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Now that freedom had come, poor whites were faced by the dilemma of recognizing the Negroes as equals or bending every effort to still keep them beneath the white mass in income and social power. – W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1935: 287
Probably in no country in the civilized world did human life become so cheap…White people paid no attention to their own laws. White men became a law unto themselves…the South reached the extraordinary distinction of being the only modern civilized country where human beings were publicly burned alive. – W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1935: 573
y pinned tweet says that I will neither participate in nor condone the normalization of Trumpism. I might have to keep it posted for the full four years of the (first) Trump presidency. After all, the normalization of the Trump regime is fully underway, from calls for a peaceful transition of power to those for unity and healing across electoral allegiances.
President Obama described the election as an “intramural scrimmage” insisting that “we’re Americans.” As the recent Hamilton furor demonstrates, dissenters have to prove their civility, casting their criticism of the Trump-Pence government in polite and respectful terms, pleading with these newly elected leaders to consider that the United States is a country of diversity and difference.
But we have to ask ourselves what it means to plead thus with an administration that seems fully committed to white supremacy, misogyny, and virulent nationalism. Do the times demand of us civility or civil disobedience? And what does the peaceful transition of power entail when the new state that is taking shape is premised on the show and force of violence?
I am stubbornly resolute in my position towards the Trump administration. I am willing to grant that Mr. Trump’s win was legitimate and decisive. I grant this legitimacy knowing that the American electoral system has always been “rigged,” be it in the persistence of the electoral college or in the repeated suppression of the voting rights of racial-ethnic minorities. But I refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Trump administration because the state that is in the making is an apartheid one.
There is a lot of talk among leftist scholars about how Trumpism must be viewed not as rupture but rather as a muscular form of previous neoliberal states and their militarized and racialized logics. There is nothing new, my comrades note, in the anticipated rollback of the welfare state or in the state machinery of deportation. The targeting of Muslims here and worldwide, they argue, is not new. Armed mobilization to foreclose Black freedom is not new. The denial of human rights to LGBTQ people is not new. American imperialism and its effects on communities reconstituted and renamed as immigrants and aliens is not new. I disagree, for such a framework serves to normalize Trumpism. Not only does the Trump regime portend a systematic dismantling of economic and environmental regulations, a multi-front attack on hard-won civil rights, and a significant expansion of state-sponsored violence against people of color and the poor, but also it is poised to codify and implement “a doctrine of racial separation,” Du Bois’s phrase (1935: 573) in his magisterial book, Black Reconstruction in America.
If indeed what we confront is an apartheid state, then what is our responsibility as scholars and educators? Put bluntly, what is the role of the university in the age of (American) white supremacy? What are the critiques, actions, and pedagogies we must produce to challenge the normalization of violence? At the University of California, Los Angeles, as at other universities, faculty have rallied to speak out against Trumpism. I am inspired by these efforts and I am committed to doing my part within them. For me, what is at stake is the project of divesting from whiteness. Let me briefly outline some of the frontlines of this work.
Naming White Supremacy
This quarter at UCLA I teach a large graduate class, Histories and Theories of Urban Planning. Two days after the election my students and I gathered in stunned silence for a teach-in, struggling to find the vocabulary to analyze what we have come to call Trumpism. But name it we must. Because as bell hooks (2004: 25) asks, “… how can we organize to challenge and change a system that cannot be named?” The election has been surrounded by a din of narratives of economic hardship, tales of a Rustbelt working class looking for a salve for the loss of livelihood and status. Yet, Black women and Latinas, two groups hit the hardest by neoliberalization, did not vote for Trump. It is not the worker who determined this election but rather the white voter. Indeed, this election has starkly revealed what Michael Dawson (2016: 161, 145) calls “the abode of race…hidden in plain sight” notably how the state must mediate “the logics of white supremacy and patriarchy…so that the capitalist economy can function as efficiently as possible.” The text I carried with me to class that day was Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, his conceptualization of the white worker, and of the wages, public and psychological, of whiteness. In particular, Du Bois (1935: 25) argues that while only a small proportion of Southern society owned slaves, the rest, including the “mass of poor whites” who were “economic outcasts” were invested in slavery, including in forms of violence to restrict Black freedom.
