Who’s Silencing Whom on University Campuses?

The person claiming the rest of us are deluded racists because we care about racial and social justice will get a big platform, while we are disregarded and misrepresented. This is the reality of who is silencing whom.

(Penn Today / Creative Commons)

Journey to Justice: A Critical Race Theory Primer” is a joint initiative between Ms. magazine, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) and the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice. The primer includes articles, essays, lesson plans, an annotated bibliography and a COMloquium conversation that addresses and examines the perils of teaching critical race theory from kindergarten to college settings. Enjoy the sample below. To explore the full primer, head here.

Right-wing outlets—and sometimes mainstream ones, too—tell us that individual professors are being silenced by a “woke orthodoxy” that is overtaking college campuses. From where I sit at a state university in the Pacific Northwest, this is incredibly ironic. My experience has been precisely the opposite: The faculty loudly decrying their victimhood are the ones who succeed in silencing the rest of us. 

In the age of social media and partisan politics, “culture wars” are a lucrative industry for media professionals and entrepreneurial professors looking to gain attention outside the narrow halls of academia. They are also the perfect tool for many right-wing politicians to rally their base: They—and it’s typically an ominous, unverifiable “they”—are calling you racist! These elites who look down on you are correcting your pronouns! They hate America!

When did the “wars” kick into high gear? I would argue that it began right after the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide demonstrations that revealed that a broad, multiracial swath of America refused the racism inherent in Derek Chauvin’s presumption of impunity.

Many white people began thinking seriously about America’s long history of white supremacy. (Many Black people and people of color had already been thinking seriously about it.) This thinking was profoundly threatening to some white Americans, not least the members of the Republican Party, who were lining up behind a bigoted President.

One of my colleagues, a white tenured political science professor, began raging about “BLM thugs” on Twitter, moving on to the next right-wing talking point: Addressing the reality of racism in this country is a racist act.

“Ibrahm, please sit down,” he tweeted recently, misspelling the first name of the best-selling author of How to Be an Antiracist; “You have a serious case of vile racism.” The logic is that by arguing race-consciousness is key to antiracism, Ibram X. Kendi is not colorblind, so he’s racist.

This guy threatens lawsuits and creates social-media storefronts (that he calls “organizations”) attacking university administrators and individual faculty. But he has not managed to build the kind of audience that turns Tucker Carlson’s head, and that puts you in conversation with Joe Rogan. The colleague most successful at riding the right-wing media machinery has a degree in education, taught in the philosophy department until this fall, and considers himself a classic liberal. He tweets statements like, “Critical Race Theory is a solvent that destroys everything it touches” and has 174k followers.

When he tweets about you, you get hate mail from aggressive bros calling you a “vile cow.” When he tweets about you, you cancel public lectures because you worry about your physical safety or that your administration might cave to a social-media outrage campaign he manufactures. You try to become invisible.

He has ripped his colleagues’ course materials wildly out of context to gin up outrage, “leaked” correspondence on departmental business with his colleagues to extreme right-wing people outside the university; and, insisted on videotaping, without their permission, colleagues discussing race and gender justice. You worry that your face will be on Fox News, and you will need to ask administrators to scrub the web of your contact information and that your kids will be harassed at school. You waste days wondering whether you need to buy a gun or whether you’re just paranoid.

As someone who worked with the faculty as part of a three-year term on the union’s executive council, I heard firsthand the frustration and fear in people’s voices as they described how this person’s presence results in the ugly shutdown of all conversation.

This person recently caught the attention of a journalist who works for a magazine that plays “both sides.” That is, this outlet has journalists of color on staff who do factual reporting on, say, the history of inequity between predominantly white institutions and historically Black ones, and so it seems to believe it must “balance” this with journalists fanning the flames of the right-wing culture wars.

Last month, one of these journalists emailed the faculty at my institution asking for interviews for an upcoming story about—or at least inspired by—the person I’ve described. A quick look at the journalist’s record shows that he likes his stories framed in terms of heroic “dissidents” who are “canceled” by social-justice mobs. The word “dissident” manipulatively conjures a Soviet bloc country that executed or disappeared people. No matter that the “canceling” is simply criticism of the person’s publicly-stated views.

Anyone working at a university knows that faculty live to disagree with one another. So maybe you’ll understand what it means when I tell you that within hours of receiving this journalist’s email, 51 of us agreed to sign a letter explaining why we would not talk with him and sent it to his editors. We said that, while we have substantive differences of opinion, our common denominator is that we know any story about this colleague only expands the reach of his misinformation. We don’t want to be used. Women and people of color also don’t want to receive a barrage of hate mail and threats for daring to criticize someone with very devoted, macho followers publicly.

We asked that they reconsider the story and that, if they decide the story is in the public interest, assign a journalist with whom more of us might consider speaking, someone without a track record for telling the same story over and over. No response.

This journalist’s story will appear, I’m sure, and it will get much more attention than my words here do. Once again, the person claiming that the rest of us are deluded racists because we care about racial and social justice will get a big platform while we are disregarded and misrepresented. This, at least for me, is the reality of who is silencing whom.

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Jennifer Ruth is a professor of film studies at Portland State University. She is the author of three books, the most recent being It's Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), co-authored with Michael Bérubé.