Racism and the University

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Alan Wald

FOR THE PAST fourteen months, the University of Michigan, like many other university campuses across the country, has been the scene of militant mass marches sit-ins, explosive confrontations ignited by explicit acts of racism. Almost every day, the student-run Michigan Daily and the city’s Ann Arbor Newsprint articles, ed1tonals, letters, and guest viewpoints decrying racism on campus. On weekends, they sometimes publish entire supplements devoted to the subject.

The weekly University Record, funded by a frightened university administration that knows that it cannot directly oppose an antiracist movement in a liberal community such as Ann Arbor and in a state with a large Black population such as Michigan, almost always contains sophisticated propaganda pieces about alleged achievements in the recruitment of students and faculty of color.

More and more frequently the University Record displays photographs of darker-skinned university guests-temporary visitors, of course-who have suddenly been invited to give lectures and to receive awards. It also publishes long apologias by the administration in which various deans and executive officers vie with each other in claiming that they themselves are the ones in the vanguard of the movement for what they call campus “diversity” — their euphemism for what the students have been calling “antiracism.”

The administration’s efforts to neutralize the movement have been too little avail. Every week there continue to be rallies, teach-ins, forums, debates, and leaflets by antiracist organizations. In these events and publications, the claims of the liberal administrators are disputed, and some of the administrators’ statements endorsing “diversity” are themselves characterized as “racist.”

Virtually every meeting of the regents of the university for the past year has been the scene of a confrontation; several of these have ended with the president of the university and the other officers grabbing their briefcases and fleeing from the room in the face of relentless chanting by their critics-primarily Black students.

On Martin Luther King Day, Feb. 18, tension was so great that adherents and opponents of an antiracist boycott of classes nearly came to blows at the main entrance of buildings on central campus.

What, then, is the political responsibility of socialist scholars in light of this new antiracist movement on the campuses? This is an issue that needs to be addressed rather precisely, although it obviously has broader impactions, and the campus struggle is hardly separable from the struggles in the larger society.

A Two-fold Challenge

In my view, the development of this movement at the University of Michigan, and a number of similar ones, presents a two-fold challenge to socialist scholars who today, as Russell Jacoby reminds us in The Last Intellectuals (1986), are largely socialist faculty members.

First, since such faculty members are often veterans of antiracist, antiwar and feminist struggles of the 1960s radicalization, we have much to offer the current movements. But this can only happen if we develop a political strategy to overcome the disorienting and debilitating “culture of professionalism” that saps the energy and the will to resist of many professors, preventing us from galvanizing our resources into militant action.

If we can do this, what socialist scholars can provide as activists in the movement are political and cultural analyses of the social functions of the university and of racism, and assistance in constructing a corresponding program of action that is very much needed in the present situation.

This socialist analysis is derived from the view that the primary function of the university is to dispense the culture of the society of which it is a creation. That is, the university inculcates students with society’s vision (or, within certain parameters, visions) of history, literature, art, philosophy, science and so on, in order to produce educated workers who will allow the system to function under the current relations of power and domination.

Thus it is “no accident,” as we doctrinaire Marxists are always pontificating, that the university claims to be objective and neutral, but actually promotes the prevailing socio-cultural prejudices in complex and sometimes devious ways.

This socialist analysis is also based on the view that U.S. racism, whatever its origins in the ancient world, is an ideology that evolved as an instrument of domination the colonial era. Today, it continues to play a dynamic role in national and international politics, effectively preserving and extending the power of those who have held it historically.

Thus, socialist faculty must stand on the perspective that no program to eliminate racist practices at a university or anywhere else can avoid a confrontation with the material roots of domination sustained by racism. In fact, not only racism but also sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice that can be found at every university are closely linked to the same phenomena in the larger society.

Hence, there is simply no reason to fundamentally revise the view many of us promoted in the 1960s. The university population is not neutral, but comprised of a population that will have to make crucial decisions. It must determine whether its purpose is to ratify — or maybe “critically support” – the oppressive values of the larger society, or to challenge those values and join with those seeking to change the structure of domination reinforced by those values.

