Earlier this year, President Michael Roth penned an article that introduced a need for an “affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions” (“The Opening of the Liberal Mind” ). It was disappointing not only to see an attempt to re-write history and the meanings of historically relevant, racially-unique terms, but also to observe the assumption that interdisciplinary programs like African American Studies, Asian American Studies or Latin American Studies do not offer a platform for a full spectrum of political ideologies. African American Studies classes, in particular, feature and attend to diverse, broad, and varied perspectives through theoretical and empirical approaches to history, literature, politics, culture, and art of the African diaspora.
Narrowly defining the opening of “the liberal mind” as the implementation of affirmative action for conservative ideas fails to recognize how eurocentrism and anti-blackness remains the norm across collegiate institutions in the United States. To achieve the depth of political diversity that President Roth calls for, we must first dismantle the Eurocentric paradigm instead of trying to repaint it with conservative ideologies.
President Roth irresponsibly appropriates the term “affirmative action” and as a result contorts the legitimate historical context surrounding the policies. His statement ignores the real impact of race and racism in our everyday lives and the consequences of progressive policies in pushing campuses to be a space for inclusion and diversity. At its core, the origins of affirmative action sought to address the structural and institutional barriers to higher education and employment for historically marginalized groups. These barriers are grounded in the same racist principles and discriminatory practices that persist as a means to stifle progress for underrepresented groups.
Conservative, libertarian, and religious ideas are not structurally or institutionally barred from Wesleyan’s campus. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators who hold right-leaning views are not systematically oppressed for their beliefs. Although we recognize the complex legal and historical contexts of affirmative action, we must all agree on its sole, foundational purpose: to remediate racial inequality and achieve equal opportunity. Presenting a new definition of affirmative action presumes that we have achieved a post-racial society.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is no new meaning to “affirmative action” when Ethnic Studies does not have full institutional investment at Wesleyan. There is no “new intersectionality” if we have not embraced and enacted the “old”. No term should be re-defined when its original definition has not been achieved. The audacity to suggest that we need affirmative action for conservative thought suggests that the original work is just beginning.
Let’s not forget that the nation’s most expansive affirmative action legislation–the GI Bill of Rights of 1944–benefitted white men and, according to scholars, functioned as though it was a whites-only policy. The result was widespread disenfranchisement of African American veterans and the impact of that divisive and racist history impacted generations of Americans.
In the wake of explicit displays of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, many in our country are in search of a more complete truth. Academic institutions that offer Ethnic Studies, “the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States” (Department of Ethnic Studies-Berkeley) serve as a space to access these truths. It is not accidental that both Ethnic Studies and Affirmative Action arose during the 1960s, a time of great racial turmoil and the battle for civil rights. Institutions were held accountable as newly integrated students demanded that their institution’s academic offerings reflect the various racial and ethnic backgrounds being integrated into the campus.
Considering Wesleyan’s history, the Fisk Hall takeover was initiated by students in 1969, through which a list of demands were proposed to the university administration. One of those demands bore fruit in the creation of the Center for African American Studies, which has been at the helm of providing students, faculty, staff and Middletown residents with the tools to persist despite institutional marginalization.
We should understand that diversifying the faculty and increasing student diversity does not translate into equity and inclusion. Bringing two new African American Studies faculty hires into an inhospitable environment, then, exacerbates our issues of faculty retention instead of solving them. This year African American Studies majors struggled to find thesis advisors. Only through the relentless dedication of over-extended faculty members were all thesis writers able to obtain the fundamental support required to execute an honors thesis. This situation underscores the ways in which the university’s structural neglect directly impacts the academic and intellectual possibilities of students. This is unacceptable. We must dynamically innovate the long-term support mechanisms and development opportunities for faculty joining the ranks of ethnic studies programs. President Roth’s administration needs to tackle the issues of recruitment, retention, and culture simultaneously.
The dismissive categorization of ethnic studies as a monolithic discipline not fit for diverse political debate and scholarly engagement stands, unfortunately, as confirmation of this institution’s insufficient investment in these academic fields. Wesleyan University must position and promote Ethnic Studies as a discipline that provides diverse and dynamic political discourse at Wesleyan. The Center for African American Studies and the African American Studies program, along with other ethnic studies departments and programs across the country, provide a blueprint for political discourse.
We can all play a role in transforming Wesleyan. We propose the following actions for those interested in supporting this effort:
The Center for African American Studies Advisory Board,
Jalen Alexander ’14, MA ’15
Dreisen Heath ’15
Sadasia McCutchen ’17
Taylor McClain ’17
Hailey Broughton-Jones ’18
Victoria King ’18
Abike Sonubi ’19
Grady Faulkner P ’11
Professor Lois Brown
Dean Renee Johnson-Thornton