A few days ago the New Yorker posted on its website a long article about Harvard's decision to deny a Dominican immigrant, Lorgia García Peña, tenure in Romance Languages and Literatures two years ago. This particular decision, the article explains, is related to broader controversies at Harvard and elsewhere about creating ethnic studies programs, debates which are now more than fifty years old but which have assumed a new urgency and a new saliency in the last few years. Like most New Yorker articles on gender and race, this one is 95% woke with a few dismissive sentences about those who apparently raised questions about García Peña's appointment. I don't know if non-subscribers can read the article--which I expect to appear in print in a forthcoming issue--but I'm not going to spend time rehashing the controversy today. Instead I'm going to focus on an interview that García Peña gave two years ago to the Boston Review, which the New Yorker article linked, because García Peña in that interview so frankly stated what ethnic studies is in today's world and what it has meant for the present and means for the future of American universities. Ethnic studies--and, for that matter, gender and sexuality studies--are not attempts to integrate previously neglected groups into the curriculum. They are attempts to universities from western intellectual traditions and use them to create a revolutionary alternative tradition.
Here, to begin with, is how García Peña defines ethnic studies.
"Ethnic studies is a critical, anticolonial site of knowledge production, learning, and teaching. It includes Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native Studies, centering the experiences and histories of minoritized, racialized subjects. Given the state of our nation and our world, I cannot think of a more urgent area of study at any institution of learning, from elementary schools up to college.
"What we teach at every school right now—what we consider to be the standard humanities and social science curriculum—is actually grounded in white supremacy, but is masked as objectivity. Ethnic studies is charged with filling in the immense gap left by our Eurocentric education systems."
What this means to me is that the entire intellectual history of the world must be racialized: that the key fact about any intellectual tradition is the skin color of the men and women who created it and propagated it. That is a remarkably false reading of history. The ideas of rationality, the rule of written law, bureaucracy, and equal rights originated mostly among white people--but they originated among a very small group of white people, originally in Greece and Rome, and they were spread--often forcibly--among other white people over a period of many centuries. Later a mixture of political and intellectual influence and force spread them over the rest of the world as well, whether or not Europeans settled those parts of the world. To García Peña--and thousands of other academics, including many white ones--all this is just the story of the dominance of one race:
"From the moment our children go to kindergarten, they are educated about the world of a very small subset of humanity: namely, those who have dominated, oppressed, and colonized the rest of us. What we teach, what we think of as legitimate knowledge, what we uphold as having value, our sacred canons, are grounded in the dominance of whiteness."
And indeed, as she explains, in her teaching, she encourages her students to "imagine"--or fantasize--about a whole different view of modern history:
"I regularly teach a humanities class called Tropical Fantasies. The premise of the class is a question: What happens if instead of thinking of the French Revolution as the birth of the modern nation, we instead argue that it was the Haitian Revolution? Initially students are so confused and hesitant, but when they start reading and thinking about it through that lens, and asking questions, it creates this really beautiful dialogue that allows people to think about race, to think about economy, to think about globalization from a different perspective."
Well, actually if by "the modern nation" we mean a nation founded on equal political rights and some form of self-government, we should begin with the American Revolution, which had just finished when the French Revolution began, and which inspired many French revolutionaries. But we think of those revolutions as marking the birth of modern nations because they did indeed provide the models that spread first through the north Atlantic world and eventually to much of the rest of the world. The Haitian revolution, which began as a slave revolt, did not do that. Here are some parapgraphs from the Wikipedia entry on the Haitian revolution about what happened after the Haitians won their independence in 1804 under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who succeeded the late Toussaint L'Ouverture as the leader of the revolution.
"On 1 January 1804, Dessalines, the new leader under the dictatorial 1805 constitution, declared Haiti a free republic in the name of the Haitian people, which was followed by the massacre of the remaining whites. His secretary Boisrond-Tonnerre stated, "For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen!" Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.
"The country was damaged from years of war, its agriculture devastated, its formal commerce nonexistent. The country, therefore, had to be rebuilt. To realise this goal, Dessalines adopted the economic organisation of serfdom. He proclaimed that every citizen would belong to one of two categories, laborer or soldier. Furthermore, he proclaimed the mastery of the state over the individual and consequently ordered that all laborers would be bound to a plantation. Those that possessed skills outside of plantation work, like craftsmanship and artisans, were exempt from this ordinance. To avoid the appearance of slavery, however, Dessalines abolished the ultimate symbol of slavery, the whip. Likewise, the working day was shortened by a third. His chief motivator nonetheless was production, and to this aim he granted much freedom to the plantations' overseers. Barred from using the whip, many instead turned to lianes, which were thick vines abundant throughout the island, to persuade the laborers to keep working. Many of the workers likened the new labor system to slavery, much like Toussaint L'Ouverture's system, which caused resentment between Dessalines and his people. Workers were given a fourth of all wealth produced from their labor. Nevertheless, he succeeded in rebuilding much of the country and in raising production levels, thus slowly rebuilding the economy. . . .
