Denouncing Discrimination, Enforcing Inequality

Author
Karl E. H. Seigfried

May 18, 2017

In recent months, there has been a notable uptick in public positions against prejudice being declared by academics. This is understandable and commendable, given the increase in hate crimes, rise of the alt-right, and resurgence of old hate groups.

The extreme right wing of U.S. politics has become newly emboldened by the divisive rhetoric of the Trump campaign and presidency. According to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, there was a 23.3% increase in reported hate crimes in 2016 from the previous year. Washington, D.C., alone saw a 62% increase. Virtually unheard of before the last presidential election season began, figures associated with the alt-right—including University of Chicago alumni Richard Spencer and Julia Hahn—are now well-known figures on the American political scene. The Nationalist Front, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white nationalist groups have been building alliances in order to, in the words of one KKK imperial wizard, “make this country great again, like Trump is saying.”

In response, a noticeable number of academics have made public declarations against this rise of racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise hateful speech and action. Given my own interests, I’ve particularly noticed this happening in religious, medieval, and Scandinavian studies. In the proclamations by scholars in these and other academic areas, a common theme is pushback against extremist appropriation of sources and scholarship in the given field of study.

This work is admirable, but it does seem to aim at easy targets. Few academics today openly support the Milo Yiannopouloses of the world, so denouncing the new breed of public hatemonger can seem less like a brave stand than a signaling of virtue. By picking low-hanging fruit and standing against the most obviously bigoted targets, protesting professors avoid addressing parallel problems in their own disciplines.

One example of this trend is the ongoing multi-author series on “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the ‘Whites Only’ Medieval World,” begun in February on the Public Medievalist website. Responding to media coverage of “neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist nationalists” embracing the medieval period, the stated goal of the series is “to expose and tear down the white-supremacist-tainted version of the Middle Ages, and to lift up some of the stories of those medieval people of color you may not have heard of before.”

Of the 20 installments in the series, all but one are written by white authors. Although there is celebration of non-white actors being cast in “medievalist roles” such as Guinevere and Heimdall, not one of the essays mentions the lack of diversity within medieval studies itself. Searching the departments represented by the list of authors, I found no non-white medievalist faculty members. Given that “Tearing Down the ‘Whites Only’ Medieval World” is the stated goal of the series, the whiteness of the academic field is the oliphant in the room.

On JSTOR Daily, Mary Dockray-Miller of Lesley University recently posted “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” She presents a fascinating history of the teaching of Anglo-Saxon language and literature in the American academy and their use in the wider society to promote notions of white supremacy. She ties this history to the alt-right “resurrecting medievally tinged celebrations of ‘European heritage’ as part of its racist agenda” and calls for today’s academic Anglo-Saxonists “to confront the racism inherent in the history of the discipline” and “to communicate Anglo-Saxon history as part of a multicultural and inclusive public discourse.”

As in the Public Medievalist essays, alt-right appropriation of medievalism for racist ends is denounced, and the solution offered is a broadening of the curriculum to establish a “multicultural Middle Ages.” Although the racist past of the discipline is foregrounded, no mention is made of diversifying the faculty that teaches the subject today. If Old English really does have “a serious image problem,” a full assessment of the issue requires reflection on issues of race in the hiring practices of the discipline itself.

These various essays ignore the monoracial makeup of existing departments while promoting the idea that all-white faculties can effectively counter white nationalist co-optation of their subjects by adding new readings to their syllabi. Why work to diversify the faculty when the current faculty are fully able “to lift up some of the stories of those medieval people of color”? To assert that white nationalism in the public sphere can be countered with white saviorhood in the academic realm is quite questionable.

Perhaps some of the rigorous and passionate academic challenge to the upsurge of white nationalism and other hate today can be refocused on academia itself. The same scholars who criticize the alt-right, call for expansion of subjects covered, and declare support for various embattled communities need to openly address and diligently fight the lack of diversity of their own faculties. Until the institutions reflect the diversity of their wider communities, it’s all too easy for the public to scoff at professors who decry prejudice while perpetuating systems of inequality in their own workplaces.

The clearest way forward is one that even many progressive scholars don’t want to hear about: affirmative action in academic hiring. This is the clearest answer, not the simplest or the quickest. We need a coherent system designed and put into place by individual departments with support from their parent institutions, and we need it now.

Commitment to hiring members of underrepresented communities as tenure-track appointments will not work out without a wide pool of postgraduates in the given field. Wide pools of postgraduates will not exist without diversity within undergraduate programs. Diversity within undergraduate programs cannot happen without robust recruiting at the secondary education level. There must be simultaneous commitment at all levels for any real change to happen.

Departmental hiring committees have to move beyond tired claims of objectivity that regularly lead to the whitest candidate being the one hired and instead declare, for example, that the next five hires must be made from underrepresented communities. Committee members must be self-reflective enough to stop each other from essentializing applicants and, for instance, only considering African-American candidates when the opening is in African-American religion. The same affirmative stance must be taken for graduate and undergraduate admissions. Professors in bookish fields like religious studies must learn a lesson from their colleagues in the performing arts and regularly visit high schools in underserved communities to recruit for their departments. Some current faculty may find all of this uncomfortable. Real change often is.

Academic discussion of serious and sensitive social issues often gets trapped in an endless discursive round-robin, with one scholar declaring “I’d like to push back against that statement” and another asking “Where is power in that narrative?” We no longer have time for such pedantic paralysis. When neo-Nazis are literally marching in the streets looking to assault anyone who denounces their beliefs, we need to stop the endless parsing and take action.

Resources

- “U.S. hate crimes up 20 percent in 2016 fueled by election campaign-report.” Reuters. March 13, 2017.

- Reeves, Jay. “With Trump in power, white-power groups try to build alliances.” Boston Globe. April 29, 2017.

- Sturtevant, Paul. “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the ‘Whites Only’ Medieval World.” The Public Medievalist. February 7, 2017.

- Dockray-Miller, Mary. “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” JSTOR Daily. May 3, 2017.

Image: William of Nottingham lecturing his students (MS. Laud Misc. 165, fol. 211r)


Author, Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried, is an author, educator, and performer finishing his third graduate degree, an MA at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is President of Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago and the first practitioner of Ásatrú to enter one of the Divinity School's graduate programs. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.norsemyth.org.

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe here to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

See all articles by Karl E. H. Seigfried