By BRIAN CRAWFORD
Academia has long been a battleground, but since 2020 the conservative offensive has intensified. Its teleology is the hegemony of American Exceptionalism and all its component parts: free market capitalism, Christianity, an unquestioning patriotism, and support for the United States as the dominant global force.
Annihilation of oppositional forces, including those within academia, has long been a vision of the right. Acting with urgency, states dominated by right-wing legislatures implemented bills restricting ethnic studies or “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). This has become a blanket characterization for any course or discussion of race and racism embedded in all aspects of society. Mischaracterizing these courses is intentional in order to spark outrage, particularly among white parents, but in the larger base of the conservative movement as well.
The initial battleground in some states was the elementary and high schools, where they were fighting phantoms. However, the targeted course materials are college and university courses. Ultimately, they are seeking to assert control over university and college campuses. Legislatures have passed bills cutting funding to public universities that they determined to be teaching “CRT.”
Dramatic political displays by state legislatures are the latest challenges faced by African American studies departments. The struggle for Black studies courses five decades ago was then, as it is today, not only a struggle to elaborate a complete history of the Black experience in the United States but also of the international struggle of the oppressed.
The Black liberation struggle achieved major victories with the forming of African American studies departments at universities across the country. This followed the demand by the civil rights movement for admission to universities. Black students upon arrival found they had no history. Knowing this not to be true, they demanded a full telling of history. These efforts were for the purpose of breaking the American mythology, which omits its true blood-soaked past.
Historical narratives are under the hegemony of the ruling class. History as told by the ruling class describes great achievements and the superiority of the state, crafts the worldview of a nation, and gains consent. It is a story where “Manifest Destiny” stands in for “Divine Right.”
Marx writes in “German Ideology”: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (Marx/Engels, vol. 60). American education as an institution reinforces bourgeois values and understanding, a worldview based on capitalist production. Nevertheless, a new generation is questioning the contradictions inherent within the capitalist system and not just their respective governments.
Origins of the struggle
The political thrust of the original Blacks studies movement developed from the necessity to articulate the material conditions of the oppressed, in this case African Americans. Black people, shackled both metaphorically and in fact, were seeking to realize the myth of the democratic republic, but found and continue to find that they are not valued. Campuses were and are part and parcel of the larger struggle for liberation. Militants of the Black Power movement grasped the significance of history and theory as ingredients in revolutionary praxis.
As the political development of the Black masses moved beyond the civil rights movement, militants began to promote Black culture as revolutionary. George Mason Murray, the Black Panthers’ minister of education, stated: “The only culture worth keeping is the revolutionary culture.” The struggles of Blacks in America were the struggles of the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America against imperialist domination.
Under the initiative of the Black Panther Party, unity among oppressed groups coalesced and survived attempts at division. Derika Purnell writes in The Guardian (Feb. 14, 2023): “The struggle for Black studies was birthed through political education and experimentation. Rather than using African American studies courses as an exclusive class towards preparation for testing … activists organized to raise consciousness among marginalized groups on and off campus, shift university resources to the surrounding Black community and to develop a Black studies programs to politicize students to participate in different forms of activism.” The conception pre dates the Black Panther Party. At Merritt College, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale created the Soul Students Advisory Board, sparked by their reading of authors such as Franz Fanon. In 1968, Black students demanded a Black studies department (not just courses) and an increase in Black student admissions.
This manifestation of unity in struggle resulted in the students at San Francisco State College (now University) forming the Third World Liberation Front, which advocated for ethnic studies programs. They formed an alliance with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and demanded the elimination of ROTC programs (Bloom and Martin, “Black Against Empire,” p. 270).
San Francisco State was the site of the first of many campus strikes demanding Black studies programs. Thousands joined the strike, and momentum built despite severe repression. Students, faculty, unions from various sectors, Black organizations, and the larger community were attracted, as well as more moderate political actors. This widespread support sustained the strike for months. The Black Panthers called a statewide Black Student Union Convention in October 1968. Point number five of the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program stated: “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.”
San Francisco State College established the first Black Student Union. Black parents were encouraged to send their children to San Francisco State. The Black Student Union also encouraged other groups to join the campaign to form ethnic studies programs. The Black liberation struggle was inextricably linked to and acted in concert with the international struggles of all the oppressed peoples.
The Black struggle being “no different than that of the Vietnamese, … we are struggling for self-determination for our Black communities; and self-determination for Black education,” said James Garrett, president of San Francisco State’s Black Student Union. Radical sociologist Nathan Hare conceived of a Black Studies program that was anti-imperialist and would take “an activist approach that sought to position Black studies as part of a transformation of the Black condition rather than its perpetuation” (Bloom and Martin, p. 271).
