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During the past academic year, an upsurge of student activism, a movement of millennials, has swept campuses across the country and attracted the attention of the media. From coast to coast, from the Ivy League to state universities to small liberal arts colleges, a wave of student activism has focused on stopping climate change, promoting a living wage, fighting mass incarceration practices, supporting immigrant rights, and of course campaigning for Bernie Sanders.

Both the media and the schools that have been the targets of some of these protests have seized upon certain aspects of the upsurge for criticism or praise, while ignoring others. Commentators, pundits, and reporters have frequently trivialized and mocked the passion of the students and the ways in which it has been directed, even as universities have tried to appropriate it by promoting what some have called “neoliberal multiculturalism.” Think of this as a way, in particular, of taming the power of the present demands for racial justice and absorbing them into an increasingly market-oriented system of higher education.

In some of their most dramatic actions, students of color, inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, have challenged the racial climate at their schools. In the process, they have launched a wave of campus activism, including sit-ins, hunger strikes, demonstrations, and petitions, as well as emotional, in-your-face demands of various sorts. One national coalition of student organizations, the Black Liberation Collective, has called for the percentage of black students and faculty on campus to approximate that of blacks in the society. It has also called for free tuition for black and Native American students, and demanded that schools divest from private prison corporations. Other student demands for racial justice have included promoting a living wage for college employees, reducing administrative salaries, lowering tuitions and fees, increasing financial aid, and reforming the practices of campus police. These are not, however, the issues that have generally attracted the attention either of media commentators or the colleges themselves.

University administrators around the country are attempting to domesticate and appropriate this new wave of activism.

Instead, the spotlight has been on student demands for cultural changes at their institutions that focus on deep-seated assumptions about whiteness, sexuality, and ability. At some universities, students have personalized these demands, insisting on the removal of specific faculty members and administrators. Emphasizing a politics of what they call “recognition,” they have also demanded that significant on-campus figures issue public apologies or acknowledge that “black lives matter.” Some want universities to implement in-class “trigger warnings” when difficult material is being presented and to create “safe spaces” for marginalized students as a sanctuary from the daily struggle with the mainstream culture. By seizing upon and responding to these (and only these) student demands, university administrators around the country are attempting to domesticate and appropriate this new wave of activism.

In the meantime, right-wing commentators have depicted students as coddled, entitled, and enemies of free speech. The libertarian right has launched a broad media critique of the current wave of student activism. Commentators have been quick to dismiss student protesters as over-sensitive and entitled purveyors of “academic victimology.” They lament the “coddling of the American mind.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has termed students “misguided” in their protests against racist language, ideas, and assumptions, their targeting of “microaggression” (that is, unconscious offensive comments) and insensitivity, and their sometimes highly personal attacks against those they accuse. One of the most vocal critics of the new campus politics, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argues that such rampant “liberalism” and “political correctness” violate academic freedom and freedom of speech. (In this, they are in accord with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union. Free speech advocates Daphne Patai and the ACLU’s Harvey Silvergate, for example, bemoan a new diversity requirement at the University of Massachusetts for its “politicization of education.”)

In a response that, under the circumstances, might at first seem surprising, college administrators have been been remarkably open to some of these student demands—often the very ones derided by the right. In this way, the commentators and the administrators have tended to shine a bright light on what is both personal and symbolic in the new politics of the student protesters, while ignoring or downplaying their more structural and economically challenging desires and demands.

The Neoliberal University

University administrators have been particularly amenable to student demands that fit with current trends in higher education. Today’s neoliberal university is increasingly facing market pressures like loss of state funding, privatization, rising tuition, and student debt, while promoting a business model that emphasizes the managerial control of faculty through constant “assessment,” emphasis on “accountability,” and rewards for “efficiency.” Meanwhile, in a society in which labor unions are constantly being weakened, the higher education labor force is similarly being—in the term of the moment—“flexibilized” through the weakening of tenure, that once ironclad guarantee of professorial lifetime employment, and the increased use of temporary adjunct faculty.

In this context, universities are scrambling to accommodate student activism for racial justice by incorporating the more individualized and personal side of it into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking. Not surprisingly, how today’s students frame their demands often reflects the environment in which they are being raised and educated. Postmodern theory, an approach which still reigns in so many liberal arts programs, encourages textual analysis that reveals hidden assumptions encoded in words; psychology has popularized the importance of individual trauma; and the neoliberal ideology that has come to permeate so many schools emphasizes individual behavior as the most important agent for social change. Add together these three strands of thought, now deeply embedded in a college education, and injustice becomes a matter of the wrongs individuals inflict on others at a deeply personal level. De-emphasized are the policies and structures that are built into how society (and the university) works.

For this reason, while schools have downplayed or ignored student demands for changes in admissions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and management prerogatives, they have jumped into the heated debate the student movement has launched over “microaggressions”—pervasive, stereotypical remarks that assume whiteness as a norm and exoticize people of color, while taking for granted the white nature of institutions of higher learning. As part of the present wave of protest, students of color have, for instance, highlighted their daily experiences of casual and everyday racism—statements or questions like “where are you from?” (when the answer is: the same place you’re from) or “as a [fill in the blank], how do you feel about…” Student protests against such comments, especially when they are made by professors or school administrators, and the mindsets that go with them are precisely what the right is apt to dismiss as political correctness run wild and university administrations are embracing as the essence of the present on-campus movement.

At Yale, the Intercultural Affairs Committee advised students to avoid racially offensive Halloween costumes. When a faculty member and resident house adviser circulated an email critiquing the paternalism of such an administrative mandate, student protests erupted calling for her removal. While Yale declined to remove her from her post as a house advisor, she stepped down from her teaching position. At Emory, students protested the “pain” they experienced at seeing “Trump 2016” graffiti on campus, and the university president assured them that he “heard [their] message…about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” Administrators are scrambling to implement new diversity initiatives and on-campus training programs—and hiring expensive private consulting firms to help them do so.

