Brock maintains that at Historically White Colleges and Universities (HWCUs), also known as Predominately White Institutions (PWIs), students of color experience a variety of psychic hurts from the “micro-aggressions,” so called because they are not intended to hurt, of white students in dining rooms, dorms, and classrooms. This dynamic among students occurs in the context of an institutional “white blindness,” in which the curriculum is Eurocentric, and peoples of color are invisible. The white culture of the PWIs has not changed in essence since integration; knowledge of the history and lived realities of peoples of color is not an integral part of its social world. Students of color are expected to assimilate to the institution, rather than the institution transforming its racist assumptions and practices.
The hurt, frustration and anger of students of color at PWIs has been a problem for years, and the universities have launched diversity initiatives. Brock observes that the diversity initiatives have had limited impact, and this has been a source of frustration for all those who cast their hope in them. The diversity initiatives do not respond to the roots of the problem; they are more oriented to presenting an image of the university as characterized by diversity rather than a transformation of racist practices. As a result of the failure of diversity initiatives during the last twenty years, the narrative of diversity has become bankrupt, Brock maintains.
I would argue that, in order to transform the racist foundation of PWIs, white faculty, administrators and students would have to experience a transformation in understanding. The possibility for white transformation was provided by the African-American movement, with its alternative system of values and of the selection and organization of historical facts, insofar as whites personally encountered the movement and took seriously its insights. A few whites, including myself, were transformed by the movement in its Black Nationalist stage of 1966-72. But the great majority of whites did not encounter the movement; white society merely made concessions to the black movement.
Let us review the basic facts. In 1964 and 1965, white society conceded the granting of political and civil rights, responding to the Civil Rights stage of the movement from 1955 to 1965, but it did so with equivocation and with tolerance of violence by white extremists. In the period 1966-72, white society rejected movement demands for the protection of the social and economic rights of all citizens and for special attention to the social and economic needs of popular sectors that had been historically excluded. And it ignored the anti-imperialist critique by the movement of US imperialist foreign policy. The African-American movement was brought to an end in the early 1970s through systemic police repression of Black Nationalist leaders and organizations. As an epilogue, white society rejected the presidential candidacies of Jesse Jackson, whose proposed “Rainbow Coalition” was exactly what the nation needed to redeem its soul. The concept of the Rainbow Coalition was a more advanced reformulation of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, and Jackson’s proposed foreign policy of “North-South cooperation” was a diplomatic reformulation of the Black Nationalist anti-imperialist critique (see McKelvey 1994).
As a result of the lost historic opportunity for a transformation of white understanding, today it is the university that must fulfill the role of enabling a transformation of white understanding, in fulfillment of its central mission of education. But Historically White Colleges and Universities are structurally unable to do more than diversity as image. They are unable to educate in a form that emancipates from false assumptions, limited values, and distorted collective memory. Transformative education is an interdisciplinary and integral project written from below, whereas the structures of higher education provide fragmented disciplines sanctioned from above. The segmentation of knowledge of society into the distinct disciplines of history, economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology occurred in the aftermath, and as a rejection, of Marx’s reformulation of the science of history as a synthesis of German philosophy and British political economy, written from the vantage point of the worker (see McKelvey 1991). Marx’s formulation was a highly advanced integral approach to the knowledge of society, but it represented a challenge to the elite, so it had to be cast aside. In the United States, the consolidation of the segmentation of knowledge coincided with significant donations to universities from the “robber barons,” as they were consolidating their control over concentrated industry and banking (Josephson 2011:315-16, 324-25). Later, during the tumultuous period of 1955-72, interdisciplinary majors, such as black studies and women’s studies, were developed, but the new programs were compelled to adapt to the segmentation of the bureaucratized university. If the pursuit of knowledge in the university reflects the perspective of white society, shaped by the interests of the few powerful whites, then there is no reasonable possibility for a transformation of white understanding in the universities. White blindness is entrenched; PWIs, as they presently are structured, are unredeemable. We will continue indefinitely with white insensitivity and failure to understand, with protests by black students and their few white supporters, and with diversity initiatives that only seek to present an image of diversity. (On the limitations of the structures and epistemological assumptions of the university, see Wallerstein 1999a; 1999b; 2006:59-65).
Given the impossibility of meaningful change in the universities as they are presently structured, we can only conclude that a revolutionary transformation of the structures of US society is necessary, through the coming to power of an alternative political party that acts for the interests of the people. Once in power, a political party of the people can adopt measures that would create an environment that would give support to those university faculty and students who understand the need for an integral education written from below. Such enlightened faculty and students presently exist in significant numbers in US colleges and universities, but their efforts to change the university are constrained by the mentality of white blindness, by the weight of the bureaucracy, and by the awareness of what the powers-that-be are prepared to support. But an alternative direction from above, supported by the people, would enable progressive faculty and students to lead their colleagues in a transformation of the university.
