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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Very White Day at the University of California

David Theo Goldberg
University of California, Irvine

Recent events across the University of California—at UCSD, at UC Irvine, at Berkeley, and perhaps even more broadly at UCLA, at Riverside, at Santa Cruz, have been lumped together by top university administrators, even if the events are linked together in ways completely belying the administrative default position. Of late, the Muslim student protest against Israeli Ambassador Oren at UCI has been equated with the racist expressions by three separate groups of students at UCSD.

For the University leaders, protest itself appears to have become incivility, disruptive of dominant institutional arrangements and even at times, for some criminalizable. And free speech is to be upheld only when expressing certain positions but not others, disrupting the peace—a criminal misdemeanor—a characterization of an activity reductively in the case of speaking truth to power but not in invoking power to fix or sustain a regime of truth. And pretty much all of the expressions in question are collapsed as “uncivilized” and “despicable” no matter their very different objects of criticism and genealogies of initiation. Where the university should stand for careful distinction it has opted largely for totalization, where it should be committed to nuance and thoughtful consideration it has opted for a blunt bludgeon, where it should stand against racism and stand up for vigorous free expression and critique it has generally ignored the latter save in moments of unusually public pronunciation (such as the current events at UCSD) and undercut the former.

Instead of addressing the critical issues the University has characteristically bundled them all together, infantilized the criticism and soft-pedaled on the racism, criminalizing protest and reducing racism as if it were the mere expression of epithets rather than a historical medium of power and subordination. In short, the University once again diminishes racisms to the more or less innocent ignorance of youthful indiscretion, individualizing the transgression once again as the work of a bad apple or two. It has shown far more concern for the public relations fall than with the social conditions under which students of color—those who continue to attend UC despite the repeated demonstration of inhospitability—continue to exist. UCI has just thrown limited resources at the questionable PR firm, Alan Hilburg and Co, to ensure its image is not tarnished by these events rather than using the funds to maintain staff in the face of demoralizing budget cuts or to create thoughtful programming around the issues in question. The crisis at the University of California is as much one of leadership as it is of the budget cuts we continue to suffer through.

There are four sets of recent events across UC that are worth distinguishing. The first concerns student protests, including sit-ins, regarding the fee increases and budget cuts. Here Berkeley has been the focus campus even if other campuses have seen significant action too. Second, there is the case of protesting a speech of Israeli Ambassador Oren by members and UCR supporters of the UCI Muslim Students Union, repeatedly disrupting but not preventing him from completing his speech. Third, there is the case of racist expression at UCSD, involving members of a fraternity, a campus supported student radio, the hanging of a noose in the Geisel Library on campus by a senior and at least two of her accomplices, and as recently as yesterday a pillow-case shaped as a KKK hood placed over a statue’s head outside the Library. And fourth--I want to insist that this is a separate consideration—the significant protests among UCSD students, staff, and faculty of the long trajectory of racial conditions on campus. It remains to be seen whether this latter movement—which insists on connecting the campus racism to the budget crisis, linking budgetary transparency with demands for racial equity, public access, and the public good—can sustain itself.
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