The current moment of political transformation makes glaringly obvious that in order for Black lives to truly matter in higher education, and for Black people to be safe, substantial reimagining and restructuring of academic institutions must take place.
In 2018, we wrote an article titled “Plantation politics and neoliberal racism in higher education: A framework for reconstructing anti-racist institutions.” Our intention was to highlight the parallel organizational and cultural norms between many contemporary higher education institutions and plantations. “Plantation politics” signified something that had been weighing on us for a while, namely the psychological and political warfare Black people are subjected to in traditionally white institutions that render them invisible while exploiting their labor for profit. As co-editors, we continue that work in our forthcoming edited volume, Plantation Politics and Campus Rebellions: Power, Diversity, and the Emancipatory Struggle in Higher Education (SUNY Press, March 2021). The book is an examination of the ways academic institutions can use plantation ideologies and strategies from the past to control, repress and surveil Black people and their resistance.
We began thinking about the similarities between plantations and universities in 2015, when students at the University of Missouri and other institutions argued for racial justice and rebelled against their administrations. As Bianca and Frank wrote in our book’s introduction, “These protests and resistant acts — what we call ‘campus rebellions’ — often explode when universities count Black bodies as present but are not ready to make the necessary changes to ensure Black people are welcome, safe, and treated equally.”
In our analysis, we found that many of the demands in 2015 mirrored similar ones made by Black and brown students in the ’60s and ’70s. Those demands resulted in liberal applications of diversity and inclusion, such as the hiring of Black staff and faculty. However, as administrations often did not change exploitative promotion and tenure processes, commit to personnel retention, or transform racist department cultures, these demands rarely met the emancipatory potentials desired, as scholars such as Roderick Ferguson and Michael Omi and Howard Winant have shown.
Thus, “plantation politics” helps us to identify the machine of white supremacy in higher education — how it operates, how it views us, which entities act as barriers to equity and justice, what we need to tear down, and how we might build something new. For example, one chapter in the book explores the connections between the role of the contemporary chief diversity officer and the plantation driver, while another considers how diversity initiatives are frequently used to maintain plantation cultures and economies at traditionally white institutions.
Presently, the pervasive impact of systemic racism in education, health care and carceral institutions comes to light in the context of the coronavirus and police violence, revealing how vestiges of plantation pasts continue to result in the disproportionate suffering of Black people. Recently, a renewed interest in reforming, defunding and abolishing police departments has made its way into the public lexicon. While such discussions have existed for years, rebellions in response to the killings of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd push calls for change in policing to the fore, including at universities.
History shows that modern-day policing stems from “slave patrols,” which were common in states that claimed people as property. They were made up of white volunteers who were militarized to police enslaved Black people, including squashing uprisings and returning people who were self-emancipating. After the Civil War ended, those patrols were dismantled and replaced by informal white mobs, the Ku Klux Klan and police departments that upheld Jim Crow laws. In The Condemnation of Blackness, Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes how police departments engaged in anti-Black violence, were riddled with white corruption and aided white mobs by disarming Black people protecting their homes. In summary, police departments were created to “protect and serve” settler colonial whiteness.
Although time progresses, Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well reminds us that the systems of oppression that disempowered and disparaged enslaved Black peoples are still present — that the tentacles of violence, surveillance and exploitation they lived through are entangled with the “unique dangers” Black people encounter today. He writes, “In these perilous times, we must do no less than they did: fashion a philosophy that both matches the unique dangers we face, and enables us to recognize in those dangers opportunities for committed living and humane service.”
Those unique dangers birthed the Movement for Black Lives and the call for the abolition of police departments, including those on college campuses. Core to an abolitionist framework is the total defunding of police departments, the dismantling of their current structures and the redistribution of those funds to social services and community-based approaches to address community concerns.
Police departments exist on more than 90 percent of college campuses, with most sworn officers having the ability to use a sidearm, chemical or pepper sprays, and batons, and 70 percent of those departments having memorandums of understanding with outside law enforcement agencies. Universities have used these enforcement tools and resources against students, faculty and administrators during campus rebellions and in the everyday. Additionally, a number of campuses have militarized their police forces with U.S. military surplus, implicating them as arbiters of deadly violence as well as injurious racial battle fatigue.
Meanwhile, campus safety and security budgets average $2.7 million, and they can be much larger. Temple University, which has one of the largest campus police departments at 130 officers, had a proposed budget of $27.5 million for campus safety in 2019.
Hitting the Reset Button
In this moment, traditionally white institutions have a chance to hit the reset button and begin to transform their systems and structures in support of Black lives and racial equity. It is time, in the words of our colleagues Charles H. F. Davis and Jude Paul Matias Dizon, to “envision new approaches to safety and community well-being that are grounded in compassion and the value of human life.” Interrogating existing vestiges of plantation pasts will empower those institutions to reimagine how they can create safer and inclusive learning environments based on standards determined by the community — not by the hands of police.
As student affairs professional and speaker Jaylyn Jones argues, “We have been doing this for years on a smaller scale” when we place well-trained student resident assistants in our residence halls who are “unarmed and trained in community resources, conflict mediation, crisis response, and de-escalating situations … Because these employees live in the communities they serve, they have a faster response time, stronger relationships with community members, and a better understanding of community needs, trends, and social dynamics.”
Abolition offers the opportunity to rethink the capitalistic enterprise that higher education has become: a business that preys on Black people for their invisible and un- or underpaid labor, time and energy. We recognize the differences between our current circumstances and the trauma, violence and exploitative conditions our ancestors endured as people captive and treated as chattel. Simultaneously, we understand the significance of Katherine McKittrick’s argument that “the legacy of slavery and the labor of the unfree both shape and are part of the environment we presently inhabit.”
Universities cannot escape the haunting of their history, particularly since it played such a foundational role in the processes and capital accumulation that enabled many academic institutions to exist. However, we can take this catalyzing moment, one unseen in this country for 50 years, and use it to set a new vision for what universities can look like: one where Black people are safe and their essential contributions (and sacrifices) to the academy are valued. Where people have their basic needs met by institutions truly dedicated to the public good and dismantling systemic oppression. It is a university, not where police roam the campus and neighborhood profiling Black people, but where people understand “safety” includes caring about the full humanness of every person to ensure they have everything they need. In this new reality, Black studies, gender studies, queer studies, ethnic studies and other necessary programs are fully funded, offering students access to an education that nurtures complex understandings of this country and our global communities.
We are excited about the current call for a newly envisioned higher education. It feels like an initial step in reckoning with higher education’s history of enslavement, while preparing for necessary reparations. While it remains to be seen whether this moment will result in substantial transformation, as organizers and researchers demand explicitly abolitionist practices in their institutions and communities, one thing is clear: the way we do higher education must change.