“Black Studies (departments) across this country were not put on college campuses because faculty saw the inherent validity of the discipline, says Joseph A. Brown, professor of Africana Studies at the University of Illinois Champaign. “They were put there because of community agitation and student unrest. So they’ve always been under political scrutiny [that] history and sociology haven’t been under. These programs, in the minds of many people, don’t belong on college campuses anyway.”
Constantly for over more than 50 years, Africana and African American studies have been compelled to justify their existence. And when the austerity ax is wielded, it falls here first. In the case of California State Long Beach, restrictions were put in place on the hiring of professors in the Africana Studies Department for years. Then the administration attempted to eliminate the department because it lacked tenured professors. (“Is it time for all students to take ethnic studies?” asked Lindsay McKenzie in “Inside Higher Learning”).
Increasingly, universities are treated as marketplaces. Departments that do not produce what are considered adequate numbers of enrollees and degrees are likely to find their budgets cut or their departments eliminated.
Ethnic studies reaffirms its position in the Black liberation movement and other struggles in the 21st century. Conservatives are engaging in a redaction of history, and are actively countering and understanding by the masses of the nation’s crimes. A promotion of ignorance suits them quite well. American history is in fact a horror film. But as in horror films, there are those that dare to fight the monsters; the abolitionists, the Black Power movement, and those who make up today’s incarnation of the struggle have made sacrifices and taken risks for the sake of liberation.
Legislatures have passed bills restricting the content of courses from elementary to public colleges and universities. Specifically, ethnic studies courses are being curtailed or eliminated. In Idaho, House Bill 377 states that the intent of the legislation is to ensure the respect and dignity of others, and the right of others to express differing opinions, and foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and freedom of speech and association. Intentionality is important, the intent of this legislation is perfectly understood by its authors and supporters. The intention is to eliminate certain speech, and opinions from campus discourse (see: https://legislature.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/sessioninfo/2021/legislation/H0377.pdf).
In the last two years, 44 states have proposed bans on critical race theory, while prohibitions or restrictions were enacted in 18 states. Idaho was the first, followed by Oklahoma, but Florida is the most prominent of the states that are banning “CRT.” The governor, Ron DeSantis, recently rejected an Advanced Placement African American studies program. As with the Idaho bill, Florida’s legislation is predicated on the accusation that the programs “are divisive” and teach that one race is inherently predisposed to racial bias. Desantis, who aspires to be president, is committed to eradicating “left” or “progressive” thought from education. From Florida he has projected himself as the choice of the far right of the GOP.
Recently, Louisiana’s Republicans proposed a complete ban on courses and discussion of racism, rationalizing that “the inglorious aspects” of American history are too divisive.
Organizations advocating “colorblindness” and “meritocracy” have become prominent in the last few years. Though conservatives criticized programs that attempt to address racial disparities in the past, the right is now attacking with greater intensity. “Color US UNITED” is a nonprofit that opposes social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Its latest target is the University of North Carolina Medical School, which is launching a social justice program to address bias in medical care. The organization objects to the notion “that many health disparities are caused by racism.” Chris Watson, speaking for Color US UNITED, states: “There is nothing wrong with having conversations, but they should be done on a neutral basis.”
Another organization, Moms for Liberty, has been endorsed by many on the right—including Tucker Carlson, Newsmax, and the Daily Caller, who have given it publicity. It purports to be a “parent’s rights” organization, dedicated to dictating curricula at public schools. It was embraced by some Republican politicians, who believed that it was a key to the 2022 midterm elections. The group was founded in January in 2021 in Florida, and have served as another bulwark in Gov. DeSantis’ arsenal against “CRT,” leading efforts to ban books and discussions on race and gender in classrooms and libraries. Its membership is reportedly 100,000, with chapters in 38 states. The organization is involved in school boards and is seeking to establish a chapter in every county in the nation.
Judicial Watch is targeting programs in the Air Force, objecting to instruction on topics of race and gender. Another organization founded by a Trump administration alum is the Center for Renewing America (CRA), created for the purpose of renewing “a consensus of America as a nation under God with unique interests worthy of defending that flow from its people, institutions and history.” CRA compiled a glossary to assist parents, educators, and others determine the suitability of texts; Ibrahim X. Kendi and Pablo Freire are among the authors who are prohibited. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is often referred to as “Marxist CRT”—which summons the ghost of McCarthyism.
“The current effort to control curricula and ban books would not be an issue if the Christian right did not have power,” says Frederick Clarkson of the Political Research Association, which tracks the right. “The current fight over particular words and phrases is a symptom of a larger disease: the fact that the right has allies in elected office who are willing to move forward their agenda.”