At the University of Missouri, the president and chancellor both resigned in the face of student protests, which included a hunger strike and a football team game boycott in the wake of racial incidents on campus including public racist slurs and symbols. So did the dean of students at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), when protest erupted over her reference to students (implicitly of color) who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

The language of “trauma” and mental health that has come to dominate campuses also works to individualize and depoliticize the very idea of racial oppression.

Historian and activist Robin Kelley suggests that today’s protests, even as they “push for measures that would make campuses more hospitable to students of color: greater diversity, inclusion, safety, and affordability,” operate under a contradictory logic that is seldom articulated. To what extent, he wonders, does the student goal of “leaning in” and creating more spaces for people of color at the top of an unequal and unjust social order clash with the urge of the same protesters to challenge that unjust social order?

Kelley argues that the language of “trauma” and mental health that has come to dominate campuses also works to individualize and depoliticize the very idea of racial oppression. The words “trauma”, “PTSD”, “micro-aggression”, and “triggers”,” he points out, “have virtually replaced oppression, repression, and subjugation.” He explains that, “while trauma can be an entrance into activism, it is not in itself a destination and may even trick activists into adopting the language of the neoliberal institutions they are at pains to reject.” This is why, he adds, for university administrators, diversity and cultural competency initiatives have become go-to solutions that “shift race from the public sphere into the psyche” and strip the present round of demonstrations of some of their power.

Cultural Politics and Inequality

In recent years, cultural, or identity, politics has certainly challenged the ways that Marxist and other old and new left organizations of the past managed to ignore, or even help reproduce, racial and gender inequalities. It has questioned the value of class-only or class-first analysis on subjects as wide-ranging as the Cuban Revolution—did it successfully address racial inequality as it redistributed resources to the poor, or did it repress black identity by privileging class analysis?—and the Bernie Sanders campaign—will his social programs aimed at reducing economic inequality alleviate racial inequality by helping the poor, or will his class-based project leave the issue of racial inequality in the lurch? In other words, the question of whether a political project aimed at attacking the structures of economic inequality can also advance racial and gender equality is crucial to today’s campus politics.

Put another way, the question is: How political is the personal? Political scientist Adolph Reed argues that if class is left out, race politics on campus becomes “the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.” As he puts it, race-first politics of the sort being pushed today by university administrators promotes a “moral economy… in which 1 percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12 percent of the 1 percent were black, 12 percent were Latino, 50 percent were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.”

The student movement that has swept across the nation has challenged colleges and universities on the basics of their way of (quite literally) doing business. The question for these institutions now is: Can student demands largely be tamed and embedded inside an administration-sanctioned agenda that in no way undermines how schools now operate in the world?

University administrators have found many ways to use student demands for racial justice to strengthen their business model.

Feminist theorist Nancy Fraser has shown how feminist ideas of a previous generation were successfully “recuperated by neoliberalism”—that is, how they were repurposed as rationales for greater inequality. “Feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview,” she argues, are now “increasingly expressed in individualist terms.” Feminist demands for workplace access and equal pay have, for example, been used to undermine worker gains for a “family wage,” while a feminist emphasis on gender equality has similarly been used on campus to divert attention from growing class inequality.

Student demands for racial justice risk being absorbed into a comparable framework. University administrators have found many ways to use student demands for racial justice to strengthen their business model and so the micro-management of faculty. In one case seized upon by free-speech libertarians, the Brandeis administration placed an assistant provost in a classroom to monitor a professor after students accused him of using the word “wetback” in a Latin American politics class. More commonly, universities employ a plethora of consulting firms and create new administrative positions to manage “diversity” and “inclusion.” Workshops and training sessions proliferate, as do “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Such a vision of “diversity” is then promoted as a means to prepare students to compete in the “global marketplace.”

There are even deeper ways in which a diversity agenda aligns with neoliberal politics. Literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels argues, for example, that diversity can give a veneer of social justice to ideas about market competition and meritocracy that in reality promote inequality. “The rule in neoliberal economies is that the difference between the rich and the poor gets wider rather than shrinks—but that no culture should be treated invidiously,” he explains. “It’s basically okay if economic differences widen as long as the increasingly successful elites come to look like the increasingly unsuccessful non-elites. So the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.” Or as Forbes Magazine put it, “Businesses need to vastly increase their ability to sense new opportunities, develop creative solutions, and move on them with much greater speed. The only way to accomplish these changes is through a revamped workplace culture that embraces diversity so that sensing, creativity, and speed are all vastly improved.”

Clearly, university administrators prefer student demands that can be coopted or absorbed into their current business model. Allowing the prevailing culture to define the parameters of their protest has left the burgeoning Millennial Movement in a precarious position. The more that students—with the support of college and university administrations—accept the individualized cultural path to social change while forgoing the possibility of anything greater than cosmetic changes to prevailing hierarchies, on campus and beyond, the more they face ridicule from those on the right who present them as fragile, coddled, privileged whiners.

Still, this young, vibrant movement has momentum and will continue to evolve. In this time of great social and political flux, it’s possible that its many constituencies—fighting for racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice—will use their growing clout to build on recent victories, no matter how limited.

Keep an eye on college campuses. The battle for the soul of American higher education being fought there today is going to matter for the wider world tomorrow. Whether that future will be defined by a culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces or by democratized education and radical efforts to fight inequality may be won or lost in the shadow of the Ivory Tower. The Millennial Movement matters. Our future is in their hands.

By arrangement with TomDispatch

Aviva Chomsky

Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts and a TomDispatch regular. Her most recent book is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal.

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