Against Race Theology, or: Williams College is Everywhere Now

26 June 2020

TLDR: What, a few years ago, seemed like the regrettable yet limited excesses of the campus left, has suddenly become a political force in the wider world. The Race Theology promoted by schools like Williams College is everywhere now. It’s important that reasonable people who are not part of this dubious religious revival voice their dissent. That is what this page is. It represents my own thoughts, and my own thoughts alone. 

Politics is not what this website is about, and mainstream political debates have never interested me. In the last few weeks, however, it has become impossible to escape the indignities of political discourse. That’s particularly the case since I set up a twitter account to drive some traffic to my academic blog. My time on twitter has proved disappointing, and in some ways it has radicalized me. Judging from many tweets published there, a great part of those people who claim to be scholars in fact devote astounding energy to careening from one fashion-forward moral grievance to the next, all with a completely grating tonal confidence.

Outside of the bourgeois professorsphere, I have been amused to find people marveling at an article by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine. It’s about an episode of progressive hyperventilation, in which a lot of race botherers and diversity brigadiers crybullied some data analyst out of his job, for the crime of summarizing a political science paper that they found inconvenient. 

The emails that Chait quotes are absolutely, to the word, the tone of discussion in American academia, as I experienced it in my time as an assistant and then associate professor of history at Williams College. The people in those emails are engaging in a power process that is well-established among the American intelligentsia. If you don’t like somebody in these circles, this is one way to shut them up and shut them down. It is the way of things at faculty meetings; at talks and lectures; at student protests especially; and anywhere that administrators are likely to gather. There are a lot of incidents that I could discuss here, but I think the best would be the long series of protests that unfolded just as a I left that centuries-old college in Williamstown.

As you read the following, remember that Williams is generally regarded as the foremost liberal arts college in the United States. The sticker price of a Williams education is about $70,000 a year. Ask yourself whether any education they can possibly provide in an  absurd, toxic environment like this could be worth even a tenth of that.

Throughout my years at the college, Williams was rocked by periodic outrages over the predictable things. Late in 2018, the permanent protest directed its energies against a campaign, by a few free-thinking faculty, to get Williams to sign on to some version of the Chicago principles. This provided welcome occasion for agitation among those campus activists for whom speech represents violence. Among the agitated were two 2017 hires: Kimberley S. Love, „storyteller, tree-enthusiast“ and Assistant Professor of English; and the „poet, filmmaker, and interdisciplinary scholar“ Kai M. Green, Assistant Professor of Women‘s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. These two paragons of learning experienced Williams College as a violent and an unsafe place, in part because of the dangerous debates over free expression that unfolded during their third semester. In November 2018, they published a long screed at The Feminist Wire about the hostilities they faced. “We are Black Queer Feminists, serious about our call to research, service, and teaching,” they declared. “We are not safe.”

What we have been doing to fit our bodies in these institutions is killing us and we WANT TO LIVE! And not even tenure is worth our Black joy.

The article is many words long, but the only concrete example of unsafety that I can find in it is a disjointed story about an argument with an automobile mechanic – unaffiliated with the college – who initially refused to give Profs. Green and Love a ride. For them, this episode revealed a “backlash” against the ever expanding, ever renewed, ever more elaborate efforts to make Williams more equitable and diverse:

We believe that we, at Williams, are experiencing our own kind of backlash, a response to the commitment and work the college has done in the name of creating and sustaining a more equitable Williams. What we are confronting is not much different from what we are experiencing as a US citizen or not, in a larger society, that is in conflict and is struggling to hold onto its moral and ethical center. We are living the backlash of a National and global push for liberation by and for Black, Queer, Transgender, Poor, Feminine/Femme people, and our Allies.

A few days after that article appeared, Prof. Green published a further statement on Facebook. It circulated widely within the Williams community, and rewards thorough study. It is immortalized in this blog comment. 

