Freedom Rider: The lie of academic freedom

Black Americans have never enjoyed the rights and the freedoms that their country claims to value. Academic freedom is just one of many concepts believed to be inviolate but which proves to be elusive when black people attempt to exercise it. Black academics are openly harassed, physically threatened and in constant danger of losing their jobs if they make any white person angry. This dynamic is especially problematic in an era when universities care more about raising money and staying in the good graces of the ruling classes than they do about education.

Racist, right-wing trolls now scour the Internet to find ways of attacking black scholars. If any of these academics dare to freely speak their opinions about white supremacy, they risk a great deal. There is hell to pay if they offend a racist’s tender sensibilities.

Johnny Eric Williams is a sociology professor at Trinity College in Connecticut who has also contributed to Black Agenda Report. Williams used social media to quote the blogger Son of Baldwin, who made an important point about confronting white supremacy with the hashtag #LetThemDie. The phrase refers to the fact that a black, lesbian police officer went to the aid of racist, homophobic, right-wing Congressman Steve Scalise after he was injured in a shooting. Williams was immediately turned into the target du jour for aggrieved white people after he shared Son of Baldwin’s truthful words on the subject.

For two months Williams has been subjected to racist emails, phone calls and threats. He had to leave his home and Trinity temporarily shut down its campus in response to the threats. While an internal investigation absolved Williams of violating any college rules he was still placed on leave and cannot resume teaching until 2018. The president of Trinity College, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, is a black woman. But she is first and foremost the college president, a position which makes her inherently risk averse. Her authority is proscribed by the whims of the wealthy, white donors who must always be appeased.

Tommy Curry is a philosophy professor at Texas A&M University with an experience frighteningly similar to Williams. He is the author of the recently published book The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genres, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood. Curry gave an interview in 2012 in which he spoke of the need of black people to arm and defend themselves. He also said that the violent deaths of black people mean nothing in this society and that only the deaths of white people move the needle of public discourse. He was right of course but that didn’t matter when the Internet slave patrol decided to make an example of him.

Curry’s life has not been the same since the interview was recently discovered. Like Williams he was subjected to threats and harassment. “The next time I see you on campus I might just have to preemptively defend myself you dumb fat nigger. You are done.” Even worse, the Texas A&M campus allows the open carry of firearms. Curry needed police protection in order to do his job.

Black scholars are not alone in being prevented from expressing opinions that defy the legitimacy of white supremacist policies. Steven Salaita is an American of Palestinian heritage, but he ran afoul of another great taboo when he criticized the government of Israel. Salaita accepted a tenured position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2014, the same year that Israel targeted the people of Gaza for mass death. After Salaita used social media to speak out against the war crime he was informed that the position was no longer his. He successfully sued the UIUC but great damage was done to his reputation. He was hired at the American University in Beirut but was denied a promotion there even after a search committee voted unanimously to appoint him. His enemies made certain that his punishment was permanent.

Salaita recently decided to leave academia altogether after suffering a continuous pattern of being denied employment despite his stellar reputation. He assumes that he will not teach again. People who call out white supremacy as practiced in the United States or Israel become targets for harassment because of craven responses from officialdom as much as from racists.

College presidents are supposed to raise money, lots of money. And that role is incompatible with giving anyone the ability to speak freely, certainly not to speak about the concept of whiteness. When given a choice between defending the principle of academic freedom or getting big checks from patrons, college administrators will choose the money every time. This means that oppressed people will always be on the losing end. Any whining white person with a gripe is turned into a weapon against the person who speaks up.

The president of Trinity College admitted as much in her public statements about Johnny Williams. She gave short shrift to the conclusion that Williams did not violate any rules of that institution but she gave great attention to money and the fact that $200,000 in donations were lost because certain donors wanted Williams out.

Colleges and universities are not the rarified institutions they claim to be. They are among the most obedient to the rule of whiteness and they hammer down anyone who defies what they protect.

Williams, Curry and Salaita won’t be the last victims of racism in academia. Their experiences tell us a great deal about the institutions that should be protecting them and about the terrible state of this society. The truth tellers are beaten down and the perpetrators are not just right-wing rubes. They are also the people who have the right credentials but refuse to put them to good use. Academic freedom is only for people who toe the ideological and political line. All others proceed at their own risk.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)

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