Our colleges are wise and witty. Our buildings wear the grace of European monuments. Amidst this splendor comes the ugliness. It is a cliché. Racism is dull. It is never creative. Did they scrawl an invective? Did they attack someone? What they did has been done before. Human cruelty is so unoriginal.
But you are shocked? That is peculiar. Only the privileged can be truly shocked. “There are words like Liberty,” Langston Hughes sang, “That almost make me cry.” Why, you ask? “If you had known what I knew, you would know why.” Shock is a form of privilege. The reaction of Hughes’ “refugee in America” is not cynicism (of course this happens), but the cold steel of acknowledgment. This is what is. This is not what we want. But this is what is.
Obviously our institutions will condemn this cruelty. Presidents will issue statements. Discussions will be organized. Money will be tossed toward multicultural performances. No institution, today, will allow such nastiness to pass by unnoticed. Such brutishness allows institutions to affirm their values, to preen in the glory of their own decency. The law is like that. It also likes to stand above society. It cloaks itself in its values and sets itself apart from the brutality of the world. It says, we condemn. As it must.
But who does not condemn? The enigma of racism is that everyone admits it exists, but no one admits to racism. It is always out there, often the pathology of the poor. Money always likes to believe it is too genteel for racism. But Money has its own kind of racism. It buries its prejudices into the system. It is too polite to toss about invectives.
Racism is out there. It is engrained in our social order, its blood courses through our institutions. Hierarchies plunge certain populations into positions of structural servitude. Statistics are a good indication of the inequities. Who owns the wealth in our society? Who drives social policy? Why is it that as a consequence of the 2007-08 Great Recession, the victims of the harshest asset stripping were African Americans and Latinos? They lost more than half their assets, which amounts to loss of a generation’s savings. Is this accidental? Is it because they are lazy? How casually we assume that certain people do not succeed because of their own problems – laziness first among them. They are lazy. They have not met the standards to come to this fine liberal arts institution. We oppose welfare. It is the safety net for the lazy. These are casual comments of our social science. The gap between this ideology and the scrawl on the wall is minimal. Our ruling ideas are saturated with racist intent, but couched in dry prose.
My college had its ritual racist act a few years ago. We had our scripted all-college discussion. One woman after another went to the microphone and said, “There are other problems here.” They meant the culture of rape. It is also easily condemned. But then nothing happens. Jon Krakauer’s searing new book, Missoula, offers a window into how women are failed by their colleges. If the racist says that the inferiors are lazy, the misogynist says that women ask for it. They are responsible. They need to take personal responsibility. Power hates responsibility. It likes to parlay it onto the powerless. Bail out the banks and evict the poor
But what is the value of condemnation? Is that sufficient?
Other things are essential. Our cultures are bred to sustain the inequities. We can condemn the inequities, but what else? Will we demand that the Rich end their General Strike against Taxation? What this General Strike has enabled is that in this country greater numbers of people have become effectively disposable. They have little hope of meaningful work with decent pay. Decline in unemployment rates come because of a rise in low-pay service jobs. People have less hope of any governmental services. The economic crisis, which long predates the 2008 credit crunch, has produced great social sores – individual depression is compounded by social tensions. Baltimore is the name of one social sore; Ferguson is another. Will we be able to find the language to call for social spending to enhance social order rather than privilege the few against the many?
What about our liberal arts colleges? We have indebted our students and forced them to spend time building their careers – running from internships to coursework that is meant to lead to a job. The total student debt in the United States now stands at over $1 trillion, with seventy per cent of students in some form of debt. These liabilities sit heavily on the heads of the young, who worry about finding employment – in an adverse jobs environment – to pay off these debts. We do not allow students to experiment with ideas, build associations of a different kind of society, reconfigure campus life so that the cultures of cruelty are not allowed all the oxygen. Who has the time for this in the pursuit of a fuller CV? Condemn yes, but condemn what? The improper word, scribbled on the wall – the cheap rebellion of the privileged? Should we not ask for more – believe in more, imagine greater things?
The General Strike of the Rich is refracted onto the colleges through the wealthy alumni and their tributes, the Trustees of the colleges. Presidents are in terror of the General Strike. If they move an agenda that is in any way progressive, the money would likely dry up. The task of the President is to raise money, to run sequential Capital Campaigns. Despite their own various temperaments, these presidents are constrained by the sensibility of the Trustees and the alumni.
Among the alumni, the ones with the greatest authority are those with the most money. They make the most noise, have the greatest confidence in their opinions. Alumni look back nostalgically at their college experience. Their rose-tinted glasses will them to want to “produce” a campus in the image of their recollections. Such a campus might never have existed, but it is nonetheless what these alumni feverishly wish to protect. A previous president at my college began a conversation about the future of fraternities – when he went on a fund-raising tour, some alumni pelted him with fruit. This is the riot of the privileged.
We dissent too little. We accept too much. We allow our institutions to treat students like customers and consumers and not citizens. We talk about civic life, but sneer when students create political associations and protest. We talk about civility, but then push our students into uncivil debt. We teach peace, and watch our country thrash from one war to another. We allow the General Strike of the Rich to constrain conversations and paralyze our hopes for the future.
Vijay Prashad’s latest book is the edited collection, Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation, which Verso is offering at a forty per cent discount.