In summary, the responsibility of socialist scholars is to help the antiracist movement develop a political strategy that progressively drains the dominating institutions of their authority while simultaneously creating forms to assist the empowerment of those who have been the targets of domination.

There is, however, another equally important aspect of the challenge to socialist scholars. Since socialist faculty are in a relatively privileged position, mostly white males, and usually not the initiators or the leaders of the current antiracist efforts, we must proceed with some humility. We must recognize at the outset that we have at least as much to learn from the new activists, especially the students of color, as they have to learn from us. Most importantly, we must understand that one cannot rest on past laurels but must earn the right to constructively criticize and abet this new movement through activist participation.

The University of Michigan antiracist movement presents a provocative case study of how this two-fold challenge has been met by some left-wing faculty, with about an equal balance between success and failure. The assessments and proposals contained in this essay may be of special help to antiracist activists on campuses similar to the University of Michigan, such as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of California at Berkeley. [Socialist faculty at the so-called “non-elite” schools may be faced with substantially different issues, and Against the Current will be happy to print additional perspectives in future issues.]

The Michigan movement is intriguing to study for two other reasons.

First, it involves a confrontation with a sophisticated liberal administration very willing to make cosmetic concessions and rather adept at countering student demands with its own ideological offensive. This offensive, referred to in the above remarks about the University Record, offers a clever alternative vocabulary to describe and effectively obscure the central political issues.

The administration’s ideological offensive also promotes an alternative history of the struggle in which the administration is depicted in its public statements has having independently formulated a “six-point initiative” for a “diversity agenda,” rather than admitting what really happened: that the administration only reacted in embarrassment to a virtual campus uprising that attracted the attention of the national media with its twelve [now thirteen] anti-racist demands.

So, for those interested in studying how an elite group attempts to establish a hegemony-domination by consent to common assumption — the functioning of the University of Michigan administration is a marvelously rich source.

The other reason for special interest is that Michigan provides an example of a group of faculty, particularly those who established the organization “Concerned Faculty,” being inspired and re-educated by an alliance with radical students, particularly those in UCAR (United Coalition Against Racism).

To the extent that this alliance has worked, it is because the faculty members were not motivated by guilt, compassion, a sense of noble mission or even a sneering, self-righteous arrogance about the “incompetence” or venality of the administration-an attitude that exists among many faculty members for a variety of reasons but that does not necessarily lead to support of real changes.

Instead, these left faculty members understood from the outset that they themselves, as faculty, also benefit from such an alliance and from participation in the antiracist struggle. Their view has been that, despite the expected imperfections of any such undertaking, the student movement has been basically accurate in its analysis and understanding. The perspective promoted by Concerned Faculty has been that faculty participation in the antiracist struggle, a struggle to uproot the inequalities that obscure our understanding and warp our culture, improves the quality of our lives as scholars and people.

The issues with which Concerned Faculty has grappled have involved the need to respond directly to white supremacist actions; the need to develop a plausible yet radical critique of university administration policy; the need for a fresh and searching critique of the academic disciplines as themselves purveyors of racist assumptions; the need to intervene in debates over administration terminology; and the need to build an alliance with the grassroots antiracist movement.

Response to White Supremacist Actions

The explicitly racist acts, against which there have been outcries at the University of Michigan, include the following: the episodic distribution of unsigned leaflet – sometimes slipped under the door and other times posted-that present standard racist insults to Blacks and threaten violence; the destruction of shanties built by the Free South Africa Coordinating Committee to symbolize the oppression of Blacks in South Africa; a physical assault on a Black female student by white females accusing the Black student of hiding a “tail” under her skirt and demanding to see it; the harassment of a female Black union activist by the writing of racist and sexist obscenities on the mirrors of the restroom she was assigned to clean and plugging the toilets there with paper and excrement.

In most of these incidents that involve an explicitly racist atrocity of a white supremacist character, it was students of color and their allies who first raised a militant outcry along with a demand for action. However, after a moment of shock, pretty much everyone, from the liberal University of Michigan administration to the leading left-wing student group, UCAR, was in agreement that white supremacist actions, whether of physical violence or of mere propagandistic nature, could not be tolerated on the campus.

