The university system is marketed to Black students as a mecca of reprieve from the outside world wherein the ills of civil society—gratuitous state sanctioned violence against Black folks—are absent, replaced by a constituency we are taught from childhood to trust above all else: well meaning, well educated white people. We were raised with icons such as Billy Nye the Science Guy and Mr. Rogers acting as fictional superheroes touting the mantra that equality and education would mean the downfall of white supremacy. It comes as no surprise, then, that so many of us enter higher education wide-eyed and precocious, big fish from small ponds, exhausted and hopeful that these white people—the ones who spent a decade or more matriculating through the very higher education system from which we seek liberation in the form of a degree—will be different.
From the outset it is easy for most to dismiss the predominantly white faculty, even at campuses that have a predominantly non-white population. Perhaps this goes without question because the vast majority of televisual and filmic representations of college faculty are white. We think that perhaps we will “be the change,” at least that’s what I thought. I thought I would earn a doctorate and work to shift the professorial demographics. That was until I realized that there were several Black folks holding doctorates and unable to find work in academia and further, that those who did had only a fifty percent chance of being granted tenure. The very systemic disenfranchisement and discriminatory employment practices I sought to evade with a degree were alive and well in higher education.
My perception of the university system as a liberal hub quickly dissipated as my friends and I were often questioned by campus security, pulled over on campus roads, frequently interrogated about our presence in spaces our ancestors labored to construct and we paid to gain access to and maintain. Not only were the campus police and security all too eager to act as the deputies of white supremacy, the faculty were as well. All too often my commentary in both graduate and undergraduate level courses was dismissed or silenced, I was accused of “being off topic” when I raised issues faced by Black folks in non Black studies courses and my Black studies courses were at times taught by white faculty (occupying a space that should have been reserved for Black faculty) obsessed with teaching the role of white folks in Emancipation and the Civil Rights Era. When I became a lecturer, I was met with resistance any time I taught about white supremacy or structural anti-blackness. White students upset that they were being held accountable for their role in the oppression of Black folks ran directly to my superiors who immediately sided with them, an indication that white students knew that they were deputized and had more power than Black faculty in the university system.
These experiences and many more shaped my cognition of non Black folks associated with higher education who weaponized their degrees as a means of masking their anti-Black antipathies. For every faculty member, student, and security guard who attempted to silence or police me there were three times as many sitting idly by, silently consenting and supporting their colleague’s actions. This is why it came as no surprise to me that the white woman who harassed Black folks peacefully barbequing in a park is allegedly Dr. Jennifer Schulte of Stanford University or that it was a white PhD student who called the police on a Black Yale graduate student napping in her dorm’s common room or that it was a white lawyer who launched a prejudiced tirade toward restaurant employees for speaking Spanish. While many expressed shock and outrage that people so well educated could commit such vile actions, I knew better.
— Kevin (@kevinCash__) May 14, 2018
As Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” There is an argument to be made that higher education exists to not only to prepare students for the workforce but also to conceal and naturalize the tenants of structural anti-Blackness. Given these recent events as well as the innumerable occurrences that precede them, we must stop perceiving the university system as anything other than a liberal plantation occupied and run by the senior and junior partners of white supremacy.
I earned five degrees across two presidencies; I can assure you that these recent events are not the residue of the Trump presidency. They are instead a small sampling of a systemic issue being captured on film. No matter who occupies the White House we would do well to teach our children and loved ones that when they are headed to universities they are headed to just that—a white house—and all of the violence and ills therein.