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13 January 2011 / ellapelea

Counterbalancing the Scale: Defending Ethnic and Gender Studies at UT-Austin

On December 1st, nearly 300 assembled and marched from UT-Austin’s West Mall to the administration building and finally to the College of Liberal Arts building to confront administrators in response to an academic committee’s proposal to make dramatic cuts to ethnic and gender studies at UT-Austin.  Leading up to and following this mass action there has been much discussion within the The Students Speak (TSS), an organization that has formed around these proposed cuts, on whether or not to explicitly call the recommendations “racist.”  Some folks have argued on the TSS facebook page and the Daily Texan’s opinion editorial page that to call the cuts “racist” would divide and ultimately weaken a budget cuts movement while others are questioning the personal intentions of the committee members.  While we are currently writing up a more protracted reflection on the December 1st action, we would like to elaborate on some of these questions relying on a text that has been central to the ethos and politics of our organizing.

The national picture

The cuts at UT are happening in the context of an increasingly repressive political climate and broader attacks on people of color such as SB 1070 and HB 2281 in Arizona which has legalized racial profiling and outlawed the teaching of ethnic studies, respectively.  Before HB 2281 passed, the Texas Board of Education made sweeping revisions to public school curriculum which has all but erased our histories from Black Power to Chicanismo.  As of the time of this writing, we have seen a spate of draconian anti-immigrant legislation being proposed in Texas like SB 1070 to build off the momentum of these changes.

The economic crisis which has seen the bail out of banks and lending institutions to the tune of $1.5 trillion is being used by official society to continue the privatization of schools and the militarization of remaining public schools where youth of color and undocumented youth are most concentrated.

The crisis has made idle millions of workers and asked public workers and other unionized private sector employees to take cuts to wages, benefits, and pensions.  People of color have fought long and hard for access to these sectors and in doing so brought with them a tradition of struggle that revitalized and deepened working class struggle.  With so many people of color embedded in auto and public sector work, these attacks have disproportionately affected them, making unemployment among Latin@s and Blacks, approximately 30 to 60 percent higher than that of whites.

The challenges of the fight

The proposed attacks to ethnic and gender studies on campus threatens to roll back the gains of our foremothers who fought, shed blood, and some even dying to have their herstories as part of public curriculum.  The cuts to public education reinforce these broader attacks being committed in the name of an economic crisis and bullshit colorblind, post-race politics.

Such circumstances make the struggles of people of color not only more urgently needed, but opens us up to being attacked as ‘racists’ for fighting against white supremacy.  In Arizona they justified ending ethnic studies by branding it “ethnic chauvinism.”  With this and other political and organizational questions in mind, we want to share some of the perspective of Steve Biko in his short essay, “The Definition of Black Consciousness.”  We don’t endorse all of its politics still if we are mindful of its historic and situational context.

Biko helped found the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and is one of the most influential figures of the Black Consciousness Movement.  Under apartheid, native Black peoples did not have citizenship rights and many were clustered into bantustans where a native government acted as a mediator between the people and the apartheid regime.  While these conditions are not present here and now (though we are undoubtedly seeing an apparent return to Jim Crow-type white supremacy in the US), there are several important lessons to be learned from Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.

“Being black is a reflection of mental attitude.”

What takes primacy for Biko in terms of defining Blackness is not just the color of one’s skin nor one’s conscious identification with it, but that, in embracing Blackness, it means to struggle against “whiteness” or white supremacy.

“Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”

The December 1st action was a testament to such an ethos, that attacks on our history and identification compels us as people of color to struggle against white supremacy.  Yet if Biko’s argument is that skin color is not the only determinant of Black Consciousness that is because there are people of color who defend white supremacy.

“From the above observations therefore, we can see that the term black is not necessarily all-inclusive, i.e. the fact that we are all not white does not necessarily mean that we are all black. Non-whites do exist and will continue to exist for quite a long time…any man [or woman] who serves in the police force or security branch is ipso facto a non-white. Black people – real black people – are those who can manage to hold their heads high in defiance rather than willingly surrender their souls to the white man.”

