US academia is broken. Cornel West's resignation proves it

Cornel West's resignation: When anti-Black and anti-Palestinian racism converge in US academia
6 min read
23 Jul, 2021
Opinion:As Dr Cornel West's case illustrates, when anti-racism work expands to include Palestinian human rights, the threat becomes existential for faculty, writes Sahar F. Aziz.
In his resignation letter Dr Cornel West warns of 'an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy' in US academia [Getty]

It is no secret that Palestine is taboo in US academia. Harvard’s recent denial of tenure to renowned race scholar Cornel West is the most recent instance. 

For decades, Arab American faculty have faced tenure denial or termination; students have been reprimanded and some even criminally charged; and Middle East studies programmes are under constant threat of defunding.  All based on the fallacious claim that teaching, research, and activism that brings to light Israel’s rampant violations of Palestinian human rights is axiomatically anti-Semitic

Big donors, alumni, and well-funded legal advocacy groups unabashedly command university administrators to cancel classes and programmes aimed to provide students with the experiences and voices of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Never mind that cowering to such demands undermines a university’s most fundamental tenet: academic freedom. 

"Cowering to such demands undermines a university’s most fundamental tenet: academic freedom"

As they become ever more dependent on private donations and external grants to cover operational expenses, university administrators often oblige

University leadership perversely proclaims the importance of civility and inclusion to justify silencing and exclusion. That is, exposing students to the systems and experiences of Palestinian oppression by Israel is allegedly so divisive that they should be stifled because otherwise Jewish students will feel unsafe and unwelcome on college campuses. 

These same administrators do not seem to care that Arab American, Muslim American, and Palestinian American students experience hostile environments on account of stereotypes that Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims are terrorists. As I explain in my book, The Racial Muslim, Orientalist and Islamophobic stereotypes are due in large part to how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is erroneously taught in schools and depicted in mainstream media as between violent, anti-Semitic Palestinians and a blameless, democratic Israeli state.

Anti-Palestinian racism is thus the rule, not the exception, in American universities and the public square.

Indeed, Dr West’s scathing resignation letter only confirms this reality when he states, "to witness a faculty enthusiastically support a candidate for tenure then timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration's hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting."

But Dr West's case brings to light another, more pernicious, dimension of anti-Palestinian racism. It is used as political cover for anti-Black systemic racism.

In addition to his countless academic achievements, Cornel West has been on the front lines of social justice combating anti-Black systemic racism - since well before the current moment of racial reckoning. A student of the 1960s civil rights movement, Dr West published Race Matters in 1993 at a time when critics of the dominant colourblind narrative were ostracized.

"Once Dr West’s progressive values encroached on the pro-Israel hegemony within US academia, his distinguished accomplishments, educational pedigree, or prestigious titles suddenly evaporated"

He boldly asserted the necessity for a race-conscious approach to stop mass incarceration, inter-generational poverty, and other systemic harms to African American communities.

The ensuing political maelstrom positioned him as a principled, progressive public intellectual willing to challenge abuses of power in politics and academia. That he was willing to call out anti-Semitism within Black communities further distinguished him among progressive Black leaders.

Once Dr West’s progressive values encroached on the pro-Israel hegemony within US academia, his distinguished accomplishments, educational pedigree, or prestigious titles suddenly evaporated. His defence of Palestinian human rights reverted him into the stereotype of “a dangerous Black man.” A keen intellect coupled with courageous activism proved to be the weapon most feared by pro-Israeli special interest groups.

Perspectives

Dr West ultimately paid a high price for his principled advocacy in defence of Palestinians' humanity.

To be sure, Black, anti-racist public intellectuals have long been the most threatening figures in US academia. For who else is most deeply impacted by anti-Black systemic racism and simultaneously equipped to produce the knowledge necessary to upend it? One need only look to the attacks on Derrick Bell, Angela Davis and Charles Ogletree on account of their direct challenges to white supremacy. 

When anti-racism work expands to include Palestinian human rights, the threat becomes existential for faculty, administrators, and alumni intent on retaining their hegemony over discourse on Israel and Palestine.

Take the case of Marc Lamont Hill. A distinguished professor at Temple University who extensively researched and published on the similarities between anti-Black and anti-Palestinian oppression. His status as a regular commentator on CNN provided him a national platform to influence public opinion on race and social justice.

"The white dominant system will accept minorities on the condition they do not challenge the system. And that is precisely what progressive Black intellectuals like Cornel West vocally oppose"

That is until he gave a speech at the United Nations as part of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. His right-wing Zionist opponents finally saw their chance to marginalize another progressive Black public intellectual who dared to criticize systemic anti-Palestinian racism in Israel and the Occupied Territories. 

Taking straight from the Orientalist playbook used to discredit and defame Palestinian students and faculty, Dr Hill’s critics took nine words from his principled and thoughtful speech, “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” to accuse him of anti-Semitism.

In the ensuing maelstrom, CNN was bombarded with demands to drop Dr Hill as a commentator. The Anti-defamation League (ADL), a leading voice in quashing activism about Palestine on American campuses, disingenuously accused Dr Hill of advocating for the destruction of the state of Israel Temple University alumni and donors called on administrators to fire him. In turn, Dr Hill was subject to an aggressive public campaign slandering him as anti-Semitic. 

None of his trailblazing work combatting anti-Black racism was recognized as a demonstration of his defence of human rights for all people, including Palestinians, Muslims, and Jews.

Fortunately, tenure protected Marc Lamont Hill from being fired from Temple University.  But the intense political and economic pressure imposed on CNN did not shield him from being effectively blacklisted from the channel.

Whatever rhetorical commitments CNN made to diversity proved vapid in the face of right-wing Zionist pressure. This type of vulnerability is ingrained in anti-Black racism in US professional and intellectual circles. The white dominant system will accept minorities on the condition they do not challenge the system. And that is precisely what progressive Black intellectuals like Cornel West vocally oppose.

Combating systemic anti-Black racism is an inter-generational project. So, too, is the defence of academic freedom at universities that are increasingly beholden to special interest groups and donors who erroneously believe they can purchase control of our curriculum and scholarship. Should they succeed, Dr West’s warning of “an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy” in the academy will prove prescient. 


Sahar Aziz is professor of law at Rutgers Law School, founding director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights, and author of The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom.

Follow her on Twitter: @saharazizlaw

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.