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Est. April 5, 2002
October 05, 2017 - Issue 714

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Throughout the nation, there has been a troubling trend in which universities have terminated, reprimanded and otherwise punished professors for exercising academic freedom and speaking out on racism. This includes left wing faculty of color–particularly black women—and white scholars with a social and racial justice orientation. In an environment where professors are expected to engage their students on the important issues of the day with honesty and free of censorship, black academicians and other woke faculty face an organized backlash by rightwing and white supremacist groups who are emboldened in the Trump era. They are waging an assault on these professors, including harassment and death threats, scholars say, as part of a greater war against diversity, inclusion and progressive ideals.

Prof. Shannon Gibney, professor of English and African diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), whose students are majority of color, knows far too well the consequences of simply teaching about racism in a class in which angry white students are present. In 2009, a white student filed a complaint against Gibney after she suggested that the hanging of a noose in the office of the student newspaper was offensive to black students. In the fall of 2013, after being on maternity leave following a stillbirth, the college administration reprimanded her after three white students filed a discrimination complaint against her.

Gibney led a class discussion in her mass communication class on structural racism. The class was predominantly white. Students gave presentations on subjects such as the current state of people of color in newsrooms.

“I had to go into issues on structural racism, and it was perceived by the white students that I was singling out the white males in the class,” Gibney said. White students then filed the complaint, and the school reprimanded her for behaving inappropriately and purportedly alienating white students who were the most in need of learning from her. A letter was placed in her record. “I believe that year my school had 178 complaints for professors, so out of 178 complaints mine was the only one that was deemed worthy of discipline,” she said. “I was also sentenced to diversity training,” Gibney said, adding her experience was right out of a Kafka novel. “I was maybe 7 to 9 people who had pushed for a diversity officer in the first place.”

Eventually, as the case was headed to arbitration and the administration knew they would lose, Gibney noted, the college president withdrew and destroyed the letter of reprimand. Meanwhile, the experience had taken its toll on the black professor. “It is so demoralizing, the violence. They insinuated that maybe I wasn’t qualified and I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Dismissing Gibney as another angry black woman, the college president at that time misjudged her, she asserts. “With cases like this it’s never the incident itself. That administration had it out for me for a long time. Here I was one of the few vocal black professors, very active and very motivated to work for structural change for our vulnerable students. Maybe 12 percent of our students are hungry or homeless. Our students have a lot of needs,” she said. Gibney was a thorn in the side of the administration, and other faculty who did not toe the line had faced the same treatment.

Reflecting on the current political environment in the Trump era, Gibney believes there is more awareness of the neoliberalization of higher education, and the misguided efforts at turning college into customer service and sacrificing learning by not making students feel uncomfortable. “Is education about making students feel comfortable?” she asked. “That is the mentality permeating a lot of our institutions. Things like sexism, racism and homophobia become a matter of student preference,” Gibney said, arguing that the academy, like the greater society, fails to address these issues. “A lot of these cases, it’s not even about the fact about what I did or didn’t say… Why do we always have to talk about this. Just the fact of these black bodies, these Latino bodies, these Asian bodies, these Native American bodies, the audacity to use these positions of authority it is just galling,” she added.

According to Gibney, one outgrowth of the political environment is that many well-meaning white folks now care about Professor Watchlist, Campus Reform, The College Fix and the proliferation of other organized rightwing efforts to target and intimidate progressive faculty and academics of color. After Trump was elected, Gibney found her name appeared on one of these watchlists.

“You guys are just waking up to this in the era of Trump. ...Now you’re a target for saying climate change is real. You’re a target, but for those who have always been a target, we’ve always been getting our butts kicked,” she noted. “The United States is based on racial violence and against women. It’s codified into law. It’s just the forms it is taking are new. We have social media and Twitter, and things can be taken out of context very fast” Gibney said, also emphasizing the speed with which these attacks are now deployed. “I think the technology makes it a different kind of game, but the targeting itself is no different than it has been. White liberal awareness is the only thing that has changed,” along with changing demographics, more professors of color, and the rise of Black Twitter.

