In the Dimensions of Culture program at Marshall College, we ask students to consider the historical contradictions that emerged at the moment of the nation’s founding. Equality of rights and opportunity for all was the original promise, and yet millions of people over the last two hundred and forty years have struggled to be included in that promise.
Our students are asked to investigate the ways in which such contradictions are enacted through an array of categories—class, religion, language, gender, “race,” sexuality, immigration status, and so on. By learning how several categories can function together, students are urged to eschew simplistic understandings of complex past and present social problems.
Because we ground our studies in the American historical experience, the category of “race” invariably leaps to the foreground of every discussion. Some students complain that DOC is “only about race.” Although our curriculum is not only about “race,” it is not surprising that some students think it is. Despite our efforts to complicate students’ analysis, it is difficult to ignore the white elephant in the room.
The removal and murder of native peoples, the enslavement and subjugation of people of African descent, the exploitation of their free labor — these historical facts have placed racism and the long struggle to mitigate its effects at the center of the American story.
The results of the recent election have been interpreted through a variety of lenses and I will not rehash them all here. One of the most compelling readings of the results, however, has to do with the resurgence of two viruses that have inhabited the nation’s bloodstream since the beginning — white supremacy and nativism.
The fantasy of white supremacy, cobbled together in its modern form by mediocre European philosophers of the 19th century, found fertile ground in the Americas. In the United States, at certain moments it remains latent; at other moments it becomes aggressively activated. But it is always present within the social body.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that every person who voted for the President-elect is a racist. What I am saying is that the political campaign we all suffered through was waged by one camp in particular on the terrain of white supremacy and nativism.
Nativism, or the fear and hatred of immigrants, is the logical supplement to the white supremacist’s dream of racial purity, ethnic cleansing, and walled off nation states. These destructive myths coupled with a strong dose of misogyny formed the essential components of the GOP’s appeal to voters.
Across the nation and even in the relatively protected world of higher education, the new administration’s taking of power in January will generate anxiety for groups specifically targeted during the campaign. Muslim Americans, the undocumented, and people of color in general are already feeling the strain.
On campuses like UCSD, where “diversity” rhetoric, offices, and centers have not significantly improved a campus climate that is experienced as hostile by Black and Brown staff, students, and even faculty, the potential is great for provocative acts by the agents of reinvigorated racism, sexism, and nativism.
Ironically, UCSD’s frantic attempt in recent years to brand itself as a “global university” eager to replace public funding with private funding from international donors may find itself in jeopardy. If the incoming President’s promise to conduct a protectionist trade and foreign policy is true and if wealthy business classes in China and India view the United States as unpredictable and xenophobic, why would they invest in a “public” university in San Diego? Why would they send their children to be educated here?
These are questions for UC administrators at the highest levels. On the ground floor of daily life, students, staff, and faculty will continue to come to study, work, and teach as they always have. For many of us though, the contradiction of being at a bastion of privilege in La Jolla in a time of resurgent white supremacy, nativism, sexism, and class disparities will be difficult to negotiate.
Chancellor Khosla recently commented that UCSD is elite but not elitist. But what will UCSD do to prove that it is not elitist? What will UCSD to support its most vulnerable students and workers? How will UCSD urge young people to be community builders instead of individual “breakers”? When will UCSD stop participating in the displacement of the public good by private gain?
In the troubled period we are entering, a university education ought not be simply for vocational training or for creating entrepreneurs and start-ups. Rather, the university must be a place where those in power are rigorously critiqued, a location where myths like white supremacy are destroyed, and a site where young people gain the tools to understand and dismantle the structures that block the promise of equality for their communities.
Jorge Mariscal is Professor of Literature and Director of the Dimensions of Culture Program at Thurgood Marshall (Lumumba-Zapata) College.
He arrived at UCSD when Ronald Reagan was POTUS and will leave when Donald Trump is POTUS—not an attractive set of bookends to a career. And yet, along the way, he has met amazing students and staff people who believe in a truly public and democratic university.
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