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Monday, April 22, 2019

Monday, April 22, 2019

On Making and Managing Racial Crises: Reckoning with Trauma and Institutional Responsibility in Higher Education

by Gaurav Jashnani, Ed.M
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
PhD Candidate in Critical Social/Personality Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center

Countless eyes were on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) this past fall, where students were organizing for racial justice, particularly around the removal of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument.  Black students and graduate-workers put their academic success and future careers on the line, student-athletes and NBA-playing alumni took public political stances, administrators and trustees seemed to lack a viable long-term plan, politicians and pundits inserted themselves in ways that seemed thoughtless and geared to exacerbate current tensions – and then, in January, things got really wild, with the university’s chancellor suddenly removing the base of the monument while also resigning from her post.

This is a familiar arc, one we saw even more sharply at the University of Missouri (MU) in 2015, when Black student organizers (in tandem with reproductive rights activists and a budding graduate student union) pushed out the top two administrators and overhauled the school’s approach to all things diversity, with the help of the university’s Division I football team. (Photo credit above: Jeff Roberson.) So, what’s the best way for UNC to proceed in a fraught situation, especially now as it faces a leadership vacuum and a damaged reputation?

Enter the recent American Council on Education (ACE) report on how campus leaders can build capacity for diversity and inclusion and successfully manage moments of “racial crisis.”  I read it eagerly, on the chance that it might come to offer useful guidelines for future administrative responses to perceived racial crises.

While the report examines the 2015 MU protests in an attempt to generate useful insights, it mostly puts forward meager responses that paper over the problem. As a clinician and social psychologist whose research focuses on institutional racism and higher education – including, presently, MU – I think it’s vital to address some apparent misconceptions regarding trauma, racism and institutional responsibility.

After briefly running through events at MU and their context, the bulk of the ACE report is focused on a “collective trauma” framework, which the authors use to conceptualize both the problem of and solution to a racial crisis. Nowhere are key terms (e.g., trauma, collective trauma, traumatic state) defined, and the only work on trauma cited in the report is a book about clinical work with survivors of genocide, civil war and the 9/11 attacks. But the circumstances of this work – thousands being killed in discrete moments of political violence – are quite distinct from the slow burn of long-term institutional racism and negligence, magnified by societal inequity and daily interpersonal degradations. Using the term collective trauma to describe a range of disparate people, incidents and experiences – without ever naming or discussing most of them – is confusing at best, and most likely inaccurate and counter-productive.

Furthermore, ACE’s report places institutions that have harmed students in the position of deciding who has been harmed, how, and what they need to recover, refocusing racial justice efforts on “emotional healing” without also centering equity and accountability. Since the problem is determined to be collective trauma, the answer is healing, and unspecified campus leaders are the ones who must heal campus, using “active listening,” “speaking from the heart,” and “acting with” as their tools. We are told, for example, that active listening can help others to “engage with difficult feelings, gain perspective on the experience…find their own solutions, and build self-esteem and resilience.” But is a lack of self-esteem and resilience really the core problem when facing the stark realities of campus racism? Why is gaining perspective prioritized while shifting policy goes unmentioned? Why choose to tell this story by relying on trauma? Is that the best way in which to understand the callousness of the university administration’s lack of response to ongoing racial inequity and interpersonal violence?

A trauma-focused approach may center healing, support, connection and healthcare resources for those harmed or targeted; one focused on accountability might prioritize identifying the harm, who was responsible, making amends and shifting conditions to prevent future harm. Both together are often ideal, but when justice and institutional responsibility are nearly absent, healing can become easy rhetoric that avoids harder conversations. Accountability for doing violence – and for colluding with it – should mean losing positions of power, acknowledging wrongdoing, offering reparations, putting in the work to transform one’s actions and one’s understanding of the world. Some of these are steps MU has taken, but they are steps ACE’s report decenters in favor of decontextualized trauma therapy techniques.

When someone commits an act of violence, and someone else colludes by refusing to take it seriously or even acknowledge it as a problem, we shouldn’t suggest that either of these people talk like a therapist to the person who was violated, as a means of moving forward. The authors have appropriated tools from a specific context, but the problem here is different, the stakes are different, and psychological responses are helpful but still insufficient for structural violence. Prioritizing healing is important when people who have been harmed want it, but when the powerful use it to avoid examining and transforming institutions, talk of healing can quickly become a weapon used to maintain the status quo and sustain institutional violence.

