Power and Control

The question of black students and black studies and the conflict that that's been creating at universities like this and others around the country I think has to be understood basically around the question of control and the nature of the university.

That was a central sort of question that black students

That was a central sort of question that black students were attempting to wrestle with in the black student movement in the later part of the '60's. Because they were in a white university many people began to argue that the basic concern of black students really was the question of identity. That they were new on the college campus, that they were among white people in the sort of relationship that is, the character of relationship or the intimacy of relationship, that was new to them. That they were from largely different kinds of environments. That they were insecure in their positions in the ghetto and out of this insecurity came a sort of politics of identity. That they were concerned to somehow shore up their position, trying to reenforce it, enarmour it, if you will, with a kind of conscious and active self-assertion.

Some people went so far as to assert that the basic problem was that black students were afraid of competition, that their real concern was that they didn't believe that they were competent enough to compete with white students at these institutions.

I'm not going to argue that perhaps some of these things were not also involved. What I am going to argue with is that these things determined the central thrust of that movement, because it's not the way I've seen it nor the way I've known it.

The basic motive of black students was to somehow reflect the struggle and the movement that was going on in the urban communities. And the concern in those urban communities was that black people were confronted basically by the problem of power differential and institutional control. The lack of power left black people in a severe disadvantage in being able to control and direct institutions that directly affected them. Some students learning from some of the political orators of the time, of course the late Malxolm X perhaps being the most prominent, began to argue very strenuously that it wasn't a matter of men of good will coming together. It wasn't a matter of agreeing on some kind of a universal con. It wasn't a matter of moral sussion. The problem was basically a question of power and control. And what that meant for black students was who is going to define, in sort of broad terms.

I think it is important to point out that the concept of black studies is probably much narrower than the concept that people were trying to work with. What people were trying to talk about was what should education for blacks in this period in our history, given all that we've been through and that we know, what should it be for us? I mention it only to indicate that people had a wider concept, at least they were struggling around a broader notion than simply black studies. But in the ebb and flow of confrontation and negotiation and struggle, it was pared down to the notion of black studies. And again that flowed simply out of the level at which white people generally could enter into the discussion which was a direct function of how they perceived all that was going on among black students, that was the identity question again.

Thus, the attitude of whites was, "All right, these blacks are having problems with adjusting and they're rightfully concerned that there are serious areas of omission. And some areas were there is omission that is humiliating and insulting to them. We can conceive that and these things need to be addressed. And so we can understand in terms of Afro-American Studies or black studies for the purposes of doing something about the identity problems of black students, allowing them to learn something of themselves."

Black students, suffering from the limitations that they had to work with, that is, organization, being young, the idea being as new to them as it was to the people that were hearing it. Black students, suffering from more serious sorts of limitations, that is not fully understanding the legacy of the heritage of African Studies--the studies of African people whether it be here in the United States or any place else, found themselves retreating to the position, where they said. "Yes, all right, we're talking about black studies." But still that concept had serious ramifications because it began to say what should be the purpose of the university.

What they were talking about, or what they were challenging the university with after all the confrontations were over with was, what is actually the political function of education. What is the university as an institution in relationship to the larger society? And some of them began to see that education is essentially political.

The next question was if we're going to have a black studies program how is it to be organized in the university. And the next serious problem was one of autonomy. Most institutions agreed to put up some sort of a program. At those institutions where black students were weak in numbers, they had the weakest programs. You can find that. A very clear correlation. At one institution I know they brought in one man with one desk and a part-time secretary and said that's an Afro-American Studies program.

Another one that called itself being modest in the city university system, gave them 40,000 dollars, told them now go buy your furniture, pay the director's salary, hire your secretarial help, pay for your postage, and give us a top flight quality program worthy of academic pursuit. Most of them said we'll bring in a coordinator and they were very unclear about what he would coordinate.

Thus, what I thought was perhaps a hopeful movement in higher education seems to be somewhat in disarray. Many of the programs have fallen apart, usually because the design initially was such that they couldn't do anything but fall apart. It's like the whole notion of a slave. People would say you're a slave because you can't be anything else, and, of course, you can't be anything else since you're only fit to be a slave. It's the same sort of cyclical thing with black studies. They say, "Well, you know, you didn't really come up to what we thought you were going to be, you didn't have any earth shattering insights in two and a half years with a zero budget, so that we don't see why the university ought to go on committing itself. Or, you haven't sufficiently related to the rest of the university.

Many of these institutions have fallen apart. The few that are still around find themselves so much under stress and strain that the original notions that were there that tended to inspire people about what could be new and creative in research and in teaching is being lost as the institution bears down to pull it back to the center and toward orthodoxy