As long as there is that first public outcry, most university administrations can be fairly easily persuaded to issue pro forma denunciations of racism and affirmations of pluralism.

One problem that came up, however, is that some administrators are delighted to go even further and to seize upon the situation to find ways to strengthen their powers to punish and expel more than just students caught engaged in such racist actions. At Michigan, for example, administrators were soon attempting to extend their powers so as to be able to punish students for any form of what the administrators consider to be inappropriate behavior.

They did this by rushing to enforce a student “code of conduct,” which the administration had been unsuccessfully promulgating for some years. This is especially ominous in light of recent militant protests against CIA recruitment on campus, not to mention the blockading and takeovers of buildings by antiracist activists. The left was divided at first, with some people insisting that no paralegal powers of punishment should be established, especially none that used academic sanctions for non-academic misbehavior. Others felt that threatened and harassed people of color, as well as women, should have some recourse for action other than the court system, where it is rather difficult to pursue complaints of racism and sexism on the campus. In the end, most of the left, including Concerned Faculty, opposed the “code” and counterposed, instead, the notion of sanctions to be used solely against perpetrators of white supremacist and sexist actions, specifically excluding from punishment activists in antiracist, anti-CIA recruitment and similar demonstrations.

Most importantly, UCAR, Concerned Faculty, and others on the left proposed the formulation of controls that would place the power to select incidents for investigation and to pass punitive judgment in the hands of the broader campus population. We fought the administration efforts to exempt faculty and administrators from sanctions, insisting that those with the most power should be the most accountable.

There is another aspect of the problems inherent in the struggle for an effective response to violence against and harassment of people of color. Given the strength of the propaganda apparatus at a university like Michigan and the past experience with the student left that some administrators have had, there is always the danger that following a period of vigorous denunciations of racism and affirmations of pluralism by the ad­ ministration, a disorientation might set in.

If the antiracist activists limit themselves to the issue of overt action only and do not seize the opportunity to draw links between these symptoms and underlying causes, the result could be the establishment of a hegemony-that is, the locking of the administration and the antiracist movement together within a common set of assumptions about fighting racism through sanctions against students and by making pronouncements of virtue.

The result would be a paralysis of the movement, which is the only force that can be relied upon for antiracist vigilance. Leadership on the issue would be handed over to the administration, which has shown itself to be completely untrustworthy. But, for two reasons, this commonality of perspective is unlikely to last very long.

First, it will not last because the objective situation in our society is such that one university cannot significantly cure the sickness of racism, especially by pro forma proclamations. The large liberal university cannot be what it is and admit substantially larger numbers of people of color or hire significantly larger numbers of faculty of color; it cannot teach liberal arts, social and physical science from other than a patriarchal, classbound, Eurocentric perspective. Racism is endemic to the social structure that the university serves, legitimizes and reproduces.

Thus it happens that, once a sector of the student population becomes seriously concerned about the issue of race-even starting with the sim pie but important reaction to white supremacist threats—there is good reason to believe that it will become increasingly conscious of racism’s broader and more subtle manifestations, and that the students will be dissatisfied with the superficiality of administration propaganda campaigns.

Here it may be worth mentioning something about the question of the “sincerity” or “lack of sincerity” of a liberal administration such as that at the University of Michigan. In my view, one must avoid limiting the political issues to personal attacks, which I suspect that the administration would prefer to a deeper critique of university practices.

Whatever the degree of personal racism or insensitivity of any particular administrator, a liberal administration is sincerely intent on quelling the students as well as Afro-Americans and other people of color in the community and nationally who have become incensed. Also, most liberals would genuinely like to end explicit racism on the campus and are embarrassed by the degree to which people of color are absent from non-menial positions at the university. The problem is that they would like to do this without altering the fundamental structure of power that racism serves. But the perspective of ending racism in an authentic manner while maintaining the present relations of power, institutional forms and criteria for judgment of academic achievement, is a fantasy. Thus, the administration can only move forward in any antiracist activity under the prodding of militant mass pressure from the bottom up, and, in any given situation, they use language and formulas for “solutions” that can be ambiguously interpreted and then gutted entirely of significance once the atmosphere has cooled.

Second, this hegemony will not last because there exists on many campuses a politically conscious segment of the student population that has had political experience—0ff the campus, in other political struggles, through the inspiration of relatives and friends who were1960s activists, or, in the case of older students, because they themselves were 1960s activists.

Here it must be emphasized that one of the most valuable aspects of the current campus radicalization is that the break between the 1960s and the 1980s is not nearly as complete as it was between the ’60s and the ’30s. Many present struggles are largely extensions of the 1960s New Left, not the beginnings of totally fresh movements that are hostile to their predecessors.

Moreover, the politicized element on the campus is often already quite experienced and trained. That group has proved capable of seizing every possible opportunity to foment an ever-deepening understanding on the part of antiracist activists of the profound, indeed al­ most overwhelming, racist nature of the culture and institutional structure of the university.

Developing a Critique of the Administration

At Michigan, in fact, the second area around which the antiracist activists attempted to raise consciousness, following the response to white supremacist propaganda and violence, reaffirms this connection between the 1960s and the 1980s. This second area was the development of a critique of University of Michigan administration policy that showed how that policy represents continuity with earlier administration policy and practice created in response to the issue of racism and ethnocentrism following the BAM (Black Action Movement) strike in 1970.

This earlier struggle also caused a crisis in the university and resulted in the negotiation of a series of antiracist demands. Yet the eighteen years in between have shown no lasting improvement in enrollment and faculty-level hiring of people of color. At present, Afro-American enrollment has actually decreased from 7.2 percent to 5 percent. The administration, of course, never bothered to offer a satisfactory explanation or self-criticism of this record of failure.

In retrospect, we could see that the approach of the University of Michigan administration in 1970 was to make concessions in order to quiet the campus uprising, after which it more or less dropped the matter. Thus, Concerned Faculty felt it was on solid ground in making the charge that the administration was and is not driven by its own commitment and analysis to make the requisite fundamental changes. We could find no evidence that the administration in 1987-88 had formulated an approach that addressed the issue more effectively than its earlier policies did.

Another aspect of our unfolding critique of the university has concerned administration statements insisting that the University of Michigan curriculum and faculty are already of superior “quality” and that our task in promoting “diversity” is to find “minority” faculty and “minority” students who measure up to the “quality.”

Concerned Faculty responded that this approach places the onus on people of color for failing to be of adequate “quality” in significant numbers. Moreover, the perspective is erroneous and one that serves to perpetuate ideas and assumptions facilitating racial and ethnocentric domination. it promotes attitudes that even led to the now infamous statement of the dean of the College: “Our challenge is not to change this university into another kind of institution where minorities would naturally flock in much greater numbers. I need not remind you that there are such institutions-including Wayne State and Howard University. Our challenge is not to emulate them, but to make what is the essential quality of the University of Michigan available to more minorities.”

In contrast to the view of this dean, who believes that the university must not emulate whatever qualities cause minorities to “flock” to an institution, Concerned Faculty argued that the university must learn from institutions such as Wayne State and Howard in order to offer programs and support systems that will dramatically increase the participation of people of color at every level at the University of Michigan.

A third axis of the ideological debate that the activists undertook was that the Michigan administration was not facing the issue of racism squarely. The administration’s initial gambit was to reduce racism mainly to an attitudinal problem. Rather, UCAR and Concerned Faculty described racism as a complex of institutionalized assumptions that sustain economic, political, cultural and social domination in complex ways.

Therefore, we charged that it was not sufficient to call for a punitive code enabling extra-legal action against those students caught perpetrating explicit acts of bigotry. Nor did we feel that it was sufficient to educate administrators, faculty and students on the need for “diversity” through sensitivity-training sessions, another early response. Instead, we sought ways to address the means by which racism is institutionalized in the everyday affairs of the university.

Of course, Concerned Faculty was not at all opposed to educational action, but we argued that racism cannot be understood without hearing the true stories of those against whom racism has been perpetrated­ the rich, complex and diverse stories drawn from the histories and cultures of Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and others.

In our view, UCAR effectively addressed this need through proposing orientation classes and required classes on racism, and, of course, through the demands for a dramatic increase in faculty of color who can serve as role models and train a new generation of scholars in these areas. One of Concerned Faculty’s major projects, undertaken in collaboration with UCAR and with members of a liberal organization of faculty called FAIR (Faculty Against Institutional Racism), became the development of a required course on racism.

