June 1, 2016

What’s Next with “No Budget”?

Plantain in concreteThe president of the University, Tim Killeen, just sent an email to everybody in the University of Illinois system called “No state budget.” I do not want to minimize the enduring damage that has been done to programs and services that have benefited many people in the state and that have had to close due to the budget impasse. I do not want to minimize the harm already done to those who have been laid off, not hired, or not promoted due to the budget impasse. In other words, I am not celebrating “no state budget.” But the brokenness of the state offers an opportunity to rethink things and, like it or not, puts the University’s values in relief.

The massmail from President Killeen arrived after a recent blog post by Joanne Barker about the erasure of the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) Department at the University of Illinois.  While I find her words very powerful, I am aware that I do not know the full extent of the pain and anguish perpetrated on colleagues by a series of toxic and destructive decisions, and that perhaps I contribute to the pain with my comments. But it was only in Ms. Barker’s post that I learned that “the UIUC administration will not commit itself to hire another NAIS scholar for 2 years, effectively absorbing the approximately $800,000 annually for the six faculty lines in NAIS into the campus coffer.” This was news to me and I think must be discussed across campus, at all levels. It’s possible that it is being discussed; I am so very part-time (by choice) that many conversations occur without my knowing about them. But, somehow, I think this particular conversation is resoundingly quiet. And this refusal to act on hiring by the administration is unacceptable, whatever the budget.

President Killeen wrote: “All options are on the table as we go forward – layoffs, reductions of academic programs, closure of units and cuts in a health-care enterprise that provides critical care to underserved populations in Chicago.” These layoffs, reductions, closures, and cuts are going to continue to reflect the ethics and values of the institution. The decision to hold off on hiring NAIS is, I believe, not a financial decision, but rather a continuation of the racist climate that has long been nurtured here. Budget decisions, like many other decisions, reflect and reproduce oppressions.

What if, instead of erasing NAIS, we asked the now-dispersed and numerically fewer faculty what (new) campus structures would help them? Then, supported, of course, by real funds, other colleagues, and policies with traction, we found ways to make those changes, to center their agendas? What if values that promoted indigenous knowledge and practices were evident in the budget? It’s a legitimate concern that white-identified administrators can’t promote those values, but it’s not an unresolvable concern. The administrators could get out of the way, for once.

The conclusion to Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014) is called “Lessons from Idle No More: The Future of Indigenous Activism.” Coulthard summarized some of the main points he already made:

  • “Settler-colonialism is territorially acquisitive in perpetuity.” (p. 152)
  • He argued that settler-colonialism is not only coercive and violent but also “the practices of dispossession central to the maintenance of settler-colonialism in liberal democratic contexts…rely as much on the productive character of colonial power as it does on the coercive authority of the settler state.” (p. 152) I take this to mean that capitalism is very effective at co-opting everyday practices and making itself seem natural.
  • Coulthard used Frantz Fanon to discuss how recognition politics almost always benefits the colonizer (s/he who recognizes.) Further, the colonized tend to “internalize” their oppression, but, according to Coulthard’s reading of Fanon, “colonized populations…are often able to turn these internalized forms of colonial recognition into expressions of Indigenous self-empowerment.” (p. 153)

Coulthard then turned to “Indigenous resurgence,” and theorists of that idea, Taiaiake Alfred and Leanne Simpson. Alfred called this resurgence paradigm “‘self-conscious traditionalism’,” and Simpson argued that “‘[b]uilding diverse, nation-culture-based resurgences means significantly reinvesting in our own ways of being’” (p. 155). Coulthard stressed that for Alfred, Simpson, and himself, this resurgence is not a retreat to “an uncritical essentialism,” but a “self-reflective revitalization” (p. 156). Coulthard went on to point out “the centrality of sexism to the colonial aims of land dispossession and sovereignty usurpation” and the necessity of queering resurgence (pp. 157-58). “Indigenous resurgence,” Coulthard claimed, “is at its core a prefigurative politics—the methods of decolonization prefigure its aims” (p. 159, italics in original).

Red Skin, White Masks ends with “Five Theses on Indigenous Resurgence and Decolonization”:

  1. On the Necessity of Direct Action;
  2. Capitalism, No More!
  3. Dispossession and Indigenous Sovereignty in the City
  4. Gender Justice and Decolonization
  5. Beyond the Nation-State

Coulthard developed each of these theses eloquently, and I cannot do him justice. But I would still like to stress a couple of aspects. “Direct action,” however varied, is usually described by the media as threatening and disruptive; in a word, uncivil. In fact, these actions loosen “internalized colonialism, which is itself a precondition for any meaningful change,” and they build “skills and social relationships…that are required…to construct alternatives” (p. 166). These social networks have endured for decades against frequent efforts to weaken them. I love this: “Through these actions we physically say ‘no’ to the degradation of our communities and to exploitation of the lands upon which we depend. But they also have ingrained within them a resounding ‘yes’: they are the affirmative enactment of another modality of being.” Coulthard asks: “How might we move beyond a resurgent Indigenous politics that seeks to inhibit the destructive effects of capital to one that strives to create Indigenous alternatives to it?” (p. 170).

