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Crisis and Contradiction in Black Dartmouth

Sept 5, 2021

By Ian Scott

 

During my freshman year, I was tapped to be part of the Office of Plurality and Leadership’s Visibility Campaign. Ostensibly, the program is meant to raise awareness about gender and power-based violence on campus. I was co-director of the campaign’s performance on men and masculinity. My head was full of ideas going into it. I wanted to attack gender as a colonial construct, explore the ways masculinity is mapped onto Black people, and do my part to chip away at white patriarchy. But after months filled with zoom calls and rehearsals, I was incredibly pessimistic about the performance doing anything worthwhile.  In a Q&A panel after the performance, my doubts were cemented. When asked what the experience taught them, my co-director said Visibility was an example of how students and the College can work together to make change. In the midst of virtual schooling, housing insecurity, and mental health crises, that comment was a lifeline for the increasingly unpopular administration. Hearing that I realized the true purpose of Visibility: to maintain the College’s mask of progressivism and benevolence while doing nothing to actually end the oppression that students face at Dartmouth. And I helped. 

The university is meant to produce the next generation of the professional class. All the training and social conditioning they undergo in their academic years culminates in a career of maintaining the capitalist order. Most students have no illusions about this and pursue this in hopes of reaping wealth, comfort, and stability in return. Many Black students, however, also believe that their labor will somehow contribute to the empowerment of Black people at large. Students dream of doing this in different ways: changing government institutions from the inside, philanthropy, ingenious new products or business ventures, and so on. But these have always been the aspirations of the Black bourgeoisie and those who aspire to join it. The heart of Black struggle is far away from the prestigious, glittering halls of the Ivy League. The poor and working communities take the brunt of state violence and exploitation while being the primary organizers against it. It is only after this struggle comes to a head, like in the riots that raked across the country last year, that the Black professional class hits the scene. They swoop down with degrees, high level connections and placating speeches that divert spontaneous, radical energy into reformist ends. This is how abolishing the police devolved from setting police stations ablaze to electing a virulent racist and a former district attorney. And for their work, the Black Bourgeoisie get to sup wealth and status from the bones of the dead. This has been happening in cycles for generations, with the recent reckoning with the Black Lives Matter Global Network being only the most recent instance. Black students who are unconscious of their history and class position are doomed to repeat the cycle. And for many of you, Dartmouth will begin to shepherd you down that path in your first year. 

In the blitz of pre-matriculation programming, one comment you will hear over and over from students, faculty, and staff is to never be afraid to take an opportunity. Certainly, this messaging is congruent with other sweet altruisms like “stepping into your power” or “knowing your value,” but really, it is meant to prime you for saying “yes” to committing your time for (unpaid) work on task forces for diversity, equity, and inclusion that do nothing but build good PR for the College. You think that by being in the right room, you can work for the benefit of all Black people at Dartmouth. So, you take all the opportunities you can get. You may even run for Student Assembly. You came here to make something of yourself, and there is no faster way than a job offer from someone in a position of power—and there is no shortage of powerful people at Dartmouth. 

Government officials, intelligence officers, political pundits, and academics abound in Dartmouth’s networks, and a spot on a social justice committee is your in to network with them. Soon, you can have connections at policy think tanks, banks, and consulting firms. You could even build a personal relationship with the President and the Dean. Artificially, you are elevated as a leader in the Black community on campus. But the pressures of balancing academics, work, and social life with an ever-growing array of titles, working groups, and responsibilities will overwhelm you. When Dartmouth’s racism is put on full display, you will be called to ease the tension. Gradually, you are alienated from the student body, particularly the students organizing outside the bounds of College sanction. Either way, so much of your time is sunk into working within the College that there is no time for committing to other organizing work. In this way, you settle into the role of an institutional lap dog. 

So how do we get out from under this? The key is letting go of the idea that there is a path to liberation through the institution. Dartmouth cannot be separated from white supremacy. Slavery and genocide birthed it in the first place. Black students must be discerning when it comes to fielding the invitations put before them. We must determine whether our actions will weaken the systems that keep Black people down or legitimize them. Most importantly, we must make peace with the fact that striking out against oppression is not a comfortable experience. There will be repression from the students and the administration. Dartmouth students engaged in revolutionary activities have been surveilled, harassed, and expelled in the past. Frank Wilderson, for example, was tailed by the FBI during his foreign study in Trinidad. In his senior year, he was arrested and expelled for occupying the dining hall. Radicalism is not for those seeking the comfort of high class life. Stepping out of the realm of “respectable” resistance forfeits everything. But it is not done because it is permitted. It is done because it is necessary. The anti-apartheid struggle waged at Dartmouth, for instance, was not decided by handshakes and sweetness. It was decided by students who had the courage to occupy sections of campus, run propaganda campaigns, and storm a Board of Trustees meeting to force them to divest from the South African government. This is how we contribute to the liberation struggle. 

In order to put ourselves in the best position for reviving this tradition, there must be unity among Black people on this campus. Over the years, the community has become more fractious and its organizations more diffuse and diluted. We must grapple with contradictions like homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, sexism, and classism that prevent us from coming together. Black students should be active participants in our community organisations and work to wrest them away from roles that serve the institution (recruitment drives for banks and financial firms, for example). Study and practice of radical politics will give clarity to our analysis of the institution and guide actions against it. In doing so, we can revive the culture of dissent that once flourished at Dartmouth and do our part to build a better world.

 

The Dartmouth Radical