Biko is highlighting the class component of white supremacy–that people of color who defend it do so not because they are necessarily boot-licking Uncle Toms (and historically we’ve seen them embracing forms of ethnic pride), but because they have a vested economic interest in doing so. When we demanded to speak with Dean Diehl who approves of the APAC committee’s proposed cuts, we were instead approached by Dean Flores, a Latino, flanked on both sides by two white administrators, presumably deans themselves.  This is a common tactic employed by official society when the subject of race or gender is immediately implicated, to send in officials who will deploy their body politics to deflect claims of white supremacy.  Often a form of privilege politics are used to silence opposition and to obscure the very class hierarchy that the multiracial ruling bureaucracy represents.  On December 1st, we didn’t take the bait and pointed out that only the Latino man, a “non-white,” was talking, but one who was silently approving the cuts since it didn’t threaten his own $200,000 salary as students pointed out.

“Their intentions are obvious; they want to be barometers by which the rest of the white society can measure feelings in the black world. This then is what makes us believe that white power presents itself as a totality not only provoking us but also controlling our response to the provocation.”

The non-whites’ real purpose is to dampen and ultimately coopt mass struggle, to offer us the appearance of equality, revealing that white supremacy is unable to govern without this multiracial administrative layer.

The totality of white supremacy

Biko tells us that not only does white supremacy subject us to violence and exploitation but that its sophistication is in how it controls and mediates the resistance to it.

“It is the one force against which all of us are pitted. It works with unnerving totality, featuring both on the offensive and in our defence….Their agents are ever present amongst us, telling that it is immoral to withdraw into a cocoon, that dialogue is the answer to our problem and that it is unfortunate that there is white racism in some quarters but you must know that things are changing.”

Part of the discussion around the cuts has been whether UT administrators or the APAC committee are personally committed racists.  Just as Biko says that people of color in the ruling institutions are ipso facto “non-white,” they are also ipso facto defenders of institutional racism.  This reaches beyond any thoughts of personal ambitions into the realm of social power and is furthermore an attempt by the institutional force of white supremacy to control our response and divert the struggle.

The UT administration’s ability to cut ethnic and gender studies and increase funding for European studies while simultaneously insulating themselves from any claims of racism through a multiracial bureaucracy makes relevant for a new time and place Biko’s understanding of white supremacy’s totality.  When the university administration puts a non-white in front of us who tells us his hands are tied and we should form a lobby group, they are showing that they are “the greatest racists for they refuse to credit us any intelligence to know what we want.”  Their hope is to deflect our struggle away from campus, to steer it into dialogue which they will control, and at other times to incorporate it into the administration, all which uphold the liberal mystique of democracy.

We are lectured with patience and respect for our oppressors as if we are children.  This rejection of both the “white burden” and its “black mission” counterpart (whereby we prove we can be as “civilized” as the white man) as well as the call to “wait until we have all the facts” was our strength on December 1st.  We saw that this was the face of white supremacy and that it must be named as such.
Where we gained the upper hand in our confrontation with Flores was in demanding a student-run public forum requiring him and President Powers to attend and answer questions.  This is qualitatively different than the typical administration or student government-administered public “forums” which are really just a venting space and to reinforce the appearance of democracy on campus.

Race struggle is a necessary struggle

We are living in a time when it is socially acceptable for police to racially profile, and for historic personalities such as Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall to be erased from our textbooks.  It is business as usual for a 10% cut in state departments to translate into a 40% cut to ethnic studies.  We are living in a society where white supremacy is the norm.  Yet we are the ones called “racist” by official society and by the Right when we openly resist white supremacy.

While some ask how we can have unity among the student body in the fight against budget cuts while prioritizing the struggle against its racist character and while embracing a people of color ethos, Biko responds, “since the thesis is a white racism there can only be one valid antithesis, i.e. a solid black unity to counterbalance the scale.”  We can never hope to reach a society beyond white supremacy by ignoring it or by organizing for the lowest common denominator of demands.  Such forms always leave people of color, women, queers, the majority of the working class, deferring to the priorities of straight white men under the guise of “unity.”  Rather, we see it in the interest of ALL people, to take up the demands of people of color.  There can be no class solidarity that abstracts away the real race content of class struggle.


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