Thanks to Angela Piccini in Bristol (UK), I know about this lecture, “Rage against the Empire,” that Glen Coulthard presented at the Vancouver Institute for Social Research in 2013, which covers much of the same material as his book.This lecture is about 30 minutes, with some Q & A.

I write this post in the basement of my comfortable brick house in Urbana, Illinois, with little sense that my opinion matters or might induce change. On the other hand, I know I am not alone in being appalled at the state of things, and that there are others who want to enact other modalities of being, modalities that foster respect and imagination. And I do think asking questions can be tools that contribute to further, useful questions.

This week I have been inspired, and saddened, by Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths in London, reported on her blog.

It is not that this activity [in this case, sexual harassment] is coordinated by one person or even necessarily a group of people who are meeting in secret, although secret meetings probably do happen. All of these activities, however complex, sustain a direction; they have a point. A direction does not require something to originate from a single point: in fact a direction is achieved through the alignment between points that do not have to meet. Different elements combine to achieve something that is solid and tangible. If one element does not hold, or become binding, another element holds or binds. The process is rather like the cement used to make walls: something is set before it hardens. Perhaps when people notice the complexity, the movement, the inefficiency, the disorganisation, they do not notice the cement; how things hold together; that things hold together. Then when you say there is a pattern you are heard as paranoid as if you are imagining that all this complexity derives from a singular point…

To try and bring someone to account is to come up against not just an individual but histories, histories that have hardened, that stop those who are trying to stop what is happening from happening. The weight of that history can be thrown at you; you can be hit by it. 

But, cement can also be broken up, sometimes even by plants poking up through the cracks. I am one plant, poking up.


October 5, 2014

On Not Moving On

CoulthardI am reading Glen Sean Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks (2014). One strategy I use when I am confused and trying to figure out next steps in politico-cultural action is to pick a book like Coulthard’s and find passages in it that help me understand what might be going on. Not that Coulthard is or should be the last word, or that he speaks for all First Nations people, or that he speaks for all Dene or Weledeh Dene people, but nevertheless there is much I am learning from him about Indigenous studies and colonial relations. And, Indigenous studies is at the center of my anguish about the undermining and disrespect of American Indian Studies and the unconscionable treatment of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois.

The University of Illinois is a colonial enterprise. A land-grant institution, it sits on stolen land, exploits resources inequitably, and profits from and reinforces a long history of racism. That could be said of many institutions and agencies in the United States, of course, but I am trying to name and describe the situation at my “home” institution since I feel so angry and alienated here. Coulthard writes: “Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element….[C]olonialism [is] a form of structured dispossession” (p. 7).

We are not going to “get over” the Salaita debacle until we “get” some very fundamental problems with current university priorities. And these priorities are very slippery—Public Relations spins them in a mind-boggling number of ways. Coulthard again: “[A]ny strategy geared toward authentic decolonization must directly confront more than mere economic relations; it has to account for the multifarious ways in which capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the totalizing character of state power interact with one another to form the constellation of power relations that sustain colonial patterns of behavior, structures, and relationships” (p. 14). This convergence of relations seems like a brick wall, though assuredly there are cracks. One crack is that some have started to mis-behave: some are no longer acting like “colonized subjects.” This behavior appears rude and uncivil to those in power, and even to some of us watching from positions of less power.

Coulthard identifies time as a major axis along which Western views align; this aids in a linear assessment that declares many oppressions to be in the past. Viewed as a “legacy,” racism is far easier to discuss (even though we don’t even do that) than it is to face the attitudes and structures that support our institutions and lives in the present. Quoting Vine Deloria, Jr., Coulthard notes the gulf between these approaches: “‘When one group is concerned with the philosophical problem of space and the other with the philosophical problem of time, then the statements of either group do not make much sense when transferred from one context to the other without proper consideration of what is taking place.’” And yet the University seems to be uninterested in having Indigenous viewpoints ‘make sense’ within the institution, insisting that they be “reconcilable with one political formation—namely, colonial sovereignty—and one mode of production—namely, capitalism” (p. 66).

