If you haven’t already heard, the University of California, Berkeley has announced the UC Berkeley African American Initiative. Intended goals include: (1) gaining a critical mass of Black students, faculty and senior staff to reduce feelings of isolation; (2) improving campus climate for current students and (3) achieving and projecting UC Berkeley as a “beacon for social mobility and global diversity” that respects and welcomes not only Black students, but all students. The Implementation Task Force will put this plan into action, chaired by highly capable and brand-new vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, Na’ilah Nasir.
In acknowledging the initiative, I would be remiss if I did not also recognize the yearlong efforts of the Black Student Union on campus. The BSU created a list of 10 demands for Black students at UC Berkeley and delivered them to Chancellor Dirks earlier in the year. It should also be noted that current vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, Gibor Basri, stated that a draft of the initiative was already in place when the demands were made. Though I cannot speak to the correlation between the demands and the initiative, it is clear that the work of student activists accelerated the process. The initiative itself is a huge step, but is it enough to solve the problem of anti-Blackness on UC Berkeley’s campus?
People of African descent have dealt with the plague known as anti-Blackness since even before the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Anti-Blackness manifests through both thoughts (ideology) and actions (institutions and policy) that uphold white supremacist values. In fact, the United States of America became an economic power by convincing white Americans that Black people were inferior to white people, hence “white supremacy.” People often “forget” about scientific racism, or the notion that Black people were seen as a completely different — and inferior — species than white humans. By convincing white people that Black people were only three-fifths of a person or less, chattel slavery was seen as a justifiable vehicle for unpaid work and therefore higher profits.
Anti-Blackness is not purely historical, though, and if you’re Black on this campus, student or not, chances are high that you have experienced it. Sometimes this anti-Blackness is indirect like the cardboard cutouts of Black lynching at the end of 2014. Sometimes this anti-Blackness is as direct as calling the world of Zora Neale Hurston “primitive” or “savage.” And at other times, these incidents can be filed under the concept of “microaggressions,” or unintentional acts of racism, sexism and heterosexism that rarely feel “micro.” As mentioned, these are not just issues that affect undergraduates, but also graduate students, faculty, staff and service workers.
Anti-Blackness, however, is not solely a “Berkeley problem.” Anti-Blackness is endemic to higher education. In fact, Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, two leading university sociologists, often write about the pervasiveness of white supremacy in academia. At a recent lecture for the UC Berkeley department of sociology, Bonilla-Silva discussed the white fragility that he encountered in his colleagues when discussing the whiteness of the discipline of sociology. Suddenly these very intelligent white men reduce Bonilla-Silva’s theories to individualism: “I am not a racist.” What they miss in their defense is their role as white men in a society that teaches white people to ignore their privilege and teaches marginalized people — such as Black people — that all of our problems are our own fault. In other words, we live in an openly white supremacist society that functions so well that even the social scientists meant to expose such intersecting systems of oppression cannot see it.
Another contribution of Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva is the concept of Black faces with “white logic.” During an American Sociological Association conference panel, Zuberi cited the hires of faculty who aspire to whiteness and therefore reinforce white supremacy through the guise of Blackness. Your skinfolk aren’t always your kinfolk; it is not just white people who perpetuate anti-Blackness.
Given anti-Blackness, white supremacy and white logic, let’s not lose sight of the goal of the UC Berkeley African American Initiative. This initiative plans to use institutional change to decrease intentional and unintentional hostility, disrespect and outright racism toward Black people at UC Berkeley. But in order to achieve the holistic goal, a critical mass of Black people is not enough. We, people of African descent, make up about six percent of the state of California and the goal is to match that percentage at UC Berkeley. That is not enough to combat anti-Blackness. Outside of increased numbers of students, faculty and staff, we need anyone who considers themselves to be an “ally” to work on combatting anti-Blackness on and off campus. This is where you, the reader, come in. Now that you’ve learned about anti-Blackness, your mission is to call it out when you see it.
Friends don’t let friends participate in anti-Blackness.
Anthony Williams is staff writer at the Afrikan Black Coalition, a Mellon Mays Fellow and a UC Berkeley senior. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.