Op-Ed: Disrupting White Supremacy

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 6:28pm


This evening, the University of Michigan’s Department of History is sponsoring “Disrupting White Supremacy,” a teach-in on the global history of white supremacy, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Mendelssohn Theatre in the Michigan League. The teach-in’s mission reads in part: “White supremacy uses history to fuel its fictions. Its promulgators anchor their vision of a racist future in mythical depictions of the past.  But the past is not the place that white supremacists imagine it to be. We must reclaim and retell the global history of race.” Or to put it another way, Richard Spencer is largely beside the point.  

Yes, Spencer and his followers in the “alt-right” constitute a dangerous force in American society. As we saw last summer in Charlottesville, Va., they are a real and present danger to Black and brown people and all who stand up for racial equality and justice. His simplistic and hateful message of white identity politics and ethnic cleansing is easy to identify and oppose. But the true challenge is to root out white supremacy in the very institutions we inhabit every day.

When the controversy over Spencer’s request to speak at the University of Michigan first emerged, I worried it would distract the University community from essential discussions of what it will take to build a racially-just university. In one sense, I was right. For months now, students, faculty and community activists have devoted countless hours to building coalitions and debating strategic options for confronting Spencer’s white supremacy and hate speech. But far from distracting activists from the imperative to work for racial justice on campus and in the local community, these efforts have produced a renewed sense of solidarity and commitment within the anti-racist community.  Activists have organized a series of principled, creative protests and educational initiatives that have not only voiced their outrage against the resurgence of white supremacist hate but also served to remind us all of the continual need to work for racial justice. This is the message that tonight’s teach-in seeks to reinforce: that white supremacy is more than a project of a few extremists on the far right, that ideologies and practices of racial superiority have been a driving force in constructing the radical disparities in health, wealth and opportunity that characterize the modern world, and that in order to win local struggles for racial equity and justice we must grapple with the long, global history of racial domination and exploitation.

As the saying goes, if you are not outraged, you have not been paying attention. But outrage is not enough. It will take much more than outrage if we are going to systematically address the structural forces that continue to leave Black and brown people excluded from and marginalized within the University community.

Take, for example, the issue of African-American, Latinx and Native American enrollment at the University. For its first 150 years, the University was virtually an all-white institution. While Michigan was not legally segregated like its southern counterparts, the University operated within a cultural milieu that assumed that all but a very small handful of people of color lacked the intellectual capacity to attend the University. Before 1970, as educational historian James Anderson has put it, Michigan “engaged in racially discriminatory and exclusionary practices that earned it a reputation as an institution for White students.” In fact, for most of its history, the University did not even keep track of the number of students of color enrolled. Only now has the Bentley Library undertaken a project to identify and document all the African Americans who attended the University in the years before the civil rights movement. As of last April, the library’s researchers had identified 1,700 Black students for the 117 years between 1853 and 1970. As late as 1966, the University estimated the Black student population to have been about 400 students, or 1.2 percent of that year’s total enrollment of 32,500 undergraduate and graduate students.

The movement to demand racial equity in U-M student enrollment began with the “Black Action Movement” in 1970, which demanded the University achieve 10 percent Black enrollment by 1973.  The story of the three “Black Action Movements” and the rise and fall of affirmative action at the University is too long and involved for this article. What we can say is that student activism led to the establishment of the Michigan Mandate in 1988 and a new set of admissions policies that raised black undergraduate enrollment to a peak of 2,101 students (9.2 percent) in 1997 and underrepresented minority enrollment (African-American, Native American, and Latinx students) to a peak of 3,297 (14.5 percent) in that same year. But these were short-lived gains.  Following the 2006 passage of Proposition 2, the referendum that banned the use of racial preferences in college admissions in Michigan, the number of Black undergraduates fell to 1,166 or 4.6 percent of total enrollment and underrepresented minority enrollment to 2,822 (10.7 percent) in 2014. Once again it took student activism, this time in in the form of the #BBUM (Being Black at U-M) movement, to push the University administration to prioritize diversity in undergraduate enrollment.  Four years later, overall underrepresented minority undergraduate enrollment has increased to 12.8 percent.  However, Black student enrollment remains stuck at 4.57 percent, ten percentage points below the state’s Black population.     

The cultural biases and structural barriers that excluded African Americans from the University during its first 150 years continue to shape Black and brown educational opportunity in the state and at the University as it enters its third century.   It is one thing to oppose the Richard Spencers of the world. But unless we are willing to insist that the University take action to admit a student body that reflects our state and nation’s diversity, we will have done little to dismantle the white supremacist practices that pervade daily life on campus.   

Nor is diversity enough. We must also address the often-overlooked structures and practices that undergird the sense that students and faculty of color are more interlopers than valued members of the community. This will be hard work as it involves attitudes and expectations as much as formal rules and procedures. At this point, the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan seems more focused on process, long-term goals and feel-good visions than on benchmarks and tangible steps.  Plans are important but what we need is accountability, from the University, from its academic programs and from every member of the campus community.   

Matthew Countryman is an Associate Professor of History and American Culture in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts