Interrogating Systemic Racism and the White Academic Field

Nelson Maldonado-Torres

“As a university and as an academic institution, you can say we are against systemic racism. But you as an academic institution are systemic racism.” Kalin Pont-Tate, co-chair of the Black Student Union at the University of California, Riverside.[1]

            Institutions of higher learning are following the trend in the media, public institutions, and the corporate world of releasing statements of support for protests against systemic racism and police violence. The statements are particularly illuminating because, unlike most of the corporate world, the media, and public institutions, many universities count with at least some institutional spaces where faculty do research and teach on matters of systemic racism and related issues.

Overwhelmingly, scholars in fields such as Africana Studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies, Native American Studies, Latinx Studies, and related areas, did not have to wait for spectacular killings and massive protests for them to know about the gravity of systemic racism and antiblackness in the United States, in the police, the market, housing, and in universities, among other areas. They count with an arsenal of concepts, methods, relevant questions, access to antiracist transdisciplinary archives, and connections with non-academic actors who are leaders in opposing racism. Universities have therefore had powerful resources at their disposal to understand, critically assess, and respond to matters of systemic racism for a long time.

If only systemic racism was less…systemic.

There is nothing strange about the gap between the knowledge that most university leaders have and don’t have about systemic racism, and the sites where systemic racism is studied with arguably most rigor and care. On the one hand, these spaces—ethnic and race studies departments and programs like the ones that I mentioned before—emerged in the academy, not because of the sustained commitment of faculty and administrators in combatting systemic racism, but in spite of the opposition of many university leaders, administrators, and faculty members.

The gap between the antiracist project of ethnic studies and the project of the liberal arts and sciences has been notable since the start. Where one calls for antiracist agency, the end of material, symbolic and epistemic racism, and the overcoming of feelings of superiority and inferiority, the other tends to subordinate any such interests to the advocacy of free speech, tolerance, and the attainment of individual liberty. To the claim that antiblackness is real and profound, that there is no statute of limitations on genocide and colonial occupation of indigenous territories, and that colonialism, alive today in the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, for example, is a form of dehumanization, the liberal arts and sciences focus on the cultivation of the individual soul and the formation of “free spirits.” It’s like, in face of the claim that Black Lives Matter, the liberal arts and sciences have always already replied, “All Lives Matter.” Yet they also want to denounce systemic racism, which leads to the contradictions becoming clear in plain sight and to statements such as those by Kalin Pont-Tate, which I cited at the start.

That after more than fifty years of Africana Studies and ethnic studies centers, departments, and programs, many universities still do not count with units that specialize in these areas, and that other universities have them but keep them in “junior” and minoritized status—without adequate support for them to pursue their mission and vision, and without graduate programs—is an indication that there is still a profound disconnect between what university leaders understand by systemic racism and the struggle against it, and how systematic racism actually works on their campuses.

On the other hand, ethnic and race studies departments and programs are typically populated by a majority of faculty of color. The set is therefore staged for the usual neglect, lack of support, indifference, and violence generated in face of people of color. To be sure, a few faculty of color from these and other units are recruited to serve in university administrations, but this does not mean that, collectively speaking, the faculty of color in the units that specialize on understanding and dismantling systemic racism, will be given the same kind of recognition, authority, and support that other specialists, say virologists, are given when facing a pandemic, for example.

Individual leaders of color in the university, and faculty and students of color in general, move in what is, to this day, a white academic field. I am adapting here a term coined and used by members of the antiracist organization « Parti des indigènes de la république”: the white political field (« champ politique blanc »). The spokeperson of the organization, the French-Algerian intellectual and activist Houria Bouteldja defines the white political field (WPF) as : “the space, times, and political logics in imperialist states or in the global interstate system that are structured, especially in their institutional incarnations, by past and present conflicts within the official white group as well as by modes of monopolizing the political arena developed by this same official white group.” The “white political field…enrolls nonwhites….into political logics, interests and stakes that are only partially those of the nonwhites, while the WPF constantly positions as only secondary that which for them is the central question: postcolonial oppression.”[2]

One could argue that there is a white academic field [WAF], just like there is a white political field [WPF]. If the WPF in the United States is principally defined by the struggle between white republicanism and white liberalism, the U.S. university is marked by the dominance of intellectual white liberalism in tension and complicity with conservative nationalism and neoliberalism. And just like the WPF calls for the participation of nonwhites, so also happens with the WAF. The result is similar: the WAF “constantly positions as only secondary” that which tends to be central for the oppressed people of color. To be sure, this act of constantly making something, at best, secondary, includes multiple strategies: from perpetual postponements to the formulation and normalization of ideas and projects that seek to displace and sideline the insights and demands that emerge from communities in struggle.

This analysis helps to understand the gravity and contradictory nature of calls for “diversity and inclusion” as responses to calls for antiracist activity. Within the WAF, struggles for “diversity and inclusion” represent, less a commitment to change the terms of engagement and conversation in the academy, and more a desire to give moral legitimacy to the WAF by having people of color becoming part of it. The problem could be summarized as follows: the WAF determines both, what counts as good and sufficient diversity as well as the criteria for any kind of relevant inclusion. In short, “diversity and inclusion” become a powerful tool in advancing systemic racism and coloniality in service of the WAF, while making it appear that it is the one and only adequate response to racism and discrimination—over and beyond terms and grammars that challenge the WAF more frontally (e.g., desegregation, reparations, and decolonization, for instance).

The expected outcome of successful diversity and inclusion in this context is clear: that the white academic field maintains its integrity, along with a functional relationship with the racial nation-state and the racial market, without needing a constant and overwhelming present of white people in it all the time. This situation sheds light on why the insurgent spaces of critical race and ethnic studies tend to be given secondary citizenship status in the academy: as projects, they defy the habitus and structure of the white academic field. They do not appear to be productive: not in terms of market value, not in terms of advancing the core ideas of the racial nation-state, and not in terms of contributing to the continuity and yes, supremacy, of the white academic field. If anything, they appear as a threat because they challenge the white academic field. This is why and how, then, ethnic studies and related spaces continue to be sidelined in the academy in spite of statements in support of antiracist activity by academic leaders.

To oppose systemic racism, university managers and leaders have to become more critical of the privileged terms that they use to analyze the effects of racism and the very production of racism in their campuses, while also overcoming the  dictatorship of the ranking system—a ranking system that authorizes the conservative voices in the traditional disciplines that are antipathetic to recognizing the depth of systemic racism and to search for change. The ranking system is a crucial part of the WAF, which is why it is not strange that appeals to it are often used to support what is considered to be the “core” of the liberal arts and sciences, and to perpetuate the minoritization of units that are most successful in analyzing and countering racism on campuses and fields of study. The issue here is not to be understood in terms of “inclusion” into a ranking system, but in terms of the very transformation of how universities define success and excellence. To address systemic racism, we need leadership beyond the established criteria of traditional disciplines and the rankings. We also need an unprecedented support for the units and areas that have contributed the most to understand and to combat racism: Africana Studies and the related fields, centers, and institutes that I have mentioned before.

For university leaders to support the strongest antiracist fields at their universities, as well as the strongest antiracist research agendas and projects in other spaces, they also have to break with the benevolent white and liberal academic establishment that is at the core of the WAF. The benevolent white and liberal academic establishment—populated by a majority of white faculty, but not exclusively by white faculty—, reproduces traditions of modern/colonial research and knowledge production while posing as antiracist.

The benevolent white liberal establishment that supports the minoritization of the spaces that cultivate the best tools and practices for critically engaging systemic racism remains largely unquestioned. The logic is that what benevolent white liberal and even so-called radical scholars do in their traditional disciplines has priority over inter- and transdisciplinary research that addresses race and racism—as if many of the founding figures in disciplines were not themselves inter- and trans-disciplinary scholars; as if disciplinary divisions do not have a history; as if some disciplines did not disappear along the way, new ones emerged, and others could still disappear or transform into something else.

