Issue 2 (April 2010)

 

An Absence of Solidarity: Anti-Blackness and Deference to White Privilege

Ryan Sinclaire Davis

 

“Whereas the workers can seize the means of production, the undocumented can become
documented, there is nothing analogous for the Black subject position—
anti-blackness does not have a winter palace to be stormed.”
—James Bliss

           
Constantly within coalition spaces, the question arises, why aren’t Black students more involved in this recent surge of student activity? The answer is simple: there is no real desire to mobilize around Black issues or more accurately, there is anti-Black sentiment within these spaces. Generally students of color mobilize around the position of being non-white, meaning there is an element of historical exploitation, discrimination, or oppression in which commonality is found. It is the particulars of these three conditions in which students fail to engage in proper analysis and realize their own positions within a shared system. There can be no true solidarity unless these conversations are engaged and the paradigm of sameness between non-white students is broken. The genuine particulars of students of color must be addressed. What we have now is silencing of certain voices and flight from the actualities of the Black condition.

The Council for Democratizing Education defines anti-Blackness as being a two-part formation that both voids Blackness of value, while systematically marginalizing Black people and their issues. The first form of anti-Blackness is overt racism. This is most commonly associated with the fanatical fringe of society, the extreme Right, Southern confederate sympathizers, or the dying ‘racism is as American as apple pie’ generation. Society also associates un-politically correct comments with the overt nature of anti-Black racism. Beneath this anti-black racism is the covert structural and systemic racism which categorically predetermines the socioeconomic status of Blacks in this country. The structure is held in place by anti-Black policies, institutions, and ideologies. The second form of anti-Blackness is the unethical disregard for anti-Black institutions and policies. This disregard is the product of class, race, and/or gender privilege certain individuals experience due to anti-Black institutions and policies. This form of anti-Blackness is protected by the first form of overt racism. An individual is able to distance him/herself from blatant racism, by saying “that is not me,” “I do not believe in stereotypes, or at least I’m politically correct,” while still upholding white supremacy.  

There is anti-Blackness in this student movement. Confronting it will force us to acknowledge what we thought was the “new student movement,” is in fact not that new. While a new student movement is needed, we have to rethink what it means to be new. We must begin to rethink what is a revolutionary subject. What if we are not talking about workers taking over the factory, students seizing the university, but slaves burning the plantation?

Mobilization and assault against state- and UC-sanctioned anti-Blackness will be a bottom-up approach to movement building which will create the conditions for the liberation of all students. Let this essay serve as a starting point.

The Black subject position is one of an accumulation of what Sadiyah Hartman refers to as fungibility, “the fungibility of the commodity, specifically its abstractedness and immateriality, [which] enabled the black body or blackface mask to serve as the vehicle for white self-exploration, renunciation, and enjoyment.”(1) This position is inescapable, and that said, we must think outside of the idea of a collective of Black students; rather, within the university there is the fungible Black subject that happens to study. Within coalition spaces, students are seeking to bond around fee increases. However, when certain individuals or communities address oppressive conditions beyond the issue of fee increases, their voices are met with hostility and silenced. This is false solidarity; especially among students of color. We are stuck in our ideals of what revolution should look like. The current student movement associates the student position with a worker position and traditional thought places the worker as the agent of revolution. Here lies the divide between the Black subject and coalition; a fatal disagreement which describes the basic antagonism Frank Wilderson’s work speaks to. The current student movement is operating under the idea of class conflict, with students situated against the university—an idea which is itself articulated from a position of privilege. Capital is rational; capitalist exploitation “makes sense,” there is logic to it. However, anti-blackness is illogical or what Wilderson calls a “structuring irrationality.”(2) As the university has proven unable to escape the restrictions of unethical social hierarchy and deference to white, capitalist, patriarchal power; the student movement is proving unable to escape the same restriction while mobilizing against rational capitalist exploitation.  

The protest surrounding the UCLA Regent Meeting painted an interesting picture. Two positions were on display during these days of action. Black and brown bodies were on the front lines against police batons and tasers, while privileged white and some non-Black students of color occupied Campbell Hall. The Campbell Hall occupation was nothing more than colonization with a romantic splash of Black struggle. Privileged student activists overtook a hall that provided necessary resources to historically underrepresented students. Then, in true liberal multiculturalists fashion, renamed the hall ‘Carter-Huggins’ after Black panthers slain forty years ago. Revisionist narratives coming from the Campbell Hall occupation tell a story of liberation and preemptive student action against historical trends to cut resources for programs which serve students of color. While there can be no argument that this unfortunate trend does exist and perhaps the hall did need liberation, it is unfortunate this occupation did not include demands or a strategy which consulted the very students Campbell Hall was intended for.

