the resources provided by the national union, from legal counsel on labor law to a physical space for organizing. Still, one graduate student asked whether 65 people was enough to adequately represent the views of the entire student body. Although David Walsh, a graduate student in history and prominent member of the unionization effort, explained that the vote on affiliation at another Ivy-League university (which has four times as many graduate students as Princeton) was held by 60 people, the room voted to postpone a vote, citing a need for greater comprehension of the different proposals, more deliberation time, and a wider audience.

At the meeting, graduate students considered proposals from the AFT, American Federation of Teachers, and the SEIU, Service Employees International Union. While both proposals made some of the same commitments to the unionization process—legal aid, access to trained organizers, and a delay on union dues until after full union formation—the AFT made more concrete pledges, including a space for a campaign headquarters and 3-5 full time staff.

The difference, in part, can be traced to the unions’ larger missions and organization. The AFT mostly focuses on education and has a looser national leadership and increased local autonomy; on the other hand, the larger SEIU, with more political origins in gender and immigrant labor struggles, as well as a broad range of workers in its ranks, has a more strongly centralized structure. There were pros and cons of both. With unions on every campus of Rutgers, the AFT has experience with labor law as it pertains higher education in New Jersey, a point that resonated with grad students. Supporting the decision, Walsh cited the AFT’s “proven track record of successful organizing in the state of New Jersey.” The SEIU, however, organizes Princeton’s dining staff and has already established dialogue with the University. Further, some at the meeting brought up the idea of sympathy strikes enabled by close coordination with the dining employees, although the legality was never confirmed—under the Wagner Act, NLRB-recognized unions have to abide by a plethora of regulations.

When the affiliation vote occurred, on Oct. 18, 162 grad students voted, with 77.1% voting for the AFT. The AFT, for its part, welcomed the decision. In a statement, president Randi Weingarten said, “We’re very excited that Princeton grad students—like those at Cornell and the University of Chicago—have chosen the AFT and our state affiliate, AFT New Jersey. The recent NLRB decision, Columbia University, has given grad employees at private universities the same rights as their public counterparts; it’s a pathway for a real say over their work lives.”


In these early days, the most-used argument against graduate unionization at Princeton has been the comparative comfort of graduate students here, especially given the underfunded state of public universities across the US today. More commonly used when discussing lower-wage laborers, this argument hinges on the supposed magnanimity and benevolence of the employer, who could otherwise be drawing from a wider labor market. The workers, in turn, should be grateful for their provider’s largesse. As one graduate student responded, “I think that’s an insidious logic that implies that the mistreatment of others should immediately disqualify any grievances, complaints, or demands for fairer and better treatment that workers who are supposedly ‘better-off’ might have.” Certainly the labor conditions of some other workers, e.g., dining-hall workers and custodial staff, require more vigilant defense against abuses. The claim is not, as some would frame it, that struggles of the graduate students at private institutions like Princeton are “equivalent” to these—that would be callous and simply untrue. However, the improvement of one does not preclude the other, as nearly all union detractors would admit when pressed. The argument against unionization, then, must show clear harm that will be done to graduate students.

In February, Princeton, along with the entirety of the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford, filed an amicus brief to the NLRB against the legality of unionization. “[We] believe that reversal or modification of Brown would significantly damage private sector graduate education in this country and will represent an inappropriate intrusion into long protected areas of academic freedom and autonomy,” the amici argued. The brief further charges that legal labor relations are not appropriate in an academic sphere because “the very premise of the Act is conflict-driven; it is not based in the civility of academic discourse.” While the NLRB decision doesn’t go as far as claiming that academic freedom will increase as a result of collective bargaining, the notes cite that there is no empirical evidence suggesting that academic freedom will be harmed. In fact, the NLRB explains that any possible infringement of academic freedom can be negotiated in contractual agreements between the graduate students and the administration: “…faculty members have successfully negotiated collective bargaining agreements that address terms and conditions of employment at private universities while contractually ensuring academic freedom for decades.” At the town hall, Walsh offered a slightly different line. “When students are less concerned about their material circumstances and their position within the program, they feel that they can take more chances. [It’s] more of an opportunity to practice academic freedom.” On the empirical side, the decision also cites Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty–Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay (Sean Rogers, et al.), which surveyed graduate students at unionized and non-unionized universities and found no significant evidence that collective bargaining led to a less free academic climate. In fact, the study showed, “unionized students were more likely than nonunionized students to report respect for differing opinions in their university.”

A large part of the more serious case against grad unionization, as stated by the NLRB itself, is that “the student-teacher relationship is based on mutual academic interests, in contrast to the conflicting economic interests that inform the employer-employee relationship.” Similarly, in their brief, the amici praise the earlier Brown decision for concluding that “the graduate assistants are students whose relationship with the university is primarily academic, not economic. This has not changed.” While it is true that the economic relationship between the University and its graduate students has not eclipsed the academic relationship (and, hopefully, never will) the rhetoric used in the brief does nothing to acknowledge the long-term shift in the role of graduate students that has accompanied the changing structure of the American university. Princeton has been spared the worst of these changes by our titanic endowment, but as the nationwide reconfiguration of higher education shows no signs of abating, it makes sense to keep a watchful eye on the future.

Yet even if graduate students are still “more” students than they are workers, there is no reason to ignore the fact that they are also workers. As one graduate student acutely wrote to us, “[The] mutual academic interest doesn’t contradict the fact that there’s an economic relationship in play when we do work and receive compensation for it. In fact, recognizing that work as work, engaging in collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and other conditions of our employment, can let the purely academic and intellectual relationship stand on its own. There’s many ways in which having a union can actually improve rather than confuse or complicate the academic relationship between student and advisor, because it allows the economic relationship between employee and employer to be openly acknowledged and more explicitly separated from the academic relationship.” Further, if one looks for empirical evidence, Rogers et al. contends that “unionization becomes a significant positive predictor of both the personal support and professional support dimensions of student-teacher relationships.” This is unsurprising. As another graduate student explained, “the Grad Students are not employed by their professor, but by the university, like the professors themselves… [while] the professors might be the ones distributing the work and determining the tasks Student Workers have to do, they are not the ones paying for the work.” Indeed, while the very structure of academia works strongly against any sort of professorial labor organizing, “professors and Grad Students both share mutual academic interests and are both, though on very different levels, employees by [sic] the university.”

Another specter raised by union opponents is a strike that would force graduate students to halt teaching and research. In the words of the sleek website of the “Princeton Unionization Information Committee”, “If the New Jersey chapter does decide to strike, however, it is possible that you will be forbidden from working on your research or teaching. If you work anyway, you will be fined.” Strikes are not decided upon casually. An “economic strike”, as classified by the Wagner Act, is rarely called without a long period of failed negotiation.

Further, while a local will sometimes have to consult a parent union with regards to funding before initiating a strike, state and national unions do not force locals to strike, especially in an organization as decentralized as the AFT, which allows its locals a high degree of autonomy. It’s safe to say that the nightmare scenario of a widely unpopular forced strike is, in all likelihood, just a specter. However, if graduate students wanted a formal guarantee of being able to research at all times, the University and a graduate student union could agree on a “no-strike no-lockout” policy in a proposed contract. In that case, the graduate students would trade their ultimate tool—the strike—for a guarantee that they would never be locked out of their laboratories and classrooms. Although recent events at Long Island University would seem to point to the prudence of reserving the right to strike in cases of extreme need, a no-strike no-lockout policy might be a good fit for Princeton, given the abundance of funding.

Some detractors might ask why the graduate student body needs a second representative organization—after all, don’t they have the GSG, and its 7 seats on the U-Council? To be sure, all the graduate students with whom we spoke appreciated the work that the GSG does—“the GSG does a fantastic job, and there are great people in the leadership there”, one graduate student clarified before launching into a long critique—but they also expressed a desire for an organization that does more. Because it has never been a labor union (even when billed as the GSU) and is not under the Wagner Act, the University is under no legal obligation to negotiate with it in good faith. While it can make recommendations, the University is under no legal requirement to abide by these; it is, as one student said, “toothless”. Furthermore, the GSG is “financially and institutionally dependent on the University”: it receives its funding from the University, and Dr. Kulkarni, the Dean of the Graduate School, often attends its meetings. While Dean Kulkarni’s presence makes sense, and is even necessary, at a meeting of students petitioning their administrators, it would be utterly out of place in a meeting of workers—in that sphere, Dr. Kulkarni would be akin to a manager. Of course, a PGSU would not totally supplant the GSG—the two relationships, economic and academic, would still coexist.

In short: unions in American higher education work, have worked, and, if Princeton’s graduate students move forward with unionization, will work for them too. With regards to the material bottom line, Rogers et al. reports that “unionized GSEs reported higher stipends, and greater pay fairness and adequacy than did nonunion GSEs, all differences that were statistically significant.”

At NYU, another well-funded private university, when graduate workers organized and negotiated a contract in 2002, they won a 38% increase to minimum stipends, guaranteed tuition and fee waivers, and, for the first time, fully-paid health insurance. While the data does not yet exist for other Ivy League institutions specifically, we should begin to see it at Harvard in the next year—and it would be surprising for it to buck the established pattern. Even in this past year, before the results of the NLRB’s decision have had time to take effect, leading “peer” universities across the country have made concessions to graduate students, in what looks awfully like an attempt at appeasement. The universities themselves know that graduate student unions will win better benefits and compensation.

A recent editorial in the Prince concluded that “for graduate students at elite institutions, the case against unionization is … about protecting the right—which even in academia is an increasingly rare privilege—not to be a worker.” We think that this is exactly the case for unionization. The precious privilege to be something other than a worker—a student, a human separate from her labor-power—is something to be safeguarded, and simply ignoring time spent working does not cause it to disappear. By separating the time and labor that make graduate students workers, and by working for material benefits, a PGSU would enable graduate students to commit more time to their own studies and pursuit of learning. What could be more important to the University than that?