As a graduate student in sociology studying racial segregation and other forms of racial oppression, the realities of my people’s lives and deaths are a constant part of my lived experience. Part of why I became a sociologist was to do the research that uncovers hidden forms of oppression and documents avenues of resistance that my people and other oppressed people can utilize in their struggles. As much as I have known the difficulties I would encounter embarking on that mission within a professional space that’s often hostile to “activist-scholars”, this quarter I became acutely aware of how serious a problem this can be for both scholars and the communities they seek to support. In short, I began to see that this historical moment, where issues of race, power, government authority, and perceived principles of (non)violence have come to the fore, is a not only a watershed for the people in the streets, but also for us academics who choose to study these issues. Although many sociologists and other academics have come out to support the people struggling against racist violence, few from my observations have invested themselves in the struggle as academics versus individuals, beyond cheerleading from the sidelines. As things likely escalate in NYC and other places, we’ll likely have to decide where we belong in the struggle lest we become simply passive observers of others’ oppression. I would like to share some thoughts about this issue and what it means for our roles as educators and researchers.
As I started my new Ph.D. program at Northwestern University, one of the first things that came to my attention was the “race issue” that became a point of contention for the students and faculty last spring. As I was seeing black people gunned down in the streets and being abused by officers, I saw fellow POC graduate students tell stories of white students and faculty engage in another form of violence via their feeling that recent POC graduates were getting jobs simply because of their minority status. This background talk caused some tension, which apparently became a bigger issue as the department began a hiring round where the affirmative action accusation was levied against the department. In the forums set up to address these concerns, other issues came to the fore including the perceived lack of POC/minority scholars on syllabi and lack of anti-oppressive education opportunities for graduate students and faculty. Although there were no bullets flying in these forums, I could still feel the sapping of life and will from POCs who were tired of struggling to be valued in academia by their peers. In our case, the call wasn’t just #blacklivesmatter but also #blackmindsmatter.
Our department took a number of measures to address the most immediate issues by issuing a statement on diversity and appointing an ombudsman to deal with racial issues in the department. Although I support these measures fully, the real lesson that was reiterated to me was that academia is no different than the rest of society except that we like to use big words to be offensive.
This reality is made evident in the overall lack of organized involvement of academics in the anti-police violence struggle. Although many of us have involved ourselves as individuals in this movement to our credit, it is the inaction of academic organizations that requires focus. Besides die-ins and petitions (which have their place for sure), there has been a lack of resources put forward by those who in reality understand the breadth and scope of racial oppression the most. Why is this? The obvious answer that we can offer is that academia doesn’t do politics. Western academia often positions itself as the objective observer of society with little realistic regard for the consequences of our research beyond immediate harm, or responsibility to society itself.
Using sociology as an example, we have many resources and tools that organizers and activists could use to further their struggle. Our objective analyses of crime stats, police brutality, and the structure of policing could be used in education materials for new organizers. Social movement scholars that study recruitment, retainment, and emotions could teach people how to most effectively build the movement. Those of us who study political sociology can help develop solid policy agendas. We already have more than enough research, resources, and expertise to make huge contributions to the movement. The reason why you will never see any of this happen on a large scale is because there are consequences for stepping outside the Ivory Tower. Academia by default drives us to do research that either justifies the current state of things or to do critical research that will never reach the masses or those that can best use it. Many scholars have noted the class, racial, and gender structures within academia that have contributed to this affinity for the status quo.
With the contradicting potential of academics to contribute to social movements and academia’s propensity for disengagement/support of the status quo, those of us who want to get involved will eventually have to choose a side. What do we care about more: Our jobs as academics and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? Or do we value contributing to liberatory movements, whatever their variety? When I look at situations like Salaita and others, I see a situation where we won’t be able to straddle the fence between scholar and activist/revolutionary/organizer/supporter as easily, not because we don’t know how to do high quality research while deeply caring about a cause, but because the nature of our jobs will likely force us to make a choice in our hearts, if not publicly.
With the struggle against racism in academia (and my department) I choose opposing white supremacy over ignoring any discomfort or negative consequences that come from my involvement. When it comes to the struggle against police brutality, I will also choose supporting justice even if it means that I may come up against opposition from my colleagues or the wider society for doing so. What would it say of me if I chose to stand on the sidelines while watching my people suffer and struggle? There is no neutral in this struggle, even for academics.