This is a guest post by Scott Boehm, a Ph.D. student in Literature at UC San Diego. His dissertation considers historical memory, cultural trauma and the Spanish Civil War. He has written for Counterpunch and other publications, and he's the author of an American Quarterly piece, "Privatizing Public Memory: The Price of Patriotic Philanthropy and the Post-9/11 Politics of Display." Scott can be contacted at crossedculture @ yahoo.com
I am a white Ph.D. student in the Literature Department of UC San Diego; I currently live in Spain. From 2004-08, I spent most weekdays on the UCSD campus, including work as a teaching assistant in the Dimensions of Culture Writing Program at UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College. In 2007, contrary to standard practice for veteran TAs on one-year contracts, I and another TA were not rehired to continue teaching in that program, despite outstanding teaching records, including teaching awards.
We were openly critical of how a program and a college that were founded on principles of social justice and the critique of structural inequalities in the United States—particularly those of race, class and gender—had 1) been watered down with meaningless multicultural rhetoric, 2) absorbed much of the racist logic of Proposition 209 (which led the way for the elimination of college admissions policies across the country that included constitutional affirmative action components to redress centuries of discrimination against minorities in higher education), and 3) succumbed to pressure from a conservative watchdog organization that had targeted the program for its supposed liberal “indoctrination” of undergraduate students.
The decision to effectively fire two TAs for being critical of how “diversity” was promoted in ways as hollow as the term itself led to a series of events -- a campus protest, a student walk-out and march to the Chancellor’s office, a teach-in, a “funeral” for academic freedom, a town hall, and extensive press coverage at local (and to some degree national) levels. These events prompted a review of the Dimensions of Culture Program, but very few of the structural changes that a coalition of graduate and undergraduate students, staff, faculty and campus organizations had deemed necessary to improve not only Thurgood Marshall College and its writing program, but also the UCSD campus climate and community as a whole, were adopted.
So, when news of the wave of recent racial incidents on my campus reached me, I was saddened, but far from surprised.
Since information about these incidents is widely available, I will avoid recounting them here. I would, however, like to offer some background on UCSD that might shed some light on the context in which these incidents have occurred.
UCSD celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. From the beginning, the campus was designed as an elite institution driven by scientific research and graduate-level studies, with close ties to the wealthy white La Jolla community that surrounds it, as well as to the U.S. military, which donated the land upon which it sits.
The campus design could be described as “counter-revolutionary,” as it was built in response to widespread campus activism in the 1960sc-- particularly the free speech movement at Berkeley -- and today it is a model for crowd containment and surveillance. The Geisel Library, where a noose was hung on the seventh floor last week, sits at the heart of campus like an all-seeing eye, hovering above students like a Foucauldian panopticon. The library effectively functions as a metaphor for a structure of feeling that’s based on hierarchy and alienation, phenomena that permeate most layers of the institution.
The university has an elite college system that divides undergraduate students (as well as faculty) into six different colleges, via a fairly arbitrary system. This arrangement effectively keeps students alienated from each other, while promoting distinctions among them. Thurgood Marshall College, originally named Third College (and almost called Lumumba-Zapata College due to political pressure by a coalition of students of color -- including Angela Davis -- and a few white radicals -- including Herbert Marcuse -- pushing for an institutional space that served the needs of Black and Chicano students), is without a doubt UCSD’s key multicultural advertisement. This college is highlighted in recruiting materials to market the university as minority-friendly, when in reality, UCSD’s Black population has never exceeded 3% of the student body. Considering the university’s geographical location, the case is not much better for Chicano and Latino students, who make up 13% of the current student body.
UCSD is a rather hostile place for human beings in general, due to a ruthless quarter system designed to promote scientific research and thwart political organizing; extreme pressure to produce, perform and achieve; a lack of social life and amenable campus; and, as I said, an architecture of alienation and surveillance. However, such hostility is magnified for Black, Chicano and Latino students, who since the 1960s have expressed their need for safe campus spaces, as well as the need to increase minority recruitment and retention, and to provide a curriculum that critically examines structural inequalities (the Lumumba-Zapata College movement included “whiteness studies” as a part of such a curriculum component decades before Peggy McIntosh started unpacking her knapsack). The answer of university administrators has almost always been to ignore such requests.
Today, Chancellor Fox is confronted with yet another generation of UCSD students of color who are angry, hurt and terrorized, not only at what has happened on (and off) campus, but also at the administration’s response to those events and its complicity in the construction of a campus atmosphere in which such things have occurred. As usual, the administration’s response has been lackluster, off-key and seemingly motivated by damage/image-control, and not by a genuine understanding of the issues -- a PR campaign that attempts to cover up the daily violence perpetuated by a university built upon disdain for the needs of all of its students. This daily, institutional violence particularly affects those groups who are most vulnerable, because they are the least represented and because their respective cultures are not integrated into the university curriculum or campus life in any meaningful way. (I should also note that the majority of their professors and TAs are overwhelmingly white, providing them with few role models and tenured advocates.)
UCSD’s website, which gives the appearance of addressing the issues that have surfaced over the past weeks, exemplifies such Band-Aid politics. The homepage currently invites people to “Join the Battle Against Hate,” and it features an image of a black and white pin that says “Racism: Not In Our Community.” The first slogan is predictably abstract and vague, an invitation that few could refuse, and one that offers the appearance of an administration that takes these things seriously. The second one is an outright lie, all too reminiscent of the 1980s “Just Say No” campaign against drugs (and we all know how well that one worked out).
Indeed, if UCSD is a community at all, it is -- among other things -- most definitely a racist one. The recent “ungrateful nigger” comments, the “Compton lynching” sign in the campus television studio, and the noose hung in the library provide clear evidence of that. But, these incidents -- as awful as they are -- are merely symptoms of a much larger problem festering at the core of this so-called institution of higher learning. While these racist incidents must be dealt with -- swiftly, unequivocally, and with justice -- they are not exactly what needs to be treated (and not superficially bandaged over).
These incidents are examples of what Freud called “the return of the repressed.” They’re the sudden explosion of painful campus truths that normally don’t see the light of day, but that have been exposed for the entire nation to see. What requires treatment and deep analysis is the fundamental fantasy that UCSD can promote itself as an inclusive, “diverse,” and caring campus community, while perpetuating values and maintaining structures that are in direct conflict with such a virtual image. Just as the primary goal of Lacanian psychoanalysis is for the patient to become conscious of the cause and structure of their desire by exploring personal traumas, so should UCSD administrators examine how the inheritance of the past 50 years of repressive campus policies and politics has contributed to these racist current events. Like any symptom, they do not manifest themselves from nowhere; they have a history.
There is no legitimate reason for administrators to be shocked or to feign indignation at the obvious, which registers with victimized students as being out of touch with campus realities, or simply really bad acting. These racist incidents are -- depressingly -- nothing more or less than the manifestation of the invisible racism that has operated on an everyday basis at UCSD since it was founded in 1960.
The question now is whether the administration is prepared to face a shameful diagnosis and to take concrete steps to reconfigure its desire in ways that better suit the needs of all its students, or whether it will continue the UCSD legacy of posing as one thing -- a university of “excellence” -- and acting like another -- a dehumanized space for the production of human capital in which racism flourishes.
FYI: Herbert's Hippopotamus (1996) is an engaging and informative documentary on the early history of UCSD, including Herbert Marcuse's experience while a professor of philosophy there, the Lumumba-Zapata College movement, and student protest against the Vietnam War. The film includes rare footage of Marcuse, Angela Davis and Ronald Reagan.
Google Video has it for free: