College Presidents Choose “the Right Side of History”

John David

CounterCurrent: Week of 6/7

Memorial Day saw the death of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis Police Department custody suspected of using a counterfeit bill at a local market. By all accounts, his death appeared to be unjust and wholly unnecessary. The tragic event has set much of America ablaze with fury, made manifest through protests, riots, and looting. Many businesses, police facilities, and vehicles have also been literally set ablaze by arsonists. The Associated Press counts more than 10,000 protest-related arrests in the last two weeks. At least 12 people have died.

Floyd’s death has also triggered a tidal wave of statements both formal and informal from politicians, celebrities, and corporate executives, denouncing what took place and seeking reform in policing. But most don’t stop there—they go on to claim that America is deeply racist on a “systemic/structural/institutional” level, and that it always has been. These figures don’t simply call for justice in the case of George Floyd. They also call for “the unjust systems,” and in some cases, our entire country, to be stripped, dollar by dollar, idea by idea.

Take former President Barack Obama’s rather mild speech on the events of the past weeks. He says:

In a lot of ways, what has happened over the last several weeks is challenges and structural problems here in the United States have been thrown into high relief. They are the outcomes not just of the immediate moments in time, but they’re the result of a long history of slavery and Jim Crow and red lining and institutionalized racism that too often have been the plague, the original sin of our society. [emphasis added]

Other public figures, such as philosopher and activist Cornel West, take it a few steps further. In a recent interview, he makes the following remarks:

Well, there’s no doubt that this is America’s moment of reckoning. … the seed of hatred, of white supremacy, hating Black people, anti-Blackness hatred having its own dynamic within the context of a predatory capitalist civilization … So, it’s precisely this convergence … of the ways in which the American Empire, imploding, its foundations being shaken, with uprisings from below. ...

And what we need is a nonviolent revolutionary project of full-scale democratic sharing — power, wealth, resources, respect, organizing — and a fundamental transformation of this American Empire. [emphasis added]

These figures are not alone in their statements condemning George Floyd’s death and our hopeless nation. College and university presidents have quickly followed suit for fear of being deemed racist—after all, we’re assured that “to be silent is to be complicit.” 

In this week’s featured article, National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood analyzes the content and motivation of the remarkably similar statements released by higher education leadership, who are “fulfilling what they take to be their public obligation to put themselves and their institutions on the side of collective responsibility for racial injustice in America.” He continues in saying

The statements … testify to the sterile conformity among the leaders of American higher education. No one wants to be caught flatfooted by failing to acknowledge the enormity of Mr. Floyd’s killing. No one dares to miss the occasion for reasserting his college’s surpassing commitment to racial justice, along with his secure belief that America is a profoundly racist nation. ...

The myriad George Floyd statements by college presidents are one more milestone in the preemptive surrender of colleges to the logic of this power politics. The black students aren’t on campus to protest right now, but it is better to be prepared by “doing the right thing” before your office gets occupied. Moreover, the permanent encampment of marginally employed hard-core radicals, most of them white, is always ready to rumble.

Only time will tell the lasting effects of George Floyd’s death. Is this really “the American Empire imploding,” as Dr. West claims? Can we expect “a fundamental transformation” of our country? Or is it merely the latest in a never-ending stream of incidents seized upon by cultural elites to stoke racialist tensions and virtue-signal?

I tend to think it’s the latter. Through a constant attempt to appear on “the right side of history,” college and university leadership back themselves into an ideological corner in order to survive. But will it ever be enough to appease the mob?

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’  weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Administrative Associate John David. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Christopher Burns, Public Domain

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