Kai M Green is feeling determined.
November 17, 2018
I have been trying to process all of the things that have happened in the last week, on multiple scales. Two weeks ago I asked that the chair of my program (WGSS) to resign because of her “unchair-like” behaviors for which she refused to be accountable for. This is where I’m at and this is some of what I remember about the last week.
1. There’s a lot going on.
2. I took all of my feelings and put them into my work.
3. I wrote maybe 15 articles. I picked up my Bible and discovered I know how to preach!
4. On Tuesday, Nov. 13th, I woke up around 4am (I don’t know if I had actually gone to sleep). I got dressed and got my Bible and went walking around Williamstown. I called my mother and asked her to pray for me. I called my father and he asked me to pray with him. I called Charlene and asked her to sing to me. One of my colleagues saw me sitting on the side of the road and stopped to check in with me and sit with me.
5. What I didn’t say to everyone I was reaching out to is that I WAS AFRAID! I started to believe that my chair wanted to assassinate me and that if I walked into my office, I’d die. So I walked around campus for 3 hours or so before my class with my Bible (the one I stole from the hotel I was at a few weeks ago;)
6.I had a great class. It was dope and filled my spirit.
7. I was less afraid after teaching, so I went back to my office.
8. Later that evening Dr. Kim Love and I went to the Clark to watch the stars like we always do.
9. Cops showed up. Flashing lights and told us we had to go. I froze. Hands up. Kim (Dr.Love) spoke and said WE ARE NOT LEAVING. There were other cars and there was no reason we had to leave. The cops left.
10. They return 10 minutes later, lights flashing. Our/my hands are up. They tell us that they know who we are (Kim has a faculty sticker on her car), “Kimberly Love and David Smith.”
11. They left. They wanted us to know they knew us. But they didn’t. D.L. (David L Smith) was one of my most prolific professors—he’s still here—still being brilliant—still teaching. But that is not MY name.
12. It hurt, but I couldn’t feel it.
13. I began writing with even more fervor. Kim and I co-authored a piece. We both started working and working and we forgot….
14. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I was not sad, I was excited, because what is happening here at Williams and ALL over is that people are organizing and creating new worlds for themselves without permission.—We trying to get FREE!
15. I don’t know what happened between Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening all the way.
16. I know that I had a guest speaker, my sister-kin Je Naé Taylor [link snipped]. Divine Alignment.
17. Je Naé somehow found her way from Albany to Williamstown and managed to get into my house. I had stopped responding to phone calls and would not leave my room.
18. Kim stayed in the room with me all day as I shared ALL the FEELINGS I had been intellectualizing by writing articles and WORKING. We had both not been sleeping or eating or just taking care of our bodies.
19. We have been moving like we are in war—because WE are!
20. That evening Kim and I finally came out of the bedroom. Je Naé had been patiently waiting for and holding us all day—that’s Black Love.
21. We head to Mango Thai (we only have about 4 restaurants in Williamstown;)
22. After folk ordered their food to go, I suggest we go to the Clark instead (the very place we had been harassed by the Police the night before.). I was convinced that there was a new restaurant that had CURRY GOAT! lol
23. No one wanted to go with me, so I ask to be let out the car. I began walking from Spring street to the Clark. I started to cry, ugly cry, because I started to believe that Lil Kai had been murder by the police. I called Kim crying and relayed the news. (that was just my Black imagination stuck in a loop). I hung up the phone. And kept walking.
24. I then realized that it wasn’t Lil Kai who died, but my lil cousin Mekhi. I began to cry and cry and CRY because I had so many regrets about not getting a chance to really know or see the beautiful person I know he is. Luckily Mekhi is still with us—again that was just my Black imagination running away with me.
25. I begin singing songs and praying prayers I learned from my Grandma and “THE BLACK JOY EXPERIENCE” [link snipped]. Every morning before school, Grandma made us all kneel by the bed and pray aloud (I was so afraid of praying aloud!)—
26. FEAR
27. My walking continued into the wilderness (LITERALLY). I wanted to get to the Clark to pray for all those I love who feel unlovable. I prayed for everyone I could remember.
28. Oh, I forgot to say that I started taking my clothes off piece by piece, so by the time I got to the Clark I was completely naked. My clothes were like breadcrumbs on the dark road.
29. Eventually Police came and put me in the back of the car. I can’t remember if I hand handcuffs on. I remember handcuffs because I was singing to myself “we have nothing to lose but our chains.” I remember thinking the song was magic spell that would unlock the cuffs.
30. I was eventually taken to the ER by ambulance and committed to Jones 3 [link snipped]. I was there for 5 days.
31. I didn’t talk to anyone for the first 2 days, and every time someone looked at me I just raised my hands and began crying.
32. This is why I missed NWSA and ASA. I didn’t even know I missed it. I had no phone and no access except through a landline.
My biggest fear, I learned is to be considered crazy. But I have no choice in this world full of a crazy that is not of my own making–Racial Capitalism.
Thank you all for LOVING me so fiercely. I have learned from you ALL how to love myself even more fiercely. We need rest. We need food. I need rest, I need food. AND I need colleagues to understand the insidiousness anti-blackness and it’s not just about me….
#doitforthedamned #doitforthedamn #crazyBlack #freeBlack #blackloveisblackwealth