One widespread reality the report overlooks is that campus leadership generally plays an important role not merely in responding to student organizing, but in instigating it in the first place through systematic neglect, gross incompetence, misplaced priorities and a distinct lack of concern for the learning and wellbeing of marginalized students. While the ACE report refers to a history or legacy of campus and societal racism, none of it make sense without understanding that racism has continued into the present. MU’s administration is portrayed only as reacting to racism outside their control, rather than having made numerous choices – including many financial ones – that maintained or even exacerbated ongoing racism.

This crisis was not simply mismanaged by the administration but actively precipitated by it. Administrators chose to ignore a constant barrage of racism that Black students faced, not to mention pervasive social segregation and disappointing graduation rates; even Black student demands from 1968 were still waiting to be fulfilled. A single incident of interpersonal racist violence, or even several incidents, does not inherently become an institutional crisis. The reason that repeated moments of violence escalated into a crisis – and forced the institution toward a turning point – is much the same reason that repeated moments of violence became a crisis for Hollywood (and USA Gymnastics, and the Catholic Church): key players consciously decided that it was not worth responding, despite knowing that severe violence was pervasive and ongoing over many years. Each of these institutions weighed the scales and chose collusion over conviction.

In other words, what the report identifies as limited capacity to deal with diversity and inclusion issues is not only result of bad planning, but racism – an active institutional investment in white supremacy, until said investment disturbs in-flows of capital and business as usual. Given the previous absence of commitment to or even interest in racial equity on the part of the administration, one of the report’s major failures is its apparent premise that alleviating the racial crisis hinges more on managing perceptions and emotions than fostering long-term equity or success for all marginalized students.

Emotions are important and often overlooked, but they are, in this case, symptoms and results of a structural problem. Any map forward must stress that attending to the emotional climate should happen in tandem with not only strategic planning and “building capacity for diversity” but also specific changes in policy, practices and personnel, and shifting financial and political priorities including the allocation of resources. (MU has done some of this, too, but you’d be forgiven for missing that from the report.)

As an example, the report endorses “offering small tokens of appreciation” such as notes and gifts to faculty and staff who take on extra racial justice and support work. Why not instead pay people for their time, offer course leave, bonuses and promotions, credit for students? Institutions can offer not only recognition, but material compensation for work deemed necessary for the campus to function, which – as the report notes – falls disproportionately upon Black women and other people of color. Reparations and other concrete forms of accountability can, in fact, be an integral part of emotional and psychological healing from historical and institutional violence – just ask students at Georgetown, who last week voted to institute a long-term reparations “fee” as part of their tuition payments.

However, without acknowledging the painful and complex realities of ongoing and systemic racism, intertwined with the everyday functioning of the institution, the nature of the problem remains obscure. The real objects of concern – set upon by student organizers, politicized athletes and other supporters, defended by trustees, politicians and administrators – disappear: the de facto racist institutional policies and practices that result in structural violence, and the myriad interpersonal degradations that make up minoritized life. The violence of the institution, its students, staff, faculty, security, policies, procedures, practices; its passive and active refusal to affirm Black life and learning; the choices the institution has made from its origins in slave labor, onward through 200 years of white supremacist institutional maintenance; all of this violence, all of these decisions, all of the moments of choosing white supremacy over and over again risk erasure in this framework.

Trauma, the ostensible heart of the report’s analysis, suffers from a similar lack of clarity, as neither the traumatic event repeatedly referred to nor the part of campus allegedly traumatized are ever identified. The collective trauma at hand is not explicitly attributed to Black or marginalized students, but that is the clear implication: victims and witnesses of racism are “angry,” student organizers are “distrustful,” people of color and especially Black women suffer from “racial battle fatigue,” and so on. Campus leaders should “reach out to faculty, staff, and students of color” as those experiencing “particularly acute trauma.”