Initial steps toward the transformation of the university can begin now, prior to the triumph of the popular revolution, but anticipating its triumph. Faculty and students can become members of an alternative popular revolutionary party. They can develop study groups and people’s universities, providing readings that succinctly explain fundamental historical facts, understanding of which is necessary for responsible citizenship, including: (1) the historical development of the world-economy, enabling understanding of slavery, US ascent and decline, and immigration in a global context; (2) the popular revolutions of the world, including Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador; (3) the movements of peoples of color, women and workers in the United States; (4) the need for changes in patterns of production and consumption in order to sustain the natural environment; and (5) the formulation of universal human values by the peoples and nations of the world, which are codified in the declarations of the United Nations and various international organizations. And faculty and students can organize actions. The actions should include the demands of black faculty and students for more faculty members of color and for the transformation of the Eurocentric curriculum, not with the expectation that such demands would be meaningfully addressed, but in order to educate the people concerning the character of a truly democratic university. But they also should include protests with respect to issues beyond the university: police violence; immigration; neoliberalism; wars of aggression and US military bases; and support for particular nations under siege, such as Cuba, Palestine, and Venezuela. In general, the tactics should not be disruptive; they should involve activities such as demonstrations or community service. Disruptive tactics, such as strikes or road blockages, should only be used when they can mobilize the support of the majority, because disruptive activities by a few are viewed by the people as a few undisciplined malcontents behaving badly. In the context of the political culture of the United States, actions should always be non-violent, without exception. The participation together by white and black students and faculty in study groups and actions would help black students overcome the psychic scars resulting from white blindness, and it would enable white students to overcome alienation from their true selves.
Such revolutionary transformation of the university has occurred in Cuba. In the 1920s and 1930s, and again in the 1950s, students and student organizations were actively involved in protests calling for reform of the university and an end to the corruption of the neocolonial republic. They protested US imperialism, and they called for a literacy campaign in Cuba, like those that had been established by the Russian and Mexican revolutions. In 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of his entrance into the University of Havana, Fidel declared that he became revolutionary at the university. Fidel’s transformation at the university was a combination of different influences: the courses and reading materials of a few progressive professors; his active involvement in political activities of student organizations; and his reading of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin at the library of the Cuban communist party (see “Julio A. Mella and the student movement” 7/8/2014; “Fidel becomes revolutionary at the university” 9/11/2014).
After the triumph of the revolution, the University of Havana reformed itself, with the support of the revolutionary government, but carried out by the professors themselves, committed to the revolution. It redesigned the curricula in history and philosophy, providing an integral and global view of human history and the history of the nation, describing structures of domination and popular movements seeking social transformation. It established various interdisciplinary research centers, such as the Center for the Study of the United States and the Center for the Study of the International Economy. It encouraged each center and each department to hold an annual colloquium, so that there was interdisciplinary dialogue among faculty on a regular basis. Rather than stressing publications in reviews, the university gave priority to faculty participation in the colloquia of the centers and departments. After fifty years, the results are impressive. At international conferences, the advanced understanding of Cuban professors is evident.
For their part, Cuban students continue the tradition of revolutionary activism. The University Student Federation (FEU for its initials in Spanish), established by Julio Antonio Mella in 1922, is a very active organization. Nearly all university students in Cuba are members, and each department elects their delegates, who in turn elect leaders at higher levels. Recently, Cuban television aired an hour-long interview with the President of FEU, Jennifer Bello Martínez, who comes from the eastern province of Holguin. She professed her commitment and that of FEU to the revolution. She described her deep admiration for Mella, and she expressed wonder that he had accomplished so much in his short life (he was 25 when he was assassinated). When asked of her reaction to the charge by some that the young generation today lacks revolutionary values, she responded, “Inasmuch as the generation of the revolution has repeatedly expressed its confidence in the youth of Cuba, we have no option but to respond faithfully to the confidence that they have placed in us.”
A university transformed. A university system designed to accommodate the interests of the global elite and their national accomplices now has a different intellectual, social and political environment. This transformation was one dimension of a social transformation of all of the institutions of the society. It was a transformation rooted in the historic struggles of the people, which enabled the formation of leaders. When those leaders proposed to the people a project of revolutionary transformation, the people authorized them to speak and act on its behalf and supported them in all necessary forms. The leaders, in the name of the people, took power, and they have delivered on the promises made.
Revolutionary change is possible. We, the people of the United States, must cast aside the cynicism that serves the interests of the elite. We must have faith in the essential goodness of our people and in the future of humanity. We have our own history of popular movements, which provides our foundation. And we live in an historic moment in which the unsustainability of the established world-system is each day more evident. We must form an alternative revolutionary political party of the people that seeks to take power and effect social transformation, in the university and in other institutions.
Josephson, Matthew. 2011. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. Originally published in 1934 by Harcourt, Brace, and Company.
McKelvey, Charles. 1991. Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science. New York: Greenwood Press.
__________. 1994. The African-American Movement: From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition. Bayside, New York: General Hall.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1999a. “Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science” in The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
__________. 1999b. “Social Science and the Quest for a Just Society” in The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
__________. 2006. European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. New York: The New Press.
Key words: race, diversity, university, revolution