Monday, March 17, 2014

On Angela Davis, finger-pointing, and college-level propaganda.

UPDATE, Monday, March 17.

Why "update"? Well, although length-wise this qualifies as a post in its own right, to me it feels more like an update of my original post of February 15, which I invite you to read first.  

Lehigh, where I'm teaching these days, recently hosted a forum on race featuring one-time black militant Angela Davis* and the so-called "ghetto intellectual" rapper Nas. (I've heard Nas himself use the phrase, and I never quite understood why the word ghetto was necessary. If you're an intellectual, you're an intellectual. He's a smart dude, so the label seems apt.) Also present and participating was Prof. James B. Peterson, who directs Lehigh's Department of Africana Studies.

Click here to read Lehigh's official coverage of the event. I commend your attention to a key line from the second paragraph, to wit:

"Davis, a well-known political activist since the 1960s, and Nas, a successful rap musician, spoke about the increasing problem of mass incarceration..."
Do you see it? Do you see the spin? The problem is "mass incarceration." In this context, the phrase conjures images of gangs of rowdy cops patrolling minority neighborhoods, rounding up whomever they find there**, then sending these poor souls on to their Klan-ish collaborators in the justice system for prison processing.

Why isn't the problem, just possibly (and, on the surface, more demonstrably) "mass criminality"? Here again, as noted in the original post to which I link, we strain to find an excuse for the behavior, a politically correct way of absolving the perp, shifting the blame to society. Indeed, the phrase mass incarceration seems not merely to imply that there's injustice in the handling of some black suspects (which is indisputably the case), but that all black crime, the great mass of it, is a function of white racism/oppression (see related comment quoted below). That, and that alone, explains why blacks are disproportionately represented in America's prisons. It's not their behavior toward society; it's society's behavior toward them.

Davis has somewhat softened her tone of late (mellowing in her later years?), and is less apt to voice the radical, eyebrow-raising sentiments that once defined her rhetoric. But it's pretty clear that she still means the same things she meant back in her Black Panther days. (Davis also belonged to the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black branch of the Communist Party.)

In discussing Davis herself, the Lehigh piece notes that she "was incarcerated for roughly 18 months in the early 1970s," without bothering to get bogged down in trifling matters like what she was incarcerated for. Davis went underground in August 1970 after guns she owned were used in a sensational courtroom escape and kidnapping that resulted in the deaths of four people, including the judge. She was captured after some months as a fugitive, and held for a time without bail. Eventually an all-white jury would acquit her of all charges in the killings.

So was Davis technically guilty of a crime? I suppose not. But did she count among her intimates people who could be regarded as thugs at best, criminals for sure, and terrorists at worst? Did her sympathies lay with them? Almost surely so, especially since she herself had lain with them: Davis had taken as a lover George Jackson, one of the imprisoned men the courtroom killers sought to free via their brazen, lethal act. In her letters to Jackson, as in other public statements, Davis was an unflinching advocate of violence in service of minority aims.

Here is another revealing article about Davis, written on the occasion of her 2012 selection as "One of the eight black women paving the way for greatness in politics," an exhibit shown in Washington, D.C.'s Superior Court, of all places. I quote from the Washington Times piece:
"Ms. Davis holds that any black serving a prison sentence in the United States is in reality a 'political prisoner,” whatever offense they may have committed. In her lexicon, those convicted are only victims of 'masked racism.' "
The school of thought represented in those lines is what is often taught in America's colleges. Not discussed or debated...taught. I don't mean to imply that colleges use Davis' exact terminology...but there is no question that in many college settings, and certainly in every Black Studies program to which I've ever been exposed***, the philosophy is the only acceptable lens through which the black experience in America may be viewed: Blacks are never to blame; the legacy of slavery is profound and perpetual, and we (the oppressors) need to understand and make allowances.

