American Studies program pledges in the wake of police brutality and COVID-19 (June 2020)

The American

“In the wake, the river, the weather, and the drowning are death, disaster, and possibility.”

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, pg. 105

As a community of scholars who labor under, teach, and study the broad and contradictory space of “America,” we wish to publicly affirm that (1) Black lives matter; (2) Black trans lives matter and trans rights are human rights; (3)policing and COVID-19 are real and deadly public health crises created and exacerbated by racial capitalism, white supremacy and settler colonialism as systems premised on racism, or, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death”; and (4) there is no non-deadly normal to which to return in the wake of the momentous changes and uprisings of the past several months. On land and water that became the United States, its territories, and its formal and informal colonies, we have always lived in the “wake” (Sharpe). We live in the wake of slave ships. We live in the wake of genocide and dispossession. We live in the wake of indignity and miraculous survival. Anti-Blackness, brutality and occupation are the air we breathe and the air too many literally cannot breathe. As we write this in June of 2020, this “total climate” is agitated and storming (Sharpe, 105). It is heavy and fluid, bringing waves of loss, grief, disease and possibility.

As a collective, we know all too keenly that these affirmations are not enough. As individuals, we know this limitation in different ways and to different degrees. Some of us see our relatives and those who look like us die, knowing quite simply that the academy cannot and will not protect us. Some of us know by experience and expertise that the settler academy and scholarship not only fails to improve and lift the lives of oppressed people, but often actively suppresses and commits its own forms of violence against them. In this moment, we see how information and arguments rarely seem to influence those with the most political weight and weaponized power. And yet, as professors, we are privileged in ways our students and larger communities are not. We commit to using our social power, public visibility, and intellectual skills to bolster our communities and students. We commit to sustaining the momentum grounded in decades of grassroots organizing for Black and Indigenous lives.

Our Pledges:

  1. Police Brutality

Police brutality and killings are not new. In fact, executions and brutality against Black people are the historical origin and mission of policing in the United States. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery extend that history, despite waves of so-called reform. And yet, this formulation fails to account for the complexity and intersectional realities of those who bear the brunt of this violence. We therefore need to witness and understand how the murders of Black women in particular occur without basic recognition, let alone justice; why Black men in particular are targets of policing and police violence; why the lives of Black trans people in particular are so precarious and targeted from all sides. Furthermore, we must understand how anti-Black violence relates to settler colonial occupation; how Indigenous women and queer/two-spirit people in particular are murdered, raped and disappeared at unimaginable rates at the hands of police and civilians alike; how racial violence against and racial traumas of Asian Americans, inseparable from the history of U.S. citizenship and labor, are made invisible under the ‘model minority’ rubric, and how U.S. state power is exercised in racist policies of refugee resettlement; how the recent surge in hate crimes against Latinx communities is rooted in a long, largely unacknowledged history; how ICE and the U.S. military suppress, torture, or eliminate lives at and across borders, creating a brutal ecosystem of U.S. empire; and how economic precarity and poverty cross cut each of these lived experiences. We call for this broader understanding not to valorize complexity over cohesion, but to recognize what people in the streets already see: the absolute need for absolute solidarity against white supremacy, including the eradication of anti-Blackness within Indigenous and POC communities. Given this,

We pledge to underscore the above questions and issues in our curriculum, which we will continue to shape around a shared commitment to justice and transformation, building with students the frameworks needed to conceive of and make manifest better futures. We believe academic skills and the skills needed to meaningfully address historical-structural atrocities are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. We therefore pledge tosay the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Chantel Moore, and others in our classrooms.

We pledge to speak out whenever we see actions at Williams that are anti-Black, racist, colonialist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist and/or dehumanizing of others who do not conform to the expectations of power under racial capitalism, transmisogyny, white supremacy and settler colonialism. We understand that concrete actions on the part of faculty are extremely important for students and serve to counter the abstract rhetoric of “diversity” that saturates modern corporate institutions.

We pledge to organize colloquia on such topics as police violence, intersectional analyses of police and prison abolition, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, decolonization and models for how to impact change and organize. We welcome our students and the Williams community to collaborate in the pursuit of these goals. We will provide more information and opportunities for such collaborative programming later in the summer, once we know more about how the academic year is shaping up.

  1. COVID-19 Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic follows the uneven and unjust paths carved out by the United States’ exclusionary, dispossessive and genocidal history. In many places, the death toll from the virus has been higher in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities; such communities have also experienced the brunt of the economic impacts of the pandemic. At the same time, Asian Americans have been targeted in violent attacks and demonized in popular media and by public officials, and the poor and disabled have faced myriad difficulties seeking care. As lethal as the pandemic itself are the clinical erasure of Black pain in COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment; the systematic lack of data collection and withholding of federal funds from Native American tribes; and ICE weaponizing the pandemic in attacks on migrant communities.

The violence and atrocity spelled out in these facts produces a sense of overwhelm, outrage, loss and grief. We as American Studies faculty acknowledge these individual and collective emotions, understanding that our students feel them every day. We also recognize that such grave feelings are inseparable from students’ daily concerns at home, work, and in the classroom. We know that remote learning has been a highly uneven experience depending on our students’ access to resources, the nature of their home and family life, and their mental and physical wellness. We know that social distancing has caused interruptions to students’ employment, or to family members’ employment. We are also mindful of the fact that there are many things we don’t know about our students’ lives and how the virus, campus closure, and isolation have transformed it. Given all of the above,

We pledge to do everything in our power to make education equitable and accessible for our students over the coming year(s) with regard to remote learning, illness, and other challenges brought on by the pandemic and the political structures that shape its course and impacts.

We pledge to do the ongoing work of adjusting our pedagogy and curriculum to best support our students. The structuring facets of academic life, including assignments and grades, are less important than health and wellbeing.

We pledge to take health concerns, grief, and material needs seriously, and to provide an open door (or Inbox) for students to air their concerns.

We pledge to look for and attend to transformations that may arise from this moment, such as critiques of domination, communities of mutual aid and solidarity and a redistribution of resources and wealth.

As mentors with institutional experience and insight, over the coming years we will organize discussions with our students about these changes, as well as provide focused “how-to” instructions regarding access to resources for aid during this difficult time. In short, we pledge to do everything in our power to provide security to students during these insecure times.

This is a collective statement submitted by faculty of the American Studies Program.