The University administration would like Salaita’s de-hiring and their egregious treatment of American Indian Studies to be in the past, so that “we” can move on. “[R]econciliation becomes temporally framed as the process of individually and collectively overcoming the harmful ‘legacy’ left in the wake of this past abuse,” writes Coulthard, “while leaving the present structure…largely unscathed…. In the context of ongoing settler-colonial injustice, Indigenous peoples’ anger and resentment can indicate a sign of moral protest and political outrage that we ought to at least take seriously, if not embrace as a sign of our critical consciousness” (p. 22).

In response to the Salaita de-hiring and its many implications, there have been valuable panels about academic freedom; important forums about Israel and Palestine; perhaps-useful listening sessions with faculty about governance. I acknowledge the hard work of organizing these opportunities for discussion, these small steps that are significant nonetheless. These events are also not frequent enough–despite people’s exhaustion at organizing and attending forums, panels and meetings–because time-consuming interactions around these issues are crucial to witness each other’s responses. At these events, may we feel the tension, experience the hostility, and stay with the moments of embodied discomfort. That is compassion: being with each other, often in pain. The constant “background field” for these University events is “the reproduction of hierarchical social relations that facilitate the dispossession of…lands and self-determining capacities” (pp. 14-15).

I want to stand with those unwilling or unable to “move on.” I want to “take seriously” the anger and resentment. I believe I must embrace these emotional and intersectional analyses. They point not only to negative conditions now, but also offer “invaluable glimpses into the ethical practices and preconditions required for the construction of a more just and sustainable world order” (p. 12). I don’t have any ready answers to what my “stand” looks like…yet.

November 20, 2013

Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship (WITS) Revisited

In September 2013, I was privileged to be part of a conversation with four former members of the Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship (WITS) group, which was active at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign through most of the 1990s. Here is the video recording of our conversation.

And here is the transcript to download.

October 14, 2012

Institutional Racism and the Morrill Act

Altgeld Hall

Altgeld Hall, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

I was recently on a panel at the University YWCA in Champaign called “Institutional Racism 101.” This is part of a series the YW presents that provides participants a “racial justice certificate” when the series concludes.  Gia Lewis-Smallwood organizes the series. Kudos to her and the Y!

I was pleased to meet a whole new group of undergraduates committed to talking about and taking action against racism. The other panelists were Ken Salo from Urban Planning, Lorenzo Baber from Educational Policy Studies, and Christopher Span, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Education. We spent some time defining racism, institutional racism, and talking about generational differences in the room. I wrote up my comments.

First some definitions, with the caveat that these terms are dynamic.

RACISM can be defined as “power + prejudice,” but is perhaps better named white supremacy. White supremacy names a structure that Robert Jensen argues includes patriarchy, predatory corporate capital, empire and the coming ecological collapse. Jensen says only by naming these structures, connecting them in dynamic ways, can we begin to face the legacy and present versions of these. Andrea Smith notes that colonial interests, patriarchal interests and class interests are all interwoven in whiteness.

INSTITUTIONS are usually formal organizations like governments and schools, but also can refer to a whole network of groups, ie, health care or legal structures.

INSTITUTIONAL RACISM is a system of inequality based on socially constructed categories. Complex structures of social and material relationships both represent and constitute oppression. These systems change over time, are often normalized and therefore not visible to those of us who most benefit from them. All sorts of institutions can be “troubled” or questioned: courts, churches, social clubs, housing associations, schools, businesses. What values are revealed in bylaws or newsletters or websites? Here at the UI, the Ethnography of the University aims to provide a framework for examining the University of Illinois as an agent in peoples’ lives.

The Morrill Act is being commemorated soon with a symposium at the Illini Union on Friday October 26, 2012. The University of Illinois exists here because of the Morrill Act, which was signed into federal law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, thus this year is its 150th anniversary. Each state was provided 30,000 acres of “unappropriated” federal land, a “land grant,” and thus UI is called a land grant university. The idea was to sell this land to fund a major public university to educate farmers and “industrial” workers. By 1867, the Illinois Industrial University had been founded in Urbana. One of my questions is: was the land that was granted by the federal government to the states really theirs to give?

 No, it was not. Authorities made land available by removing Indians who lived on it. People—Sac, Fox, Peoria, Potawatomi, Meskwaki, Cahokia, Tamaroa, Piankesaw, Wea, Kaskaskia, among others–at one time lived on and with this land. Many were forcibly removed, or killed, but of course their descendants continue to live today, mostly not in Illinois. This land grant university is built upon land that does not belong to it…as various broken treaties and outright theft attest.[1] Another piece of the Morrill Act is legislation that was passed in 1890, requiring that land grant institutions either consider “race” in admissions or establish a separate college for blacks.

Already, in these two bits of information about the Morrill Act, we are in the thick of institutional racism…institutions built on entrenched social and political practices and continued by unexamined assumptions that the dominant power group doesn’t challenge or disrupt. I hope some of these issues are addressed in the symposium at the end of the month.

