I just finished Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2011) which is an eye-opening account of how the American judicial system perpetuates racism. Few, if any, can read this book without feeling enraged at the systemic discrimination that targets people of color as criminals and puts them in a hard-to-break cycle of imprisonment, poverty and despair. In addition to shocking statistics and heart-wrenching examples, Alexander points to the use of “divide and conquer,” as a successful (elite) strategy for undermining opposition and thwart solidarity across color lines. Ever since Reconstruction, if not earlier, powerful interests have used “white supremacy” as a strategy for preventing poor and working class people from forming class based coalitions. Often in exchange of a few token privileges, poor whites have been encouraged to prioritize solidarity across race over solidarity across class.
So what, you may rightfully ask, does this have to do with academia and the CFA’s causes? At first glance it seems presumptuous, even absurd to compare the academic fight for self-governance with those over institutionalized racism because the material outcome is so different. Nevertheless, at the core, the two causes share a common denominator.
Much like poor whites, professors are encouraged to consider their allegiances to lie with the “managerial” classes and reject forming coalitions with colleagues of lower professional rank (i.e. instructional faculty, academic professionals and graduate students) and other workers on campus. Universities insist on keeping a distinction between non-tenure and tenure track faculty even if their educational background and job descriptions are the same, giving the latter a sense of “superiority.” In a recent article, AAPU President Cary Nelson proposes to grant all long-term college teachers tenure at the percentage appointments they currently have. (“From the President: Reforming Faculty Identity,” Academe Online, July-August, 2011). This, he convincingly argues, would lead to a better educational environment for students and professors alike. The fact that this would create a single class of tenure-track professors with common concerns and the power to challenge their employers is obviously not lost on university administrations. Thus, it is in the latter’s interest that the often arbitrary distinction between college teachers’ job classifications is kept intact and that the tenure-track individuals are flattered into considering themselves superior.
Ideally, our solidarity should reach beyond academia, to include workers of all ranks. In a recent issue of Journal of International Communication Victor Pickard warns us not to view educational labor issues too narrowly but to place them in their proper social political context and make the appropriate connections. There is no denying that tenured academics enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle. Their salaries and benefits are (still) better than those of most workers, on campus or elsewhere, but they increasingly share the growing concerns over work-place issues, wages and benefits with other workers, be they white or blue collared. Although a professor might make far more than the office support staff, her work-related concerns are still far closer to that of the staff worker than to the top 1 percent of income earners in America. “What befalls public school teachers and public-sector unions seems distant from our daily routines. But we should see these conflicts as data points of a larger pattern: the systematic impoverishment of public services and civil society institutions in tandem with the bolstering of corporate power,” states Pickard.
Our capital is largely of cultural value which puts us in a unique situation. We can use our knowledge and skills as outreach tools – letting others know that we belong to the 99 percent of Americans who share a common concern over a long list of eroding social goods and services. Our work-related obligations might be different from those of grade school teachers, social workers and firefighters but that does not keep our jobs safe or our benefits protected. Efforts to “divided and conquer” must be rejected to ensure that we and the rest of the 99 percent stand a chance of saving civil society.