On November 10, in our classroom, we thus named the system we wanted to challenge and change as white supremacy. After all we had started the quarter reading Kate Derickson’s (2016: 7) essay “The Age of Ferguson” in which she pinpoints the “unbearable whiteness of geography” and considers the prospect of “anti-racist scholarship.” All quarter we had sought to break the deafening silence in urban planning history and theory on racial capitalism, American imperialism, and the coloniality of power. But now in a building where the so-called “UCLA White Students Group” had posted flyers declaring the end of “the governmental strategy” of “an embrace of the replacement of whites, and appeasement of the demands of minority groups,” the naming of white supremacy took on a different and urgent meaning. Like Donald Trump’s insistence that the theater must be a “safe and special place,” such groups are calling for safe spaces for “white voices to be heard.” To break the silence in our disciplines and classrooms by naming white supremacy requires that we enter a radically unsafe space, one that has been the only kind of space that targeted bodies and communities have ever experienced.
There are many ways in which we can talk about whiteness. I am inspired by Cheryl Harris’s (1993: 1780) landmark Harvard Law Review essay, “Whiteness as Property,” in which she traces “the evolution of whiteness from color to race to status to property” and notes that both whiteness and property entail “a right to exclude.” I see the nationwide Sanctuary Campus movement to be a repudiation of this right to exclude. Will universities refuse to cooperate with federal law enforcement if undocumented students lose the protections of DACA? How will they alleviate the tyranny of fear that has been unleashed upon these students and their families? As chatter of a Muslim registry continues, will the bastions of Enlightenment stand against fascism? As Robin Kelley (2016) has recently noted on the need to build a sanctuary movement, “even without the law behind us, we must act on moral principle.” It will not be simple or easy though. The Trump administration’s threat to eliminate federal funding for sanctuary cities serves as a signal of the battles ahead. Federal Pell Grants are vitally important for public universities as is federal funding for faculty research. Will the faculty be willing to put these on the line to ensure that universities are sanctuaries? Perhaps the blunt question is this: tenured faculty are some of the most protected bodies and jobs in the United States. What are we willing to risk for the sake of justice and freedom? Such a question leads me to the provocation of divestment.
I came of political age in the era of divestments and sanctions, many of them leveled at apartheid regimes such as those in South Africa and Israel/Palestine. By contrast, I have watched the normalization of the Modi regime in India, often under the banner of good governance, the frenzied support of an Indian diaspora for right-wing nationalism, and the acquiescence of North Atlantic leaders to Hindu fundamentalism for the sake of global capitalism and geopolitical alliances. What will be our allegiance to the apartheid state that Trump is intent on constructing? What are the conditions we are willing to accept for our share of Title VI dollars or Department of Defense research awards? Will we claim neutrality? Will we invoke expediency? I do not know what I will do in the face of these dilemmas. What I do know is that with many other colleagues, I refuse to bear silent witness to the institutionalization of white supremacy. And if that is the case, I also know that I must not only produce critique and knowledge but also take action that initiates multiple processes of divestment. This is the work of decolonizing the university that so many of us have pursued for much of our academic lives. But now in the age of Trumpism, this is also the explicit project of divesting from whiteness and its constitution through “racial terror,” a phrase I borrow from Paul Gilroy (1993: 73). Many of our disciplines and professions have already participated in previous articulations of racial terror and its technologies of knowledge. Perhaps the time is propitious for a divestment from such participation.
Dawson M (2016) Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order. Critical Historical Studies 3:1, Online First.
Derickson K (2016) Urban Geography in the Age of Ferguson. Progress in Human Geography, Online First, 1-15.
Du Bois WEB (1935 ) Gates LH (Ed) Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gilroy P (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Harris C (1993) Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review 106:8.
hooks B (2004) The Will to Change: Men, masculinity, and love. New York: Atria Books.
Kelley RDG (2016) Trump Says Go Back, We Say Fight Back. Boston Review weblog, November 16.