"1804 massacre of the French
"The 1804 massacre was carried out against the remaining white population of French colonists and loyalists, both enemies and traitors of the revolution, by the black population of Haiti on the order of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared the French as barbarians, demanding their expulsion and vengeance for their crimes. The massacre—which took place in the entire territory of Haiti—was carried out from early February 1804 until 22 April 1804. During February and March, Dessalines traveled among the cities of Haiti to assure himself that his orders were carried out. Despite his orders, the massacres were often not carried out until he personally visited the cities.
"The course of the massacre showed an almost identical pattern in every city he visited. Before his arrival, there were only a few killings, despite his orders. When Dessalines arrived, he first spoke about the atrocities committed by former French authorities, such as Rochambeau and Leclerc, after which he demanded that his orders about mass killings of the area's French population be carried out. Reportedly, he also ordered the unwilling to take part in the killings, especially men of mixed race, so that blame would not rest solely on the black population. Mass killings then took place on the streets and on places outside the cities. In parallel to the killings, plundering and rape also occurred.
"Women and children were generally killed last. White women were "often raped or pushed into forced marriages under threat of death".
"By the end of April 1804, some 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed practically eradicating the country's white population. Dessalines had specifically stated that France is "the real enemy of the new nation." This allowed certain categories of whites to be excluded from massacre who had to pledge their rejection to France: the Polish soldiers who deserted from the French army; the group of German colonists of Nord-Ouest who were inhabitants before the revolution; French widows who were allowed to keep their property; select male Frenchmen; and a group of medical doctors and professionals. Reportedly, also people with connections to Haitian notables were spared, as well as the women who agreed to marry non-white men. In the 1805 constitution that declared all its citizens as black, it specifically mentions the naturalizations of German and Polish peoples enacted by the government, as being exempt from Article XII that prohibited whites ("non-Haitians;" foreigners) from owning land."
Is this really how García Peña wants her students to imagine the first modern nation?
Later in the interview she specifically traces today's academic and social controversies to the late 1960s--and she is right about that--and makes clear that for her, all knowledge is about politics and part of a would-be revolution.
"So little is different [from 1968--to which the interviewer explicitly referred.]. We are still experiencing the afterlife of slavery and colonialism. We are still dealing with systemic violence against black people, against immigrants of color. We are still dealing with the exclusion of minority voices, with economic disparity, with environmental injustice. Take this pandemic: black and Latinx people are dying at a higher rate, and are at a higher risk of being infected. People are tired of waiting for justice and people have become more and more aware that justice cannot be served by jailing one racist policeman. It is not sufficient. It does not do anything to end the systemic violence, the death of our people, the inequality that persistently puts black lives in precarious conditions, the violence that separates Latinx families at the border. People are aware now, as they were in 1968, that protesting is not enough, that we no longer need for those in power to pretend to listen, what we actually need is different structures, we need to change the power structure and restore a balance that would guarantee that no more black lives are destroyed. That is the moment in which we find ourselves in both the streets and inside the university."
And what does she want for universities?
"[Interviewer] What would an ethnic studies department look like if it were unencumbered by institutionalized white supremacy?
LGP: "It would look like a group of scholars of all races and ethnicities centering the work, the histories, the artistic production of marginalized, minoritized, colonized, and racialized people: black, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, Arab, immigrant, disabled, and queer. And not just thinking of these people as the objects of study but making their knowledge central to the conversation.
"If you ask me, I think that is the work not just of ethnic studies; that should be the work of the universities at large. What we should be thinking about is not the creation of ethnic studies departments, but the dismantling of white supremacy in our institutions, and the centering of subjugated knowledge everywhere, in every department. Or maybe get rid of the departments, just scratch the idea of disciplines and instead think ad hoc about the kinds of knowledge needed to answer each question—look for solutions in other knowledges, other literatures, and see where that gets us. [García Peña, interestingly enough, was hired by the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures even though she has not written about them. This explains why she does not regard that as an issue.]
"As practical stopgap measures, though, universities should be hiring faculty of color who come from communities that have been oppressed. And then taking the research of said faculty of color seriously, valuing it and amplifying it. That means not exploiting faculty of color by demanding unbearable amounts of service. That means tenuring and promoting faculty of color, retaining them, rewarding them for the extra labor they have produced. That would be a start."
Conservatives often compare wokeness to Marxism. In one important sense the comparison misses the mark. Marxism saw itself as the vanguard of western civilization and Marx himself praised the spread of the western economy and western politics around the world as an indispensable step towards socialism. In another sense, however, the comparison is valid. Just as Stalinism and Maoism demanded the supremacy of the working class and the rejection of bourgeois values throughout society, wokeness demands the replacement of straight white men in all positions of power and the discrediting of all their ideas. Unfortunately, today's universities have put their intellectual mission on the back burner, and their leaders focus their role in creating our economic and political elite--which they want to diversify--and on their reputation for social justice. That is why virtually no university has taken a blunt stand on behalf of the values that created the modern university and modern political systems--the values which García Peña and her many allies bluntly and openly reject.