But our thinking was also that these II stories” constitute such a large quantity of hitherto neglected and misunderstood material, that even a required course is not enough-that the stories can ultimately be told only through a profound cultural transformation in the life of the university. Such a transformation will require a major re-allocation of resources.

Disciplines must be rethought and reorganized so that the role of people of color in the making of history, art, music, politics, literature, economics and society itself is recognized as central, not as an afterthought appropriate methods for study — as well as trained scholars in these fields — must be made available. It is only in this context that a massive program for the recruitment and retention of students of color will have more than mere temporary consequences.

Critique of the Academic Disciplines

But when it comes to the issue of recruitment of scholars of color, one is confronted by the administration saying, “Yes, we will hire scholars of color — as long as such scholars are ‘excellent’ so that we do not sacrifice ‘quality.’” Such a statement appeals to liberals who, of course, would not like to have scholars of color stigmatized from the outset as “inferior” in quality and who are opposed to any sort of “double standard” in hiring according to race. Nevertheless, to accede to such a formulation is once more to agree to assumptions that will only assist in undermining any serious program to transform the university.

The problem is that, culturally, universities are organized around models of” excellence” and “quality” in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences that are derived from European culture-more precisely, an elite European patriarchal culture. These models are usually presented as universal, providing the terms in which non-European cultures must be evaluated and thus be judged as inadequate or non-existent… if they are even seen!

In the field of literature, it is clear that the major categories of analysis (romance, realism, naturalism, modernism) are derived from the European experience; that the major categories for periodization in the study of U.S. literature (colonial period, revolutionary period, the winning of the West, etc.) derive from a Euro-American perspective; and that the notions of aesthetic value, to the extent that they are seriously theorized, stem from a historical body of criticism derived from the celebration of writers like Shakespeare, the Greek dramatists, Dante and Tolstoy.

Moreover, the University of Michigan English department institutionalizes this selective patriarchal European indoctrination at the very center of the undergraduate major through a series of three “Great Books” courses and other requirements. Nowhere along the line is anyone given access to the history, culture, folklore, or even the terminology that might assist one in gaining a perspective on literature of the oral tradition or anything other than this European-derived body of writing. As a result, non-European and women’s literature have been forced to fit into the interstices of this program.

It was the view of Concerned Faculty that, without issuing a profound challenge to the very nature of what is considered II excellent,” an anti-racist movement can easily be disoriented. This is because, as long as the underlying models for what is taught, who is “qualified” to teach and who is qualified to “learn” are not challenged, administrators can feel free to campaign as aggressively as they wish for either “color-blind” admissions and hiring, or even ”affirmative action”  knowing in advance that nothing much will change — especially as long as there are no time-tables for goals or quotas.

In sum, Concerned Faculty took the position that to agree to a notion of a “small pool” of qualified faculty or students of color was to participate in consent to assumptions that paralyzed the movement. It was more effective to challenge the desiderata of “excellence and diversity,” which the administration never clearly defined.


Concerned Faculty also found in our analysis and debates that it was necessary for us to go on the offensive in regard to gaining precise information about what really had happened and was happening in affirmative action. Both the administration and the local press continually made confusing references to “Blacks” and #minorities” on the campus.

One university publication announced the appointment of a new “vice provost for minority affairs,” whose job was to “increase the number of Black students and faculty [emphasis added].” Other statements would also switch back and forth between the terms, suggesting at times that Black and minority were synonymous, or else that, whatever other groups might exist on the campus, the issue was still mainly a Black one.

We also found that in reporting statistics on Blacks and other groups, neither the administration nor the press ever explained what exactly constituted the categories used by the university administration to measure its racial composition. Did “Black” mean Afro-American (roughly 11 percent of the U.S. population), which is what most people assumed? Or was “Black” actually a category (as we suspected it was) that includes a much larger group-such as the entire African continent as well as those from other parts of the Black diaspora in the Western Hemisphere?