In just a few months, the author of these words would become a living martyr on campus, and a focal point of activist discourse for a whole semester. This happened when they and Prof. Love increased the volume of their protest by flatly refusing to teach. Their Spring 2019 classes were canceled; they were put on some manner of leave. The lamentably cowed college newspaper, the Williams Record, ran a front-page article that headlined their complaints about “violent practices” and “anti-blackness and transphobia.” The article itself provides no details about these violences. When asked to elaborate, Prof. Green merely referred the Record to their and Love’s discussion of the racist auto-mechanic.

Student activists developed a protest cult to their absent professors. They established an impromptu “memorial” in the hallway where both had their offices. This consisted primarily of copies of the Record with its libelous headline, as well as strings and other bits of garbage:

memorial 1

At this moment I enter the tragicomedy briefly. I left Williams two months before all of this took off. Before I knew I’d be departing, I chaired a committee responsible for managing Hollander Hall, the very building afflicted by this outrage. After I left, Prof. Keith McPartland took charge in my place. This landed him in a hard spot, because it turns out that that pile of nonsense violates state fire safety regulations, and is probably also contrary to accessibility standards. Staff, however, were presumably too terrified to touch any of it, lest they get fired. So McPartland did what I hope to god I would’ve had the courage to do, had it been me. Because he enjoyed some measure of protection as a tenured professor, he consulted with campus security and then boxed up the offending portions of the memorial himself. As he did this, students confronted him, but he carried on. That night, faculty offices were papered with posters denouncing McPartland as a racist for his troubles.

Maud Mandel, the weak and indecisive president that Williams so richly deserves, then did exactly what you might expect. She took to her email and promptly denounced her committee chair for doing his job.

Williams students, faculty and staff,

In recent weeks, members of our community have been leaving notes and materials in front of the Hollander Hall offices of Assistant Professors Kai Green ’07 and Kim Love to honor and support them at a difficult time. It has now come to my attention that yesterday afternoon a faculty member removed these materials. I am in the process of gathering information about what happened, as I am deeply distressed by any interference with students freely expressing themselves in a way that is not disruptive. In fact, after senior staff and I confirmed that the materials were not impeding movement through Hollander we had asked custodial, CSS and other staff not to disturb them. I regret that we did not communicate this message more broadly.

I want to make clear that I fully support those who were expressing their thoughts and feelings through the content that was removed. People have now replaced that content and added to it. I and senior staff will work with students and others to find a way that it can remain without creating a safety hazard.

I have come to Williams with the goal of fostering a supportive and inclusive community where all members of a diverse learning community will thrive. I ask you to join me in continuing to strengthen these values going forward.