You cannot safely challenge the mindset represented in Lehigh's press release....not without risking repercussions. You will be ostracized if not accused of creating a "hostile environment" for the college's diverse population. (All major colleges nowadays seek to boost the diversity of their enrollment and faculty, and dislike perspectives and/or controversies that may make diverse populations feel less welcome.) In extreme cases, if your "offenses" are ongoing, you may be removed from your post.

As suggested in the post linked at the top, you cannot propose that there may, just may, be something slightly amiss within too many blacks themselves. You cannot even propose that this area is worthy of further study. If you are going to study something, you must study the manifold ways in which America continues to mistreat its blacks and therefore remains fully culpable for their failure to thrive.

Happy St. Patty's Day.
* Now Prof. Emeritus Angela Davis.
** presumably for the crime of EWB: Existing While Black
*** I have not sat in on Dr. Peterson's course work at Lehigh


roger o'keefe said...

Once again I have to applaud you. You're on a winning streak lately! Most of the racism in America today is reverse racism. It's to the point where making any argument that benefits whites (like, we don't want to get mugged) is considered racism. I feel for what you must encounter in the university system, Steve. I know you try to see all sides but it must be tough keeping your cool with such ridiculous platforms sprouting up all around you, and as you say you can't even protest or risk your job.

RevRon's Rants said...

"mass incarceration," or "mass criminality"?

I think there are elements of both in play nowadays, Steve. Yes, there are a disproportionate number of crimes committed by blacks, but there are also a disproportionate number of aggressive prosecutions *of* blacks.

I tend to lean toward (what I believe to be) your typically more balanced assertion that ideally, race would be removed from the equation altogether. Unfortunately, that isn't too likely to happen any time soon, due to those on both sides of the genetic fence who cling to racist explanations for everything. I fear that as the income gap continues to widen in this country, the racial divide will widen along with it, and will likely result in some very sad circumstances for both sides.

It should come as no surprise that academia leans too far to the liberal side in this discussion. Unfortunate, but inevitable, as universities, by their proper nature, have always tended to lean to the liberal. Rationalizing violence and offering excuses form it does nothing to reduce crime; it merely makes it appear more acceptable of more despicable, depending upon which far side of the widening street one is on.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I don't mind "leaning to the liberal." That's where I lean myself. What I object to is the dissemination of agenda as fact, regardless of which direction it's coming from, and whether it's media or "institutions of learning" who are doing the disseminating. I am as impatient with Rachel Maddow as I am with Sean Hannity. (Well, almost.)

It annoys the piss out of me when I encounter professors who have a certain world-view--and in college it is almost always the same world-view--and they teach it and expect students to internalize it and parrot it; and they use the power of the gradebook as an enforcement tool. We have a professor up here in Lehigh Valley, PA, that I've been battling in the op-ed pages for years, and trying to educate the local citizenry about what an intellectual tyrant he is (in the name of "academic freedom," as he puts it), and he remains chairman of his department. It sickens me.

Intellectual bullying is every bit as dishonorable as the more familiar kind.

RevRon's Rants said...

"What I object to is the dissemination of agenda as fact, regardless of which direction it's coming from..."

I couldn't agree more. Thankfully, my academic experience wasn't quite like yours. In my sophomore year, I switched my major to English/Political Science. On the first day of my PoliSci 101 class, I refused to sign an agreement that the professor distributed for students to sign, and which contained language about "loyalty," & deferral to the instructor, etc. I was told to step outside the class, where the professor asked me privately to remain outside and play along. When he returned to the class, he turned back toward me and ordered me to never enter his classroom again (and winked at me as he said it). The other students signed their agreements, at which point the professor came out and asked me to return. He then informed the class that I was the only one who had much chance of passing the course.

I later co-taught a freshman political science class with the professor, in an experiment to study the degree to which instructors and other authority figures can manipulate their students. It is truly sad that your experiences have been so different. I can only hope that they are not as widespread as your experience would indicate.

