As with everything else going on in the new today, historians should think about the protesters on campuses from Missouri to Yale in historical context. Most notably, we as historians should begin to think about the world in which most of these protesters grew up. Shaped by 9/11, the War in Iraq, the aftermath of Katrina, the 2007-2008 economic crash, and the election of Barack Obama, these students have a world view profoundly different from earlier generations of activists, especially those of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Such a comparison is understandable, but we shouldn’t limit our historical imagination to automatically comparing today to the 1960s. It is similar to, say, comparisons between Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin made when Between the World and Me was released—understandable, but needing nuance to reveal anything new or profound about either writer. The same is true of the desire to compare the current campus activism with the Civil Rights Movement of the past.
Historical comparisons should serve, ultimately, to make us think about how much the past teaches us about the present. But the past remains “another country”—perhaps we can understand and even relate to it, but the past is never fully knowable. With that said, I am surprised more comparisons have not been made with, say, the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s. Those protests often encountered conservative backlash and were part of a polarized political climate. Yet even a comparison with the 1980s can yield but so much. At the heart of current debates are arguments over the idea of “diversity,” coupled with a Black Lives Matter—infused sense of urgency among activists. Remember, many of the students who are part of the University of Missouri demonstrations participated in the Ferguson protests last year, a galvanizing experience for future protest if there ever was one.
The two generations, the protesters of the Civil Rights era and today, have experienced different worlds. Just consider the use of the term “diversity” by colleges and universities in their recruitment of African Americans and other students of color. Nothing like this existed in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. Precisely because these students live in a United States where outright racism and discrimination is outlawed, their demands for further integration on a college campus may be difficult for some to understand. And yet, like ideas of a “post-racial” society being proclaimed with the election of Barack Obama in November 2008, the concept of “diversity” on a college campus is one that needs further defining by everyone. That includes not just protesters but also college professors and administrators. The development of the idea of “diversity” on college campuses in the last thirty years has, arguably, left many students, regardless of race or political affiliation, disappointed. We have gone from black student unions and multicultural student centers to…what, precisely? That is the question at the core of many of the demands put forth by students on college campuses across the nation. At the very least that is how I interpret both the protests on college campuses and the conservative backlash to them. In an age of Black Lives Matter, Dylan Roof’s Emanuel AME massacre, and polarized rhetoric about immigration and Islam, this movement is but one outgrowth of how African American and other students driven by social justice view the situation.
Meanwhile, conservative (and some liberal) commentators are concerned about the intellectual trappings of the modern university. Debates about trigger warnings and censorship on campus collide with concerns about racial and ethnic diversity, along with a variety of other issues that have animated campus activism for years. As is the case with much else today (and in the recent past), polarization rules. As activists press for more on the issue of a concrete realization of “diversity,” the backlash will only grow in intensity. What sort of a university will be produced on the other end of these debates, it is impossible to say.
With that, we need to carefully consider the history of the African American middle and working classes since 1968. The works of Ellis Cose bear consideration here. His 1994 book The Rage of a Privileged Class argued that middle class African Americans felt that, despite all their material success, true advancement in American society was still blocked to them due to race. Cose’s argument changed considerably by the release of his 2011 book, The End of Anger, which showed that African Americans had become more optimistic on racial issues in the immediate aftermath of the election of Barack Obama. Both of these books utilized surveys of middle class African Americans. I bring these books up because they capture some sense of the ways in which middle class blacks view society—and many of these folks have sons and daughters going to institutions like Yale or Missouri.
Cose himself argued in a USA Today column from this summer that denial of a racial problem still cripples African American advancement in society. It would be interesting for Cose to do a new survey, comparing and contrasting the ways in which middle class African Americans and their children view the world. After all, there should be no assumption of a uniform black public opinion—just consider the rioting in Baltimore this summer, a city with an African American mayor and police commissioner.
Meanwhile, opinion polls show African Americans continue to be optimistic about their future—just as white Americans view their position as been worse than ever before. How you see the history of the last 60 years, according to this poll, may hinge on your racial background. Such varying views of American society are worrying. However, they should not be too surprising when examining the history of post-Civil Rights America: debates about affirmative action and Southern strategies, growing gaps of wealth inequality tied with multiple wars overseas—all have contributed to a polarized society. It would be a mistake to think of the current protests as separate from these larger factors.
It would be a mistake to wrap up this post without thinking about the life and legacy of Jerry G. Watts. His book on Ralph Ellison, Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and the Afro-American Intellectual Life should not just be required reading for intellectual historians of 20th century America, but should be read by anyone who wants to pursue both the life of the mind and the life of an academic devoted to publicly engaged scholarship. It was an issue Ellison grappled with his entire public career, as Watts deftly argued in his book. I do not believe my views on “public intellectuals” or engaging the public would be the same without reading Watts’ book. His book also includes a sustained and valuable critique of Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.This, along with his book on Amiri Baraka’s public career, are both worth reading when considering American intellectual history since the Second World War. Nor do I think about graduate school the same way after reading his funny but important essay about the life of graduate students, reproduced here.
This tribute does not do him justice. It comes amid an era when his arguments about the struggle of African American intellectuals to balance between serving the broader African American community and to be true to their own intellectual curiosity become more important with renewed debates about “black public intellectuals.” Ta-Nehisi Coates has already declined to be thought of as such; Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson have done battle over the idea. The New Republic searches for more, but Jerry Watts’ work reminds us of the historical difficulty of being an African American intellectual in search of artistic mastery during an age of racial and cultural turmoil. I only wish he were around to say more, because as with the careers of most accomplished academics, I suspect he still had more to give to all of us.