The politics of well-being can turn into the politics of separatism

This week, I read an interesting book that came out at the start of this year about the Black Lives Matter movement, called They Can't Kill Us All, by Wesley Lowery. It tells the story of one of the defining protest movements of this decade, which shone a light (or, rather, a phone camera) on American police's excessive use of force against black people. The BLM movement was a sort of citizen journalism network, sharing disturbing videos of police shootings, and on-the-ground reporting from protests.

The book taught me a lot, including the fact that a quarter of those fatally killed by police in the US are in the middle of an acute mental health crisis. A similar statistic exists in Canada. I came across several stories of families calling the police out of fear a mentally ill relative would harm themselves. The police arrive, and within minutes, the person is shot dead. We're lucky to have less gung-ho cops in the UK, who are trained to tackle people in the grip of a psychotic episode.

Another thing which struck me was that what started as a street protest against police brutality turned into a wave of campus protests, which were to some extent a protest around feelings - feeling safe, feeling you belong in an institution or society.

The first Black Lives Matter campus protest took place an hour's drive from Ferguson, in the University of Missouri, or Mizzou as it's known. A group started by three Mizzou students - like the founders of BLM, they were all black queer women activists - protested the university's lack of an official response to the police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and also its perceived apathy towards incidents of racist hate speech on the campus.

The students felt awakened by the protests on the streets of Ferguson - the language of BLM is repeatedly one of spiritual and civic awakening. How would they join the fight against systemic oppression and white supremacy in the United States?

At a homecoming parade, the group surrounded the car of university president Tim Wolfe, but he failed to talk to them. A month later, when he did come to speak to the group, he failed to accurately define 'systematic oppression'. That was when they started demanding his resignation. One of the group went on hunger strike, the football team joined the protest, and Wolfe finally resigned. Here's one of their protests.

The #ConcernedStudent1950 protest at @mucampusdining  Plaza 900 earlier today.

— Anurag Chandran(常然) (@AnuragRC) November 7, 2015

It was, suggests Lowery, 'one of recent history's most significant victories for student activism'. It hasn't been a great victory for Mizzou, where freshmen enrolments have fallen by 35% in the two years since the protests. Students have been put off, apparently, by the sense Mizzou is either a hotbed of black radicalism or a swamp of white supremacy.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Black Lives Matter chapters opened at many other universities, particularly liberal arts universities. They followed a similar pattern - a protest against a perceived moment of racist speech or stereotyping on campus and the insensitivity of response on the part of university authorities, which morphs into a more sustained protest against the racist history of the university (statues, founders, mascots) and the systemic racism of the United States.

The various chapters published their demands - you can read them online here. Sometimes, chapters would demand apologies or resignations from university presidents or deans for their insensitive response to racial incidents - in at least four universities, they did apologise and / or resign.

Protestors would also often demand mandatory diversity training for all students and staff, as at Iowa State University:

While Iowa State currently enforces both an international and US diversity requirement for degree completion, we find that this is not sufficient to address racism on this campus. These approved courses often neglect intersectionality and are not uniformly assessed, meaning some people could pass a course by correctly guessing on multiple choice exams rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue. This course will educate students on the history of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the United States and on the structures of privilege that continue to perpetuate such systems today. Once this literacy is established, students will be asked how they can challenge oppressive systems in order to make the campus and the country more inclusive for marginalized groups.

Chapters also often demanded more funding for black faculty members, higher enrolment of black students, the overhaul of curricula to highlight the contribution of people of colour, and the creation of new centres or departments for African-American studies. This is from #liberateMSU, the chapter from Michigan State University:

We demand the establishment of a Department of African American and African Studies with an annual supplies, services, and equipment budget of at least $200,000, twenty graduate assistant lines for the doctoral program, and, at minimum, ten tenure-stream faculty members by Fall 2017. We demand the construction of a free-standing Multicultural Center with its own budget from the University to support social and academic programming by Spring 2017. We demand an increase in tenure-stream faculty whose research specializes in Black Politics, Black Linguistics, Black Sociology, Black Psychology, African politics, Black Queer Studies, Hip-Hop Studies, African American Literature, African Literature, and Decolonial Theory. All these faculty hires must be approved by a panel of Black student leaders and will be tenured in the Department of African American and African Studies.

Chapters frequently demanded more funding for counselling services for the trauma of black people. This from Emory University:

We need institutional, primarily, financial support, for black students in the face of trauma and other racial events on campus, nationally and in the world at large.

And, in connection with this, chapters often demanded the creation of black-only safe spaces, as at Michigan: 'We ask for a safe space for black students on campus that is away from the daily stresses of navigating white spaces. This space will be a place of emotional and social support and a place to decompress from the daily stress of being a Black student at a Predominantly White Institution.' Some colleges, including Harvard, have also introduced black-only graduation ceremonies.

Right-wing journalists and commentators have had a field day with all this, both in the US and beyond, calling the protesting students 'coddled', 'snowflakes', 'hysterical', 'anti-white' and so on. 