While Black students should be at the center of any story about MU that purports to identify the “work that moved the community forward in a time of vulnerability,” these students are largely transformed here from agents of racial justice to largely unnamed victims. Trauma is distorted to produce out of control, irrational Black students (as well as staff and faculty) who the administration needs to heal before their “traumatic state” proves an obstacle to improving the campus climate. In this telling, Black students too easily become a traumatized impediment to racial progress, rather than the primary people working to advance that goal.

One step toward rectifying this dangerous misperception is grasping that a significant part of those at MU who displayed fear, anger and distrust (the trauma-related emotions highlighted in the report) were white. The university’s most recent campus climate report, based on data gathered in 2016 – immediately after the widely publicized student organizing, and at the same time as the interviews that were part of the ACE report – found that nearly 40% more white than Black people (in total numbers) reported experiencing “exclusionary, intimidating, offensive and hostile” behaviors as a result of “ethnicity.” While a greater percentage of Black people described these kinds of experiences (as we would expect), this report details numerous white members of the university community feeling harassed or intimidated by the sheer fact of Black organizing, and particularly by on-campus mobilizations for racial justice and related ends:
·      “I have been targeted by racial protesters like Black Lives Matter.”
·      “I didn't feel safe in my community because I was a Greek white student."
·      “The demonstration on campus…made [me] feel personally threatened, threatened my family, and my family income.”
·      “I felt like I was racially profiled as racist because I am white.”
And while first-hand experiences of exclusionary behavior due to “racial identity” are not broken down in the report, observations of such behavior were reported by nine times as many white people as Black – nearly one-third of all white respondents. These survey respondents labeled racial justice demonstrations as “bullying,” “racist” “unsettling,” and of a “violent nature,” and described them as “[a]n attack on the entire University.”

While feeling unsafe and viewing non-violent marches or demonstrations as violent may be genuine expressions of belief or emotion, they do not correlate with any documented reality of violence against white people at MU. The very idea that white people could perceive themselves to be the victims of greater racial hostility than Black people at a university struggling with anti-Black racism may seem hard to understand, but it isn’t. White people can experience racial reality (i.e., frank assertions of current injustice and needed movement toward justice) as hostile, unsettling or overwhelming – this is the underlying basis of recently popularized terms like white fragility, and this is much of the “trauma” to be found after racial justice organizing, at least at MU. Put differently, clear improvements in the campus racial climate for students of color may be perceived as a decline in quality, and safety – with acute emotional and psychological consequences – for a subset of predominantly white students who perceive a loss of status in the decreased acceptability of racism, as well as for white alumni, parents of prospective students, and other institutional stakeholders. Confronting a loss of structural privilege can be overwhelming for white people, and while I wouldn’t suggest they need trauma therapy, it’s foolish to ignore both the difficult emotions these people experience as a result of institutional shifts and the consequences they inflict on others.

At UNC, as was the case at MU, marginalized students don’t need help from administrators to gain perspective, and they have repeatedly found their own solutions. Balancing the calls of student organizers with the demands of other stakeholders, particularly at a public university in neoliberal times, is tricky at best; the racial crisis is primarily a crisis for the administration, who is made vulnerable (to real accountability) by student organizing. However, as UNC determines how to proceed, trauma sensitivity alone won’t accomplish what the university needs. That requires acknowledging the racism that led to Silent Sam being mounted in the first place, and to being kept up for over a century, as well as making up for lost time when it comes to racial equity and following the lead of marginalized students. To be effective in the long-term, responses to racial crises require institutional transformation at the levels of policy, procedure, curriculum, hiring, admissions, financial aid, institutional history, racial pedagogy and strategic planning, as well as emotional and psychological support.

An MU alum and Black activist with whom I recently spoke named the university’s dramatic expansion of Pell Grant funding for lower-income students – to cover all tuition and fees – as perhaps the most important victory to come from recent years of organizing. A descendent of MU’s founder has created a “Slavery Atonement Endowment” for Black Studies students, while a “History Working Group” has been established to reckon with the institution’s financial basis in slavery and its profits. Meanwhile, organizing for reparations at Georgetown may set a national precedent for the many US universities that flourished financially through the violent subjugation of African people. The goal of an institution should not be managing unrest but moving toward justice in ways that address and account for long histories of injustice – removing monuments to white supremacy is only a first step toward materially restructuring higher education and its priorities.


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