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On Jonathan Butler And Mizzou

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I hope Paul will clarify what he was trying to argue in his post from earlier today. Rather than try to reply to individual comments in what has become one of the longest threads in blog history, let me make a few points about the relevant issues:

  • I would first reiterate what I’ve said, for example, in my critique of “class not race” defenses of Bernie Sanders at Netroots Nation earlier this year, and in my criticisms of arguments that class-based affirmative action is adequate. Racism and its effects do not vanish at any point of the economic ladder.  Jonathan Butler is, his class background notwithstanding, an African-American who is likely to be treated differently in many ways by various people both on and off campus.
  • I know a lot of people who are very impressed with the work of Walter Benn Michaels.   There is some truth to his critique of diversity; I agree with Paul’s argument yesterday that diversity and tolerance can be co-opted for corporate ends.  But, myself, I’ve never found his critique terribly useful.  First of all, any progressive or radical end can be co-opted, class politics very much included.  And, more importantly, Michaels’s critique of diversity is not a very long walk from John Roberts-type arguments that racism maybe used to be a problem but really isn’t anymore.
  • The bigger problem with Michaels’s argument, though, is that its premised on fundamentally false choices.  Not only in the sense that one can be committed to fighting against racial and economic injustice, but in the sense that economic and racial (and gender and we can go on) injustice simply cannot be neatly separated.  In general, “no injustice can be addressed unless all injustices can be addressed” and “you should forget about injustice x to focus on injustice y” are both inherently unpersuasive forms of argument and not conducive to effective politics.
  • I would strongly urge you to read this interview with Butler. You will note, in addition to many other things, that he is not just concerned with injustice he has personally had to deal with, but with injustices faced by many members of both the campus community and the larger community.  His protest was directed at multiple forms of injustice, and Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are critical context to his protest.  I will conclude with his words, which are more eloquent than mine:

I really look to the example of my grandfather and my mother, who were both raised in the church. And they did a lot of community engagement. And they used their talents, my mother both in education and my father having a law background, really to do advocacy for the community, and I think as a young child that’s where it started.

But when you talk about most recently on campus, in terms of protesting and mobilizing communities, that really came from my experience organizing during Ferguson, after the murder of Mike Brown. Because the University of Missouri is only two hours away from Ferguson, and being able to have that experience, I had never seen that many black people and I had never seen that many black people mobilized in that way. So, it really struck a chord with me, to really have a passion for inspiring and building up my black community.

[…]

For me, I’m fighting for justice. It’s really plain and simple.

When you localize it to the hunger strike it really is about the environment that is on campus. We have reactionary, negligent individuals on all levels at the university level on our campus and at the university system level, and so their job descriptions explicitly say that they’re supposed to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students … but when we have issues of sexual assault, when we have issues of racism, when we have issues of homophobia, the campus climate continues to deteriorate because we don’t have strong leadership, willing to actually make change. So, for me, I’m fighting for a better tomorrow. As much as the experiences on campus have not been that great for me — I had people call me the n-word, I had someone write the n-word on the a door in my residence hall — for me it really is about a call for justice. I’m fighting for the black community on campus, because justice is worth fighting for. And justice is worth starving for.

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