From Sentiment to Struggle: Combating White Supremacy and Liberal Idealism

*This post is the transcript of remarks read at the recent Cornell faculty “kneel-in” against racism.

Participants Marching for Black Lives at Cornell University, September 23, 2016 (Photo: Julia Cole Photography)

Almost any expression of collectivity can be useful.

Some will say call today’s kneel-in by Cornell faculty and staff an empty gesture. The participants, they will say, are climbing on the bandwagon. They will say that they are engaged in pageantry, that they can achieve only catharsis—momentary relief for the liberal psyche.

But symbols are important. Symbolism can play a critical role in the evolution of consciousness. What is born in abstraction can become genuine resistance.

In the end, what matters is the rupture—that moment when all the old theories of our society and, indeed, of ourselves, collapse.

For some, the rupture was the rise of a racial demagogue to the highest office in the land. For others, it is the endless parade of victims of police terror.

Whatever the precipitating crisis may be, it has become clear to many of us that we are not who we say we are. That America is not a city on a hill. That it is, in fact, a global center of hatred and inequality. And that Cornell is not a haven, but rather, a microcosm of all the pathologies that are eviscerating the larger society.

Now, one does not come to this knowledge simply by kneeling. Indeed, the act of “taking a knee” is drenched in the sort of sentimentality that can preclude self-examination. However, if a few minutes of gentle disruption can pierce our façade of neutrality, this gathering will have served its purpose. If today’s exercise exposes indifference, if it unmasks hypocrisy, then it is a welcome intervention.

Of course, we must acknowledge the limitations of the gesture. Like all deeds that “go viral,” kneeling has already lost much of its original meaning. “Taking a knee” came to us neither as a benign expression of unity nor as a way to oppose Trump. It emerged as a protest against the slaughter of black people by the state. It was the act of a man who could no longer stand by, who resolved to use whatever means available to combat white supremacy.

So what is our mode of combat?

Even as we stand here, the uprising in St. Louis continues. In the wake of another police execution and exoneration, people have spilled into the streets of that city. There they have been bloodied by cops who openly revel in brutality. THAT is the reality of white supremacy.

As we stand here, the people of Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean are facing a humanitarian disaster of biblical proportions caused by storms and colonial subjugation. The corporate media has largely ignored their plight. THAT is the reality of white supremacy.

As we stand here, our deranged commander in chief has casually threatened to eliminate millions of North Koreans, a people who have never forgotten the terrible cost of American aggression. And yet there is little outcry, and virtually no peace movement, in the U.S. THAT is the reality of white supremacy.

Our society is steeped in white supremacy. Why should we expect Cornell, an enterprise built on stolen land, to be any different? In recent weeks, a group of white fraternity members chanted “Build a wall” outside the Latino Living Center. Then a band of thugs battered a black student in Collegetown while hurling racial epithets. Later they described another person as a “Sand Nigger.” How well we have learned the lessons of empire!

Truth is, Cornell is a bastion of white supremacy. This is the case not simply because a few cowards acted out deep-seated racial animosities. Those attacks, while disgusting, are merely symptomatic. Nor is Cornell a white supremacist stronghold simply because its Tech campus’s institutional partners help bolster the technologies of Israeli apartheid and colonial occupation.

No. More fundamentally, Cornell is a white supremacist establishment because its daily functions reproduce the hierarchies of privilege—including racial privilege—upon which global capitalism rests.

Let us not delude ourselves. Diversity training will not redeem us. The rhetoric of equity and inclusion will not redeem us. And kneeling certainly will not redeem us.

We do not need more dialogue or understanding. Those boys in Collegetown did not bash that kid because they failed to understand his culture. They did so because they believed they could get away with it. They knew they held the balance of power.

There can be no reckoning with white supremacy without the redistribution of power and resources, and without a program of meaningful restitution for historical and contemporary injustices.

So let us move beyond sentiment. Workers, radical intellectuals, and students, let us take up the cause of antiracism. Let us agitate until the demands of Black Students United and last year’s “Save Our Programs” movement are met, until all Cornell instructors and workers labor under conditions of dignity, and until Cornell officially declares itself a sanctuary campus. Let us decolonize our curriculum, our admissions and hiring practices, our governance, our student life, and our labor policies.

And in the process, let us transform ourselves. Let us shed our pretensions. We are not virtuous simply because we mean well. There are many well-intended agents of oppression. But we can become something greater.

We can struggle to dismantle the apparatuses of racism that surround us. We can resist imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. We can fight war and poverty. We can demilitarize America and construct a humane society.

But first we must free ourselves from the fallacies of liberal thought, including the notion that goodwill and moral exertion, rather than mass struggle from below, can defeat white supremacy.

Thank you. Free Palestine!

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.