Librarians are also facing threats, which are only increasing as thousands of titles are targeted. Some jurisdictions are threatening to close libraries if they insist on displaying proscribed texts or as a response to court rulings against book bans. School board district members in Spotsylvania, Va., proposed closing libraries as a cost-cutting measure. Parents and a board member challenged the proposal, characterizing it as an attempt to ban books. The challenge stems partly from action by a parent group that had targeted 40 titles. Another board member reportedly suggested book burnings.
What would seem to be a placid work environment is becoming an increasingly hazardous occupation, as the armed and aggressive right-wing threatens violence.
Victoria, Texas residents demanded 44 titles be removed from the shelves of the public library. When library staff reviewed the materials and deemed them suitable to remain on the shelves, this group of residents took their case to the county commission. The commission was not responsible for funding the library but was the owner of the building and threatened the library with eviction if it did not comply with the demands to remove the books from the shelves. The mayor of Victoria used the library’s funding to leverage their compliance.
What is past is prologue
Attempts to rewrite the historical narrative are typical; there is a long standing tradition in defense of the Confederacy. These revisionists portray the slaveholders’ rebellion as a lost cause in defense of states’ rights. In this narrative the secessionists are the protagonists of the tale. Mildred Lewis Rutherford wrote that “the crimes of Reconstruction made the Ku Klux Klan (a) necessary” evil.
Black political power emerging from the ashes of the Civil War offended the sensibilities of the Southern ruling class and so the counter-revolution, a true white terror, commenced to reclaim Southern social traditions exemplified by a racial hierarchy that demanded Black subservience. Rutherford advised educators and librarians to ban books—in this case, any text that held the Confederacy in a negative light. Some of the criteria for rejecting books were: books which did not outline the principles on which the South fought the civil war, books that referred to the Southern soldiers as rebels or traitors, books that stated that the South had fought to defend slavery, or books that characterized slaveholders as cruel and unjust (see: Henry Louis Gates, “Who’s Afraid of Black History,” The New York Times).
Efforts to repress history have not proceeded to the degree to which Rutherford sought in her myth making. Nonetheless, the intent of the forces imposing bans on texts and courses are rather explicit; an unadulterated examination into the nation’s history means that the origins of our conditions are no longer opaque, and their power is endangered. It is better for them that the veil remains in place, and they can continue telling the same fables to the masses.
The barbaric history of this country was the subject of an exhibit titled “Without Sanctuary” at the New York Historical Society. An estimated 3500 Blacks were lynched in the period between 1880 and 1950 (this estimate is very conservative); the exhibit displays photos of Blacks being lynched, some of which were made into postcards. It “reveals a depravity long shrouded in historical amnesia.” Black parents taught their children how to act and speak around whites, the wrong things said or done meant death to them and possibly the entire family. Minor infractions could result in death, even a walk on a country road could be your last. Law enforcement was not meant to protect the Black population; its purpose was to uphold the social order.
Margaret A. Burnham writes in her new book, “By Hands Not Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners,” (Norton), that in Birmingham, Ala., the laws prohibiting homicide “simply did not apply” to the police: “The strange alchemy of the city’s criminal justice system transformed minor infractions into capital crimes.” Law enforcement was both complicit and the perpetrator of violence against the Black population, but whites could commit any act against African Americans without fear of arrest let alone prosecution. Racism is not based on the attitudes of individuals but on the system and its institution.
Efforts undertaken by reactionary forces invariably follow a rise in the Black liberation struggle. The cycle is clear from the slave rebellions to the mass protests of three years ago. Governors such as DeSantis in Florida demand that education should promote “American values”—free-market capitalism and patriotism—all with the goal of inculcating American exceptionalism to the youth who increasingly see through the facade. Florida students held a walkout in protest of De Santis’ censorship and elimination of courses. They held a class on African American studies in defiance of the governor. Materially, they suffer the consequences of late capitalism while the ruling class seeks to reassert itself by all means, including intensifying the racial divide. Critical exposition that contradicts the dominant narrative is portrayed as indoctrination. Meanwhile, nationalism in its most virulent form is extending its reach.
We cannot maintain a position of spectator in the current period. Conservatism has advanced to a stage of battle within the class war that demands a response worthy of our radical tradition. Speech is silenced, organizing is criminalized, political expression risks imprisonment, and all those opposed are threatened. Banning of books is followed by book burning. Hiding texts and succumbing to fear of the shadow of authoritarianism is surrender. Education and information are vital in revolutionary struggle; they are foundational. This is exactly why the reactionary elements of the ruling class are attempting an aggressive censorship.