Sincerely,

Maud

There is a lot to say about this disgraceful, pandering note. That she doesn’t name the committee chair who did what was necessary matters not at all. Everyone, including me, a whole continent away, knew who it was. The tepid hand-wringing, the saccharine morality, the vagueness as to fact and circumstance: All are characteristic of the administrative rhetoric cultivated at expensive schools like Williams. These are letters that communicate nothing clearly save for the emotional state of their authors. The professors not teaching, but retaining their jobs and collecting a salary, are here said to be undergoing “a difficult time.” And Mandel could hardly pass up the chance to suggest that it was the free speech of Profs. Green and Love and their student supporters that was threatened. Thus she cast herself as guardian of the free expression of those selfsame activists whose histrionics were one battle in a wider campaign to deny free speech to everyone else. A leftist protester is gently prevented from violating fire regulations: For Mandel that’s a free-speech issue. Some faculty signed a thing and have a meeting about the Chicago principles: Speech harms, people at the meeting are told;  and the administration rings its hands about how deeply complex it all is. The result is that everyone, including free speech activists, defends all manner of disruptive campus leftist performativity, while only a few people bother to defend anyone else’s right to speak. The only unopposed voices on campus? People like Prof. Green, who feared at one point that their program chair was plotting their assassination.

Relenting does not quiet the mob. It emboldens its worst actors. The activists responsible for the fire-hazard memorial to absent faculty betook themselves to McPartland’s office. They put a bunch of sticks and paper in front of it.

memorial 2

On McPartland’s door, our crusaders for inclusivity and justice and equity found an anonymous letter of support that some loyal students had put up for him. The idea was that others might add their signatures in solidarity.

memorial 3

The activists were not in the mood to express solidarity. Instead they altered the letter to read “We just wanted to let you know that we think you did wrong. We do not apologize” and beneath that they added their own statements:

Who said we were fucking sorry?

No apologies for racists.

Black love is NOT a fire hazard!

NOBODY IS SORRY FOR YOU

White male vigilantes are not respectable at all.

We take ownership of OUR POLITICS

The text is one thing, but it doesn’t capture the hostility. For that a picture is necessary:

memorial 4

The activists then readdressed themselves to the problem of the hallway memorial. The living saints, Green and Love, soon received this commemoration:

memorial 5

Imagine trying to teach and write in this ridiculous environment. And the protest expanded. A bit later they hung this massive monument of racial harassment and intimidation.

memorial 6

Indeed many did answer wisely.

memorial 7

That’s a little hard to read. Here are just some of the ideas for how “white people” might be convinced of “truth”:

Prove they are terrified of their own rhetoric.

You ask them to consider how their view of “humanity” excludes the rest of the world.

Unapologetically and firmly, clearly, knowing full well that they may not understand (at first or ever).

Shock them.

Destroy them with indisputable facts.

As all of this was happening, President Mandel, facing push-back from elements within the college, finally acknowledged that McPartland had removed the newspapers in his official capacity. In this second communique, Mandel admitted that the “memorial” at issue had violated both state law and campus regulations; that only those portions of the memorial in violation had been removed; and that even these were merely “relocated … to a nearby location where students could reclaim it.” She further acknowledged that McPartland had “offered to help students reinstall the work in an alternative location that would be visible without creating an obstruction” and finally, after this had been going on for days, she wrote that McPartland had been unjustly defamed. “This incendiary, offensive and damaging attack has no place at Williams.” Who might have been responsible for it, however, she thought it best not to mention. In fact she demonstrated a remarkable predilection for the passive voice: “[T]hese acts have hurt our efforts.” “Individuals have been publicly maligned. Relationships have been strained or broken.” The way forward, as Mandel saw it, was to make Williams even more inclusive. “I’ve had many conversations with people and groups concerned about the issues raised on our campus over the last few weeks: issues of identity, bias and racism in our college climate, and also of respect and basic humanity towards each other.” Williams College: A school forever striving to do better, such that when the single Stalin has failed, it demands fifty Stalins in his stead.

The protesters, meanwhile, kept protesting. At the end of February they organized something called the March for the Damned, which professed „radical love“ for the two professors who were refusing to do their jobs. A semester is a long time to be on strike, so there were always new opportunities to memorialize the absent profs. The issue became a vector for personal animosities, as an unpleasant professor of American Studies named Dorothy Wang staged a spat with the equally unpleasant chair of the English department in front of some students. An investigation was launched; the student-witnesses were summoned to the offices of high administrators to give evidence. Fashionable and self-important people demanded that the English department chair, herself a committed proponent of all the most fashionable leftisms, resign.