Similar questions needed to be raised regarding the categories of “Asians” and “Hispanics,” although we found this to be a delicate matter since there are sensitive debates going on in regard to the appropriateness of certain kinds of terminology.

Nevertheless, we feared that there were certain consequences that would inevitably result from the university administration’s tendency to be vague about the composition of “minority” groups. First, the number of people contained in a particular category is easily inflated when the category is amorphously defined.

Second, such vague categories obscure the real issue at stake, which is not just skin pigmentation and language group, but also respect for cultural differences at the university. A specialist in Puerto Rican culture cannot be automatically expected to address the needs of Chicanos, even if both are classified as “Hispanic.” Scholars from the continent of Africa are crucial, but their presence does not necessarily mean that the broad field of Afro-American studies will be covered with the requisite expertise.

The Grassroots Antiracist Movement

Finally, Concerned Faculty also tried to make it a point of principle that we were unequivocally on the side of the student activists, especially UCAR, and had no interest at all in counterposing ourselves as a more “reasonable” substitute who would mediate the issue in place of the “unruly” ones.

In fact, we stated our view many times that UCAR, of all the forces on the campus, has earned the moral authority for raising the issue of racism and demanding concrete action. In particular, we observed that from the outset UCAR had correctly chosen not to rely on the University of Michigan administration, with its record of failure, to resolve the issue.

Instead, UCAR called upon the population of the entire campus to mobilize and take steps to resolve the issue democratically, at the grassroots level. Specifically, UCAR focused on concrete goals and called for decision-making bodies outside the domination of the university administration.

Concerned Faculty also observed that UCAR had the virtue of recognizing that the issue of racism goes far beyond acts of overt bigotry-although these are crucial to oppose-and that the targets of racism are not just Afro-Americans but all people of color. Also, we thought it important that UCAR aggressively sought to ally with other sections of the community and had been clear in its opposition to sexism, anti-Semitism and class prejudice.

Finally, Concerned Faculty was impressed that UCAR understood and promoted an understanding of the international dimensions of racist domination, which are crucially connected to domestic racism.


Any evaluation of the University of Michigan experience must acknowledge that Concerned Faculty has had mainly propagandistic successes. The group has yet to succeed in breaking the “culture of professionalism” — in making participation in mass protest, arm-in-arm with students in outright defiance of the administration, an acceptable mode of behavior. The activist core never grew beyond a dozen, with perhaps fifteen to thirty attending semi-monthly meetings, and perhaps another fifty to sixty known sympathizers of varying degrees. This is out of a faculty of nearly 3000.

Consequently, Concerned Faculty has not yet been able to carry out many crucial tasks, such as serious research into the reality of affirmative action at the University, which would enable precise challenges to the administration’s claims. It has not yet built an apparatus to monitor current administration efforts in a systematic way, nor has it even begun to analyze the financial realities of the university in terms of who is getting what kind of money for which projects.

With a small number of people, it is easier to participate in the dramatic issues than to undertake the nitty-gritty, tedious work; but at some point such work will have to be commenced to back up Concerned Faculty’s charges. Rhetoric is good for a starting point, but as the struggle continues effective alternative models must be proposed. And these models must respond to real needs, while also facilitating the ongoing movement for even more profound changes.

Still, because Concerned Faculty spent time developing a relatively clear analysis of the causes and appropriate response to racism, the organization could respond more quickly and audaciously than any other group of faculty. This ability to move rapidly and act in solidarity with UCAR should not be underemphasized.

In fact, it may seem to some that the University of Michigan has been magically “blessed” with a cadre of articulate antiracist spokespersons, a plethora of “perfect” issues by which to expose the nature of the university system, and an abundance of student activists boiling over with energy to continue the struggle day in and day out. Such an interpretation might suggest that socialist scholars at other universities are virtually paralyzed until similar “objective conditions” emerge on their campuses.

In truth, the events at the University of Michigan have not been so unique. They have unfolded in a familiar, almost classic pattern, and it has been largely the quality of the “subjective factor”-especially the strategy promoted by the UCAR activists-that has taken the movement as far as it has gone. The ability of Concerned Faculty to defend and bolster that “subjective factor” has been its modest but most crucial contribution to date.

May-June 1988, ATC 14

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