By: The Graduate Geographers’ Collective (1)
Amidst the COVID19 pandemic, the New York Times declared that the national protests against police brutality, and specifically against Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, were the largest and most widespread in U.S. history. In our department (2), academic year 2020-2021 was marked by personal tensions, institutional tone-deafness, unequal labor divisions, and conciliatory statements. Over the past year, we graduate students have seen first-hand the flaws of the neoliberal university’s bureaucratic approach to anti-racism. In this piece, we share the story of how our push to bring the ‘national reckoning’ to our discipline/department was both taken up and defanged within our department during the past year.
Bringing Abolitionism, Not Just Famous Abolitionists, to the Department
In April 2021, our department hosted a well-regarded abolitionist for our speaker series, which was thematically centered on Black Geographies and anti-Black racism. They gave an impassioned talk about the need for a “national racial reckoning” and reflected on the legacy of our own department in critical geography scholarship. Indeed, many of us came to this department because of its reputation as a cradle of radical scholarship. During their talk, many of us were appalled at the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance of a faculty group who smiled, nodded, and offered platitudes about “abolition” while having collectively, over the past year, avoided taking substantive action on the specific calls of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, specifically to defund and reallocate police budgets and get #CopsOffCampus.
Nearly a year prior, in June 2020, galvanized by the 2020 summer uprisings, graduate students proposed a detailed list of fourteen recommendations, including a public solidarity statement, to confront our department’s inaction and perpetuation of racial hierarchies and violence along with larger issues of policing and systemic racism. Just prior to the George Floyd moment, back in a February 2020 email chain, our department was faced with explicit evidence of anti-Black racism, as a person of color in our department detailed a racist experience where they were criminalized, presumed to be trespassing/out-of-place, and were overtly threatened. A long chain of email responses then circulated citing similar racist acts experienced by students and faculty of color alike. In the face of evident harm, there was no departmental response as such, merely the offering of a few words by individuals on the email chain. This tepid response foreshadowed the way in which graduate students’ efforts to take meaningful anti-racist action at the departmental level would be stymied.
Just the effort to write and publish a simple solidarity statement on behalf of our Department spanned a full year (Figure 2) of predictable reactionary processes (Figure 1) which effectively stalled and neutralized the urgency of the moment. With so much energy merely devoted to putting actionable words to paper, many of the remaining recommendations—or even conversations about them—were quietly set aside. While our recommendations were largely ignored or diminished (Figure 2), we remain especially incensed by our department’s ongoing refusal to publicly call for and work toward an abolitionist horizon. Witnessing the department’s performative solidarity during our speaker series while knowing the institutional backstory, left many of us in a state of shock even as it tracked with our experience of deferral and delay over the past year. We hope that detailing our experiences within our department and demonstrating how they fit within the normalized functioning of the neoliberal university and the broader field of Geography, might provide another cautionary tale of institutions deploying cooptation and containment strategies in order to “represent and destroy” (Melamed 2011) abolitionist efforts.
Tactics of the Neoliberal Academy
Abolitionist action against both the racist acts experienced by members of our department and the “national racial reckoning” in the summer of 2020 was hindered by three processes that exemplify the near-total neoliberalization of our department and the university writ large: 1) an embrace of bureaucratic sluggishness that confines anti-racist dialogue to rigid meeting schedules and opaque decision-making, 2) deferral to university higher-ups and proliferating institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, and 3) funneling outrage, concern, and labor for diversity work into hastily-convened Anti-Racism Taskforces primarily staffed by unpaid students and precarious non-tenured faculty. We name these strategies neoliberal because they wed hollow promises of equality to a system sustained by economic and social structural inequalities that rely upon necessarily deferred technocratic and bureaucratic ‘solutions.’
First, momentum for crafting and publicizing a simple anti-racism statement was slowed by the unwillingness to openly discuss the statement, or other departmental actions, with graduate students. Following one full department conference call, for which not all senior faculty were present, graduate students and faculty never came together again to discuss our institutional experiences and collectively define what anti-racist work might look like within the department and university. While a few minutes of time were later allotted to this discussion in monthly faculty meetings, the actual work of researching, crafting, and revising evidence-based recommendations, along with limited debate over these recommendations, were confined to tedious emails, drastically slowing movement and fueling disengagement by many department members. Further, many of the department’s decisions were made in closed-door faculty meetings with only vague explanations of their rationale to graduate students. Faculty who were opposed to the department taking a more radical, unequivocally abolitionist stance never had to name themselves or explain their positions outside of this rarefied space. To this day (Fall semester 2021), while some recommendations such as curricular changes and talk of yet another mural, there is still no solidarity statement with the American Asian community, and no call to defund/reallocate the campus police department. We won’t hold our breath.
(1) We remain anonymous both because we are structurally precarious within the labor hierarchy of the crumbling academy, and because we hope our department and many others recognize themselves herein.
(2) A prominent, public R1 in the Northeast region of the U.S.
- Misogynoir and Other Racist Aggressions in the Ivory Tower: An Open Letter – #BLM Guest Post
- Healing Racial Trauma in the Academy (Part II) – WOC Guest Post.
- 5 Anti-Racist Practices White Scholars Can Adopt Today – #BLM Guest Post
- How Sociology (Re)Produces Racist Policing – #BLM Guest Post
- Educational Powerhouse? Racism and Inaction at OISE – #BLM Guest Post