Now it is a remarkable thing, that wherever diversity, inclusion and equity are promoted as the highest ideals, you achieve nothing but ever new heights of conformity, social division and unfairness. The truth is that establishing in-groups (“inclusivity”) has a corollary, namely the definition of out-groups, and so you’re just as likely to foster feelings of community by defining and excluding outsiders, as you are to unleash the forces of the cultural revolution upon supposed ideological opponents (“racists”) by demanding a duplicitous inclusion.

Williams is everywhere now. This kind of rhetoric and argument has taken the Anglosphere by storm, and it is true that, compared to the absolute chaos that has descended upon many American cities, campus unrest like this seems quite mild. All of the student activists who participated in these theatrics hoped to proceed to careers in business, or finance, or – for the most committed of them – diversity administration. They were not going to burn down the campus. That has remained a project for those of their counterparts in the wider world with rather less to lose.

Now that Williams College is everywhere, it is worth asking what we can learn from this mess. Perhaps the most obvious is the principle of the high-low alliance, between woke junior faculty and student activists on the one hand; and the highest reaches of the administration on the other. After years of observing deeply stupid protests like this, one after the other, I developed a small theory: The greater part of these teacup storms must surely be encouraged, coordinated, or even managed, by elements within the administration. Twenty-foot posters denouncing white people are not the kinds of things that tend to emerge without institutional support. The diversity brigadiers at the bottom almost always end up demanding more administrators, and more power for the administration, at the top. The high and the low array themselves, naturally, against their common enemy in the middle, that is to say those elements with which the administrators are in competition for resources and authority, and who enjoy a regard and security that the lower side of the alliance covets. This common enemy is nothing other than the traditional stuff of higher education itself: the departments and rank-and-file tenured faculty. And so it is unsurprising, in retrospect, to find these kinds of fireworks at moments of transition or uncertainty within the college hierarchy, such as the start of a new presidency. (The Evergreen State protests, far worse than these, happened at a very similar transitional moment.) The American race protests, too, are protected and supported in ways direct and indirect by powerful state and corporate elements, for their own purposes of defeating common, perceived enemies in the middle.

Above all, though, it is the total hollowness of the activists‘ ideology and their complaints that is most salient here. The message of the Williams activists in Spring 2019 had nothing in it that was true, or well-argued, or convincing, or even worth entertaining for a moment. At no point in this embarrassing parody of protest did the facts of what had happened matter at all. It didn’t matter that McPartland did the right thing, it didn’t matter that the memorialized professors, far from dead, were enjoying a semester of unearned leave, it didn’t matter that they hardly bothered to articulate a coherent, specific complaint at all. This didn’t matter to the activists, but more importantly, it didn’t matter to the administration either. To the end people like Mandel pretended that their cause was justified.

What mattered in these protests was only the flat, abstract tenets of Race Theology. Events on the ground were forced, however they might fit, into the prefabricated moulds of imagined heresies and an entirely mystical racism. This Race Theology is the very same collection of circular doctrines that all of the protesters are now repeating and spray-painting in cities across the world. These diverge more and more from reality, the more they are elaborated and repeated. This is not the ideology of the oppressed, but the official para-religion of a comfortable establishment, so confident in its power that it need not justify itself. In fact it is eager to find new ways of provoking and offending. The more ground Race Theology is ceded, the more it will demand. There’s no arguing against it, there’s no convincing or appeasing the race theologians. There is only an opting out of their religion. If enough people do that, they’ll lose their power and their political protection. So, in my small way, I want to say that I find their project not only despicable, but profoundly incorrect and misguided, even in light of their own wrong-headed premises and goals.  That’s all.


Some answers to the commentary this has provoked here.

In response to questions and criticism, I have written a further essay on the High-Low Alliance, and what I think of its origins and function.