“We are all bracing ourselves for which one of us is next,” said Prof. Saida Grundy, an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University. Grundy found herself under fire in 2015 for her tweets around racial issues. For example, she called white-male college students the “problem population” in the U.S., and said “can we just call st patrick’s day the white people’s kwanzaa that it is?” She also tweeted, “Every MLK week i commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses. and every year i find it nearly impossible.”

In an article just published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, Grundy examines the attacks on black professors as primarily anti-black attacks not unlike the assaults on African-Americans in other segments of society. However, she concludes that black academics face a “a uniquely racialized form of anti-black public harassment” that is quite different from that of their non-black counterparts, and is intended to terrorize black progress. Grundy identifies a new political dynamic in the country, “a heightened visibility of individual black achievement, the growing social relevance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and a groundswell of white backlash to both,” arguing that these factors have led to an increase in public violence against black scholars in recent years. “In the current political moment this digitized mob violence ritualistically reaffirms white hegemony.”

What struck Grundy was the racialized nature of the harassment against her and her colleagues, which were ferocious, well-organized attacks. The BU administration and Grundy’s department faced angry phone calls and boilerplate letters calling for her resignation. Vile sexual harassment came via robocalls, email and Twitter hacks, and attackers who used their whiteness to suggest alumni would withhold their contributions to the university if she were not fired. When BU refused, the assailants sexualized and criminalized Grundy and branded her a threat to white students.

White professors who call out white supremacy become targets as well. George Ciccariello-Maher, associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, found himself in the middle of a storm when he challenged the myth promoted by white supremacists that white people are endangered and the victims of genocide. On Christmas Eve of 2016 he satirically tweeted: “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.” Ciccariello-Maher was attacked by rightwing media such as Fox News and Breitbart, and from online white supremacist sites. “Daily Stormer claimed credit, and rightly claimed credit, because they started the campaign,” he said. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Daily Stormer “is dedicated to spreading anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and white nationalism, primarily through guttural hyperbole and epithet-laden stories about topics like alleged Jewish world control and black-on-white crime.”

While Prof. Ciccariello-Maher realizes that professors of color, primarily black women are the targets of these white supremacists, the targeting of a white-male tenured professor is instructive. “There are no contradictions because in the current environment there is an attack on the university and leftist faculty of color. I engaged in criticism of groups engaged in these tactics,” he said. “I was sticking my finger in some of the painful language these rightwing, fascist Nazi groups attach to that they are victims destroyed by diversity and intermarriage. I am engaged in organizing and teaching that is anti-racist, and I am a target. But if you’re a black faculty you don’t have to do much to be a target.”

While the Drexel professor was shocked, the offensive on the part of these well-orchestrated campaigns has become far less surprising. “This is not about individuals and personalities. This is coming clearer by the day. This is not about Twitter and social media but about the existence of these organized groups to attack and pressure universities [and] universities are responding” he said, and bowing to pressure from white supremacist groups.

Looking at the political forces at play, Ciccariello-Maher cites the emergence of the idea that the U.S. is a colorblind, post-racial society, “which implies we have gotten over race and anyone who wants to talk about race seek special privilege at the expense of everyone else.” Identifying ways to combat the attacks on professors, he stresses the need for students to protest the presence of these groups on campus and the posting of Nazi fliers. People must organize and build broad movements beyond the universities that present an alternative message to these hate groups, and prevent them from building an audience.

“The biggest thing to understand is that when dealing with white supremacists, we will not win with arguments. White supremacists do not cease to believe when you show they are wrong,” Ciccariello-Maher said. “What universities need to do is protect their faculty, not respond to criminal threats from far-right organizations, and not show weakness in defending faculty.”

David A. Love, JD - Serves as Executive Editor. He is journalist, commentator and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to theGrioAtlantaBlackStarThe Progressive,, Morpheus, NewsWorks and The Huffington Post. He also blogs at Contact Mr. Love and BC.

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is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
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