You’ve broken my heart for the last time.
That’s what I want to tell white America, but I know it’s not true. My heart will be broken by you over and over and over again before I die.
You’ve broken my heart for the last time.
That’s what I want to tell academia, but that will only be true if I quit (maybe), and on that I am still undecided.
What happens when people are given an enemy?
They show up armed.
Whether the enemy is a box of ballots, a Congress tasked with counting, a police officer who actually wants to protect, or human beings seeking equity after generations of trauma and loss.
In early 2008 I was swept up in the grassroots movement sparked by the Obama campaign. His message of hope and change resonated with me in a way that will probably never happen again. One of his messages was that we are all basically the same. We may have ended up on different sides of certain politicized debates, but there’s more that unites us than divides us.
Well, with all due respect to my younger self, we cannot all be basically the same.
You’ve broken my heart, oh my heart, never for the last time, with your fear and your walls and your refusal to tie your freedom to mine.
No. You may not stand next to me.
The difference between self-centered cynicism and vulnerable compassion may seem small or academic, but the ramifications are too huge to sidestep with calls for unity.
Those who continue to refuse to hear what #BlackLivesMatter and abolition are all about will probably be shocked to learn that today’s broken heart, tear streaks, and inability to eat are the result of reading and watching violence against police officers attempting to protect the Capitol and its occupants from a violent coup.
On January 6th, 2021 the Capitol Police were not the aggressors, despite knowing that angry people were flying to DC for a huge protest against what Congress was about to do. That those people were not met with riot gear speaks to the very double standards #BLM activists protest. There’s a lot we still don’t know about what happened and why, but videos and testimonials have come out painting a much darker, more violent image than what I saw shared on social media when I was supposed to be attending a JMM session.
I need you to know that the fascist, anti-democratic, racist nature of the rage at the Capitol taints everything it touches. I need you to know that it matters whether you are angry at a cop because they are a source of terror or because they are protecting democracy. You can tell it matters because this crowd held Blue Lives Matter flags while beating a (white) officer to death.
I need you to know that there’s a difference between wanting justice and wanting what you think someone owes you personally.
I can’t eat because I keep thinking about the Black officer who is a part of a racist system but on this day was a human being facing a throng of rage and it was his job to protect the Capitol, and the people who were supposed to support him weren’t there. The system he bought into wasn’t there to back him up. He was betrayed by white colleagues. He was spit on and called racial slurs by out-of-town officers. And when it was over, he was alive, and he cried and yelled for all to hear.
Why should that affect me so? Why bring this to the attention of the math community? (Aside from the fact that Every Single Time I can’t do research because of white supremacy I believe I have the right to take up white mathematicians’ time with it.) Perhaps it is because I am also part of a racist system.
And trying to abide by the system didn’t protect me. And being a good colleague doesn’t protect me. And now that I’ve cried, I need to yell for all to hear.
As I watch the slow reckoning (maybe) unfold, seeing who sides with sedition and who sides democracy, I keep thinking about how much those people really just hate Black folks. Those insurgents were as ugly, as angry, as disrespectful, as arrogant, as dangerous as anything I’ve seen and all for a widely discredited failed leader. Yet they see Black and Brown and Queer communities standing up in righteous anger (with medics, and water, and music) and they see something to step on, to squash. It isn’t rational. “We’re doing this for you” said a Blue Lives Matter rioter while assaulting a cop.
That Black officer and I are on two different sides of a certain politicized debate but we have a common heartache—that feeling when you realize they don’t see you. You aren’t a friend or colleague or officer of the law anymore, you are a threat. And they would rather beat you down than be vulnerable and interrogate their own violent tendencies. We share the heartache that comes with investing in a system you’re told will protect you, only to find the opposite is true. We share the need to do what we think is right, even if it benefits our oppressors, even if our colleagues will never understand how much it hurts.
We are not basically all the same, but the difference is not in what we look like, whether or with whom we fall in love, or which lands our ancestors most connected with; the difference is a choice to fully embrace all of humanity, or to do anything less. Because anything less than full acceptance of all that humankind has to offer leaves you open to believing lies tailored to make you see enemies where you could have seen potential allies. We are currently bearing witness to the fatal cost even one big lie can bring.
Contemplating how a big lie coupled with insecurity (economic or otherwise) can poison someone, I turn my mind to mathematics and to academia.
The big lie is meritocracy, the enemy is diversity, the weapon varies.
For some time I’ve been wrestling with my place, not in academia, but in working towards a just world. I never thought I would devote so much of myself to such a cause but I need my heart to stop breaking.
The purpose of research, generally speaking, is to further human knowledge. We must ask, though, to whose benefit? Certainly we don’t all benefit equally (or at all) from such applications of our work as predictive policing and surveillance. Furthermore the practices and norms of academia are in no way required for expanding our knowledge. If we fully embrace all that humankind has to offer, and look to the history of what gets called academic research, we will readily find our system wanting.
If participating in academic research makes me complicit in an oppressive hierarchy which continues to promote racism, sexism, and settler colonialism (along with all the other oppressions), at least I am an educator, you might say.
Again I ask to whose benefit?
If the people in my own community do not benefit from my PhD, who does? And if the career path of academia prevents me from being in a community I know, who benefits? If we fully embrace all that humankind has to offer, it is clear that at every level in every location the American system of education is failing, and that meritocracy is a fantasy. While college professors may be quick to say it’s too late by the time kids are college age, we can’t forget how many bad decisions at each level of a child’s life is based on teachers’ and parents’ perceptions of college admissions. Colleges and universities can change this. Privileged universities can take the lead.
When I look to the history and I look at the present, I have an incredibly hard time justifying academia on anything other than legacy grounds (which, I shouldn’t have to tell you, are no grounds at all). I must admit to be an abolitionist, but abolition does not mean just living the same life but without prisons or, in this case, universities. It means trying to imagine what a world could be like without policing, detention, and in this case without financially backed hierarchies lording over who learns what and how.
I don’t know how we do it, but I’m tired of playing the part Black colleague/committee member/panelist whose voice will be silenced or amplified depending on the audience but who is ultimately trying to save a system that is fundamentally oppressive. To be clear, nobody was on the side of Black people on January 6th. The fascist attack had me praying for Law and Order to save Democracy, but it’s a democracy that has always taken me for granted.
It is time to know with whom you align yourself. It is time to recognize those who are one scare away from justifying, if not outright committing, violence against us. I need you to recognize the danger in the tenured white man prof who says he feels “this department has been good for women” while explaining why we shouldn’t hire one. Before someone gets hurt, not after. It’s hard to break out of the socially acceptable position of peacekeeper. It’s hard to look behind the veneer of someone who hoards power without much obvious effort. You must, though. Somehow. Because honestly the weakness of those who are on my side but say nothing hurts more than the overt racism.
Soon the Trump nightmare will be over, they say, but thousands will still die daily of covid, most of the insurrectionists will still have their jobs, and the country will continue to offer only piecemeal, conditional, risk-free support to Black people.