Steve Salerno said...

Would've loved to have taken a class of yours, Ron. I'd imagine it would be quite intellectually demanding, and I mean that in a good way.

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, I'm gearing up to write yet another post in the series, on that new study that shows that even as pre-schoolers, blacks are suspended and otherwise punished at a rate treble that for whites. Naturally, once again, this is a sign of the enormous institutional racial bias in the system...I mean, what else could it be?

Henriette said...

Sorry I'm late to the party, but I can't stand Angela Davis! She is the epitome of a hypocrite.

I went to grad school at UC Santa Cruz, where she is a regent, and whenever I read about her "ideas" on incarceration, I want to hurl! If a man or woman of "color" should try to burglarize her beautiful Santa Cruz home, I am sure she would do everything in her power to have him or her "incarcerated."

She is living off "the man" now and wants to keep her holdings, so she spews these "radical" ideas when she is getting paid to speak or there is a camera in her face.

Steve Salerno said...

Henriette, better late than never.

Ms. Davis' standing among my full-time peers in academia is a source of never-ending frustration to me; she is presented to students as a peerless intellectual and selfless crusader for social justice. I wouldn't mind that so much if it was at least hinted to students that there is another side. But that never happens, especially given the sway that the so-called "diversity curricula" hold on today's college campuses. Come out against the likes of Angela Davis and you may very well be accused of hate speech and labeled a racist. You could very well jeopardize your path to tenure.

Henriette said...

The whole "diversity" ideology chaps my hide. I find it stifles conversations and honest dialogue among students andas students, the diverse crowd are the most judgmental and rude of all.

Actually, Angela Davis is very ridiculed in these parts since her history is so well known here. She is a subject of much scorn by her former defenders and her current and former detractors. No one is buying her Koolaid anymore in California, so she has to sell her shtick overseas.

I know quite a few "feminist studies" scholars and historians who have written papers about what a sellout Angela Davis is.

Steve Salerno said...

Henriette, sounds like you are more directly plugged into that scene than I am, but I can tell you that here on the East Coast, Ms. Davis remains the darling of the liberal, self-proclaimed intelligentsia. I have seen two or three events where she appeared, and always she is introduced in a way that makes it sound as if she's been a lifelong political prisoner, a la Mandela. It's craziness.

But you know--and I'm sure you do--that even Ms. Steinem has taken flak for being a FINO and "living off her man." Similar charges were leveled against Helen Gurley Brown as well. I'm not out to slander the Founding Femmes, just pointing out that some of the icons of the movement haven't exactly walked the walk...or if they did, they walked it in ermine.

Anonymous said...

In my eyes, this is this country's founding "morals" going to hell in a handbasket. Academia not respected for voicing an opinion that may sound challenging to someone who is being challenging with most things she says [with a self-serving agenda]? This speaks ill of tenure committees at the universities granting tenure to without questioning these faculty, hard. IE, tenure committees and faculty members falling to the same afraid-to-challenge mentality, which scares me. We're quietly turning toward dictatorship-ishness with public attacks toward people really questioning things. I see its effects in kids, as it sounds many here see it in university students, paying to play in this society -- for a grade or younger kids for popularity and a grade. Individualism is widely considered weird instead of interesting, and thinking for even one's own and society's best interests is often shunned, usually by monied parties' interests trying to sell the opposite, life as a lemming, to put that harshly. I see it with healthcare providers all the time, having worked in big pharma for a while. Interesting debate is mostly shunned, and so up sprouts giant classes of closed minded, non challenging approaches, to most things, certainly including vocal folks with a major university resume in race relations. Lemmings easily follow the loudest one, whether for a grade, to please parents or employers, or just to appear "cool". But I rant... and may be off topic.

Anonymous said...

The whole "diversity" ideology chaps my hide. I find it stifles conversations and honest dialogue among students andas students, the diverse crowd are the most judgmental and rude of all.