The popular slogan being passed around in the current surge of student activity, “occupy everything and demand nothing” is indicative of a privileged struggle being touted as the “student movement.” For students who have historically found the gates of the university open to them with any and all resources at their disposal, “occupy everything and demand nothing” may be a justifiable tactic. Students of color, particularly the Black subject, cannot afford this; our actions must speak to the particular conditions we face. Communities of color have fought long and hard for a space within the higher education system and continue to fight for preserving resources and representation in the curriculum. Throwing our bodies on the line and not addressing the particulars which shape our university experience is activist suicide. Student action is being met with police overreaction. The Campbell Hall ‘occupation’ was protected by students of color being brutalized 200 yards away outside the Regents Meeting. These were peaceful students protesting the 32 percent fee increase and fighting to make their voices heard. Meanwhile, the colonization of Campbell Hall lacked police aggression, a fact that most certainly would have been different if it were actually students of color speaking to their conditions—and liberating their hall.

Privileged students renaming the hall ‘Carter-Huggins’ is an example of postmodern blackface. Instead of the objectification of a minstrel character, it is now the trendy Black radical. Whereas Blackface historically has been used to exploit racist notions of Blackness, the face of the Black radical serves to validate privileged struggle. The privileged student activist attempts to assume the position of the most subjugated within the system. That is to say, a romantic sojourn with an office building becomes a site of revolution because it has the stamp of a romanticized subjugated position, the Black subject. What does it mean to clothe privileged struggle in a history that does not belong to the privileged—a history, as Orlando Patterson points out, of natal alienation and gratuitous violence?(3) The action at Campbell Hall romanticizes the tragic deaths of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, while falsely creating a media validation of their struggle. If Campbell Hall needed to be liberated and the history of Black struggle needed to be highlighted, one is left to wonder why the conditions of current Black students were not addressed and why no Black students were present.

When factions within the UCI coalition space chose to depict images of the administration in “nineteenth century wild west shootout” frames, which looked like “wanted” posters, individuals spoke out against the tortured history the images reflected. The image of UCI chancellor Michael Drake, a Black man, resembled a fugitive slave poster and led to the idea that a lynch mob was a justifiable action in response to fee increases and budget mismanagement. The very act of creating these posters is riddled with ignorance of Black suffering in US society. This is not a new event, nor is it unique to UCI. What was challenged however, within the coalition space, was the willingness to defend such ignorance. The posters were challenged on the grounds that they were openly anti-Black. Students countered by resting in their ignorance of anti-Blackness and defending the posters as tools of mass mobilization. Other students chose not to speak or actively tried to quell the conversation in hopes of avoiding the topic of race and exposing the weakness of the coalition. This speaks to the divide between the Black subject position and the current student movement. This “movement” is operating under the structure that anti-Blackness or racism in general is something being deployed by capitalism and that it plays into capitalist hands to bring race issues into coalition spaces or to have a race-conscious critique of the movement. This sentiment is blatantly clear in Alexander Zevin’s account from the Campbell Hall occupation, “the students who occupied Campbell Hall sought to extend the struggle to all students in a way that sees racism as one wrung in the ladder of economic and political exploitation.”(4) The privileged idea of revolution is that once the students and workers rise up and seize the university everything else will fall into place. This inaccuracy is what Wilderson points out when he recognizes the “limitations of Marxist discourse in the face of the Black subject. This is because the United States is constructed at the intersection of both a capitalist and white supremacist matrix.”(5) What would happen if we were to engage in a true analysis of the negation Black humanity? That is to acknowledge anti-Blackness as being more than just a wrung on the ladder. This analysis will lead us to adjust our thinking about what a revolutionary subject is—to begin an open assault on anti-Blackness.

There is an unjustified fear this movement should not be a movement of color which speaks to the actual conditions of the most exploited, discriminated, and oppressed on our campuses. Within our comfortable classrooms students of color analyze structural and systemic racism, mobilize around the rhetoric that fee increases disproportionately affect students of color, yet fail to challenge the policies, institutions, and ideologies that dictate their university experience.

 




Ryan Sinclaire Davis is a fourth-year student in African-American Studies and Political Science, University of California, Irvine. Ryan was one of the seventeen arrested in the February 24th sit-in at Aldrich Hall. He can be reached at rsdavis@uci.edu.

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1. Hartman, Sadiyah. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

2. Wilderson III, Frank(2003). “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9:2, 225-240.

3. Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982).

4. Zevin, Alexander. “On Some Lessons from the Protest: Report from UCLA’s Campbell Hall” Reclamations 1 (December 2009).

5. Ibid.