My campus is currently in debate over a document that a coalition of students presented to the University president about making the campus more racially inclusive. We are are mainly a white, upper-middle class private campus. The original document had worrisome features. Being largely in agreement with the structural analysis that the students provided, I thought the majority of students would be put off by the authoritarian rhetoric used in the document – and this has largely been the case. Except that, with this language, it sparked campus-wide debates and discussions about racism in America that might not have taken place if the language was prettified, flowery and easier to dismiss as pansy liberal pouting. And it needs to be reassessed in light of its democratic influence.
I assumed at first that the coalition was less interested in opening up discussion and more interested in throwing a list of demands at the administration and then turning their backs until they had been fulfilled. In this sense it would have appealed strictly to authority, while using no authority of its own to increase its influence on the administration. Most importantly, it would not have used popular support as a necessary component of that authority to have a legitimate democratic influence on the campus. I was worried that this model was more akin to what D.C. politics has been reduced to, what economists call “rent-seeking”, and what the ordoliberals call the “re-feudalization” of democratic societies, and what might make more sense to call the lobbyist industrial complex.
But the group is interested in using more diffused methods of power to influence the University administration, by hosting discussions and talks about racism and structural inequalities in American society, by getting students involved. Presenting its case very radically may mean it ends up settling somewhere in the middle, yet without this radical presentation perhaps nothing at all would have been achieved. One of the coalition supporters commented today that the other students were so imbibed with white privilege that they feel they need to be approached in exactly the right way in order to address systemic racism in American society, that they needed to be appeased in order to take action and negate their own privilege. I think this is largely true, and is a better justification for the affirmative language, for jarring students from complacency, rather than appeasing students with flimsy support groups and head-nodding committees.