My late friend the poet Wanda Coleman, a street-fighting homegirl from South Central Los Angeles who titled her first book “Mad Dog Black Lady,” used to call herself, only half-jokingly, an “ethnovictimecologist.” Her mock-social-scientific self-identification spoke to her deep study and broad experience of racism in everyday life. Just as she cynically approved of the O.J. Simpson verdict, she probably would have found the recent actions of UC Santa Cruz’s Afrikan/Black Student Alliance an encouraging expression of uppity people-of-color’s power to make white liberals uncomfortable.
So uncomfortable that Chancellor George Blumenthal humbly capitulated to their demands — the most ironic of which, mandatory “diversity training,” evidently does not extend to their own confused equation of Jews with white people and Zionists with racists. Verbal abuse of such straw figures is undoubtedly rationalized in the name of free speech, even though it also suggests that some speech is freer than others.
Intimidating liberals, also known as Mau-Mauing, has been a popular tactic in Black Nationalist circles since the 1960s. Amiri Baraka in his autobiography has a telling anecdote about a group of activists visiting Harry Belafonte at his Upper West Side Manhattan home to extract a cash donation to their Black Arts theater project in Harlem. Baraka, a celebrated poet formerly known as LeRoi Jones, at the time figured that thuggish aggression would be an effective way to coerce the singer, who had made his fortune entertaining white people.
But Belafonte, who had also marched in the South for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and had faced far scarier aggressors than Baraka and his comrades, told them flatly to get lost. He wasn’t impressed by their black leather jackets, tough-guy posturing, militant rhetoric or bad manners. In Baraka’s retrospective recounting of the incident he acknowledges respect for Belafonte’s cool dismissal of their bluster.
Oakland’s Black Panther Party of that era was also confrontational, following the police around with their own armed patrols, as well as serving breakfasts to children and instilling racial pride in their community. The fact that some of their leaders, like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, were gangsters at heart who had committed various and serious crimes complicates their legacy as heroic resisters of honky oppression.
Surely the UCSC students who commandeered the administration building were channeling such role models of rebellion when they strong-armed Chancellor Blumenthal into folding to their demands. They were savvier than the group a couple of years ago who blocked Highway 17 for several hours in protest against rising tuition. Those students were eventually dislodged, arrested and charged with punishable crimes. The California Highway Patrol does not take kindly to such disruptive obstruction of a major public thoroughfare.
But UCSC is a soft target, not a realistic proving ground for guerrilla actions in the larger world. While UC campuses represent the corporate bureaucracy of a state institution, they also (at best) stand for open-mindedness, free inquiry, intellectual curiosity and tolerance — i.e., a liberal education. They are inherently “safe spaces” for informed debate, rational discourse and experimental discovery; for studying outside one’s comfort zone and entertaining diverse ideas. Dogmatic adherence to ideology — the kind of conformist thinking unfortunately common in some current academic settings — should be questioned routinely, even by those who may be sympathetic to a cause as worthy as racial justice.
Self-righteous rebels of the left and resentful hooligans of the right who invoke their victimhood to justify aggressive antisocial behavior, even if they win one skirmish against perceived oppression, are not necessarily doing themselves or their causes any favors in the longer struggle for public opinion and better policies. I hope the student activists who Mau-Maued Blumenthal will pursue their studies conscientiously enough to learn that even highly-paid administrators like him, and schools like the embattled University of California, are not what’s holding them back, and are not the enemy.
Stephen Kessler was a graduate student in literature at UCSC from 1968 to 1970 before taking his rebellion off campus. He writes regularly for the Sentinel.
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