One liberal-turned-conservative commentator, Shelby Steele, who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, thinks it's an example of America's inability to get over its 'original sin' of slavery and racial oppression. African-Americans have been encouraged for the last 50 years, he says, to embrace an identity of victimhood as a means to money, power and prominence, and white liberals, who feel guilty over America's past, support that identity. White liberal America and black America are, in his estimate, two cultures locked in a Manichean 'cold war' in a single country' , both stuck in 'a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequality and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs'; its 'enforcement arm' is political correctness.  

The idea that African-Americans are systematically oppressed in contemporary America is, he says, a lie, which destroys African-Americans and American politics, but one cannot deny this lie without being labelled a racist or, in his case, an Uncle Tom.

He says:

The word that comes to mind is pathos. To be that profoundly out of tune with the freedoms and opportunities that almost smother you, and to continue to think of yourself as a victim, is suicidal. It's a tragedy. If you want to scare the living hell out of the Black Lives Matter movement, look them in the eye and say 'what would you do if you weren't a victim? What are your career plans? What are you going to do to develop yourself?' The black-as-victim mentality allows them to avoid that. So we get generations of mediocrity and failure.

I am too far removed from American culture to know if this rather startling critique is true (this review of his book in the New York Times makes some valid points in response). I am ignorant of the large scholarly debate over whether 60 years of affirmative action have worked. It seems strange to me - an ignorant foreigner - when a young protestor says to the dean of Princeton: 'This university owes me everything. My people built this all.' But she's not alone in believing that - around 60% of African-Americans believe descendants of slaves are entitled to reparations (see the graphs below), which some economists estimate should amount to around $3 trillion. 

There are objective facts beyond feelings - African-Americans account for 12% of the American population but only 6% of the college population, and they are more likely to drop out. They are particularly under-represented in STEM subjects. There are white racists on university campuses. Many universities and their founders do have racist histories, and why not change a name or take down a statue? And university administrations can be clumsy and insensitive in their response to racist incidents.

In terms of feelings, do African-American students have worse mental health than other groups, particularly at Predominantly White Institutions? An organisation called Healthy Minds Network does an annual survey of 34,000 American students' wellbeing, on 23 campuses. It found that African-Americans are twice as likely as Whites to feel they were treated unfairly because of their race. However, their sense of belonging on campus was roughly the same as other ethnic groups; the percentage of African Americans reporting depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation was roughly the same as other ethnic groups; and they were roughly as likely to seek counselling (Asians are the least likely ethnic group to seek counselling, because of a sense of stigma). 

Another survey by Gallup found that black graduates who went to Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCU) - which are usually predominantly African-American - had higher personal, social and financial wellbeing than black graduates who went to Predominantly White Institutions. The survey found that more than one in three black HBCU graduates (35%) strongly agree that they had a professor who cared about them as a person, a professor who made them excited about learning and a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams; only 12% of black non-HBCU graduates strongly agree they had all three experiences. This connects to another recent finding - that black students who had at least one black teacher at school were significantly more likely to finish school and consider college. So ethnicity does matter when it comes to finding teachers you relate to and who you feel encouraged by. 

Being a minority and feeling like an outsider can be emotionally hard. It can lead to weariness and withdrawal. I imagine it's somewhat alienating to be a right-wing college student - while people who identify as liberals account for one fifth of Americans, they account for half of American academics. One third of first-year students identify as 'liberal' or 'far left' - the highest figure since 1973. Republicans on campus report being physically attacked.

Our social networks don't help - the internet was meant to bring people together, but it's fragmented into Black Twitter and White Twitter, liberal blogs and right-wing blogs, which affirm rather than challenge our biases. We don't talk to each other - the 2013 American Values Survey found that white people's social circles are 93% white, while black Americans have social circles that are 65% black. Perhaps because of these bubbles, American views of BLM are sharply divided - only 35% of white Americans see the movement positively, compared to 83% of black Americans (only 22% of Americans approved of the diner sit-ins in 1961, by the by).

One gets a growing sense of pessimism and exhaustion from American culture, perhaps from western culture as a whole. A sense that conversation with 'the Other' is impossible, that withdrawal, separatism or angry denunciation is the best tactic. A sense that we should withdraw and surround ourselves with 'our own'.A recent viral blog, now a book, by black British feminist Reni Eddo-Lodge, is called Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race. One hears dark rumblings across the Atlantic about the need for white or black nationalism and the likelihood of another US civil war (it's about 35% likely, according to a recent poll of security experts at Foreign Policy). 

Engaging with the Other - African-American, White, liberal, Republican, cis, LGBTQ, Christian, Muslim, male, female, rich and poor - is hard, awkward, discomforting, depressing, exhausting. But it's necessary. It's sometimes enriching. Occasionally, it leads to friendship and love. Above all, it's essential to one's education, one's moral growth, and to the continued survival of liberalism.

We need to help students feel centred and secure in their identities, but we also need to raise people who are able to speak outside of their bubbles, to meet in that uncomfortable space and be able to bear it with patience, articulacy, courage and grace, as James Baldwin did while debating William Buckley at the Cambridge Union. And we need to be prepared to go into that space ourselves, to discover our own parochialism. 'Are you uncomfortable?' asks the young protestor at Mizzou in the video clip above. 'Then I did my job.' The same is true of university professors.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, please consider supporting my work through Patreon, here