[1] Kaskaskia signed Treaty of Vincennes, 1803 (southern third of the state); Treaty of Edwardsville, 1818 (signed by chiefs of Peoria, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Cahokia and Tamaroa); 1832, Treaty of Castor Hill, for removal to n.e. Kansas; 1854 treaty ceded land in Kansas; 1867 treaty “removed” people to Oklahoma      

July 29, 2010

Jano Justice Systems and Jury Selection

I was recently on jury duty and did some informal inquiry and observation about the current ways in which Champaign County (IL) finds jurors. On a Monday morning, about 35 of us showed up at the courthouse in downtown Urbana and had a brief orientation. The staff handed us badges with bar codes and our juror number on them along with a brochure about petit juries. The brochure said that my name “was drawn by lot from the combined lists of registered voters, licensed drivers, holders of Illinois Identification Cards, and Illinois Disabled Person Identification Cards who reside in this county.” The county uses Jano Justice Systems software to generate the jury pool. Apparently since 2003, the county has been using Jano in tandem with New World Systems to integrate the record-keeping and data management of the courts, according to this one article I found. “Together, Jano and New World will integrate multiple agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office, Correctional Facility, State’s Attorney, Juvenile Detention Center, Circuit Court and Clerk, Adult Probation, Juvenile Probation and Public Defender so each entity has access to critical information stored on a single system.” New World indeed. A detention center or a detention centre is any location used for detention. Specifically, it can mean:

….. Click the link for more informa

Of the 35 people I saw that first morning in the jury assembly room, I saw two African Americans and one woman who was reading a Spanish language newspaper. Otherwise, everyone looked white. That’s about 8 percent non-white. There is a Champaign County Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Jury Selection that formed in 2008 to look at the racial disparities among jurors.  According to Brian Dolinar, writing on the Independent Media Center’s website: “For several years the Courtwatch study conducted by the League of Women Voters has shown that while African Americans make up 60% of defendants, they represent 5%-6% of the jury pool.”

I was called back for the afternoon and sat through the voire dire phase, without being called. It was fascinating to watch the 13 jurors being questioned and selected. The person on trial was a white male. The next day, I was told not to come in. The third day I was told to report at 9am. I did so and was called to the jury box. There was another white man on trial. I was dismissed by the judge shortly thereafter, and thus ended my jury duty for this round.

While I was waiting at various times this week, I read a really good article in Communication Theory from February 2003 (13:1, pp. 5-38) called “The Racial Foundaiton of Organizational Communication.” Authors Karen Lee Ashcraft and Brenda J. Allen noted that “the field’s most common ways of framing race ironically preserve its racial foundation.” They argued, rightly I think, that “the valuing difference approach ignores a … power problem. If corporate America is built around Whiteness–and if Whiteness is socially constructed as separate from and superior to darkness–how can we genuinely speak of valuing difference as a possibility?” (p. 16)

May 25, 2009

Memorial Day and Beyond the Chief

I have spent this rainy Memorial Day thinking more about responses to the vandalism of “Beyond the Chief,” by artist Edgar Heap of Birds. Because this art installation of twelve red and white signs is to honor and remember those tribes and peoples who have come before us, I wondered about parallels between the damage to these memorial signs and destruction of other markers of ancestral spots, like graves. In 1993, the Jewish cemetery in Billings, Montana, was desecrated. A film called “Not in Our Town” was made about the collective response to hateful acts in Billings, and then two more DVDs from The Working Group followed, on other towns that responded to hate crimes.

A useful, brief discussion–“Vandalism to Art at the University of Illinois Native American House”–among WILL-AM staff Celeste Quinn, Director of American Indian Studies Robert Warrior, and Mr. Heap of Birds is archived on the radio’s website. While this interview came up when I search the UIUC website, there has been no official post regarding the vandalism (that I know of.)

There’s a now-six-year-old article on Heap of Birds’ work at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City that Wilhelm Murg wrote in Indian Country Today. At that museum, which is in the former U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green, Heap of Birds displayed his “Diary of Trees” which included “large text drawings and full-scale maquettes (large Y-shaped forms used in his studio) for ‘Wheel,’ his 50-foot outdoor sculpture designed for the Denver Art Museum.” I have always thought that the Smithsonian’s acquisition of the old custom house for Native American art exhibits was at least a beginning step toward reclaiming Manhattan. The Daniel Chester French sculpture from 1907, one of the four “Continents” that still mark the entry to the building in lower Manhattan, is of its time in its depiction of white domination and Indian subordination. I have written and spoken about it elsewhere, but this image pretty much says it all:

D.C. French, "America" 1907