The WAF and the benevolent white liberal establishment are also used to perform antiracist outrage with one hand, while opposing the creation of required courses that address race and racism with the other. However, they tend to find the creation of new statues, buildings, and symbols that commemorate people of color’s achievements as acceptable. These symbols then serve to remind them how tolerant and open to plurality they are. They usually do not welcome the removal of racist or problematic statues, though, on account of respect for heritage and historical integrity—again, All Lives Matter. In general, the expectation is that we should all wait for their disciplines to become less racist—without enough efforts to do this or guarantee that it will happen—, rather than support fields of study that are actively producing antiracist knowledge and thought, and rather than making sure that our students are able to understand racism and antiracism seriously before they graduate.

The WAF and the benevolent white and liberal academic establishment approaches deviation from the existing trends and tracks of study by faculty members whose work draws from traditions of research that critically engage racism, not as innovation and relevant critique of established research practices, but as lack of sophistication and training. Scholars in general, and particularly scholars of color, whose work draws from a long tradition of identifying and critiquing systemic racism are expected to assimilate into established standards of research, even though these standards have failed to identify and address systemic racism or have been an active part of systemic racism.

This is why spaces such as Africana Studies and related fields are so important in the academy: they are meant to provide a space for more substantial and creative forms of engaging critically with systemic racism. However, as we have seen, these spaces remain largely minoritized and live in a dramatic tension with the WAF. Here again the dynamics of inclusion have lethal consequences. Once they are “included” into spaces such as Schools of Letters and Sciences, they are assessed on the basis of standards that benefit the traditional fields and that go against the specific contributions of these units. The result is obvious: the rationalization of their continued minoritization, while the university extracts labor and symbolic value from these units to continue asserting the goodness of its core and the alleged effectivity of its work in “diversity and inclusion.” In these and many other ways, “diversity and inclusion” serves to advance systemic racism.

The support for 21st century sciences based on Black Lives Matter, South African fallism and decolonization—themselves inheritors and arguably part of 20th century antiracist projects such as that of the Third World Liberation Front, as well as ethnic studies fields—should not come second to the investment on the idea of less racist, or potentially non-racist and antiracist, English, History, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, Economy, and Anthropology departments, to name only a few. In fact, the best chance for these programs to produce more consistently deracialized versions of them might reside in following the lead and engaging the contributions of the explicit and robust antiracist programs.

Universities, as institutions, have to grow up, shake off their enchantment and complicity with racist humanism and liberalism—an enchantment that is hardly new, going as far back to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment via colonialism and slavery—, and become serious if they wish to contribute to demolish systemic racism. Otherwise, university leaders and faculty will lose whatever moral authority they have when they protest against the defunding of our universities. And they should not act surprised if some even call for the abolition of the university, as part of the struggle against systemic racism.

The university will become most effective when we who work in it do not take its goodness and excellence for granted, and when we do not conform ourselves with seeking diversity and inclusion—at the expense of practices that profoundly question and destabilize the WAF, such as, desegregation, decolonization, and reparations—in face of dehumanization, antiblackness, and of systemic material, symbolic, and epistemic violence. Addressing systemic racism today has to involve critical engagements with the WAF and the WPF. As in many other respects, Black, ethnic and indigenous decolonial fields and projects already show the promise and serve as anticipations of a real and substantial antiracist potential university—or perhaps better, pluriversity—to come.


[1] Cited in Lindsay Ellis, “For Colleges, Protests Over Racism May Put Everything on the Line,” Chronicle of Higher Education June 12, 2020. URL: https://www.chronicle.com/article/For-Colleges-Protests-Over/248979

[2] Houria Bouteldja, “Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR) Key Concepts,” trans. by Paola Bacchetta Critical Ethnic Studies 1.1 (2015): 27. See also Sadri Khiari, Pour une politique de la racaille: immigré-e-s, indigènes et venues de banlieus (Paris: Les éditions Textuel, 2006).