Justice for Professor Steven Salaita and the Family of Michael Brown and Residents of Ferguson, Missouri: Statement of the Department of African American Studies
University ofIllinois Urbana Champaign
The Department of African American Studies (AFRO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) calls for justice for Professor Steven Salaita, a distinguished scholar and teacher, whose offer of a tenured faculty position in American Indian Studies at Illinois was rescinded by Chancellor Phyllis Wise on August 1, 2014. We also call attention to the case of Michael Brown, the 18-year old African American youth who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 and buried on August 25, 2014. While many will not see these two cases as linked, our view is that they are. Both raise troubling concerns about injustice and inequities, and the rights that communities and peoples have to fight back against conditions of oppression, both here in the U.S. and around the world. Discussions about these two events have erupted publicly in the nation and the world, and both affect the discussion of racism and our efforts to combat it here at UIUC. These two events thus provide “teachable moments” for our own education regarding social justice and equality.
Opinions differ among AFRO faculty on several issues related to the Salaita case. But faculty in our Department are steadfast and united in our commitment to defending academic freedom, shared governance, the free exchange of ideas, and the right to express dissenting views. We are also deeply committed to fighting racism. Professor Salaita is Palestinian-American, a group highly underrepresented in the U.S. academy. Critics have blasted his outspoken political views on the Israel-Palestine conflict on social media. We see parallels between Professor Salaita’s case and those of black scholars and activists, then and now. Historically, great black thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Paul Robeson, Claudia Jones, Eslanda Robeson, and C.L.R. James were silenced and persecuted for speaking out definitely against racism, colonialism, and war. Black people have also been the targets of hate speech.
Because of this, we believe the revocation of Professor Salaita’s job offer represents an affront to the intellectual integrityand self-governance of the ethnic studies units at Illinois (African American Studies, American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Latina/o Studies), and to the study of people of color and underrepresented people. It is part of a disturbing trend in which universities across the country have targeted outspoken faculty of color and shut down ethnic studies departments. Sadly, we believe the Chancellor’s decision has further entrenched a climate of racial intolerance that so many across campus have worked very hard to improve, and which has even opened the door to violence against people of color. We are already aware of a case in which members of the faculty community have recently advanced disturbing views which further undercut statements regarding support for academic freedom and faculty governance at the University of Illinois.
Similarly, we believe the tragic killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer and the heavy-handed police response to the African American community and protesters in Ferguson reflect deepening oppression in contemporary U.S. society, oppression based on race and class inequities.
Beyond this killing, this is revealed by several measures of well-being when Ferguson’s Black population (67% ) is compared to Whites (29%): median income: $35,416 (B) and $59,754 (W); poverty, 27.2% (B) and 9.7% (W); unemployment: 11.4% (B) and 5.2%(W); homeownership, 43.5% (B) and 72.9% (W); and median household wealth, $6,446 (B) and $91,405 (W). The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson is not an isolated case—with similar killing s of unarmed Black men and women in Florida, NewYork, California, and in too many cities to list. Similarly, the worsening economic and social conditions facing Black citizens across the U.S. are not isolated developments but reflect broad national trends.
It is urgent, therefore, that while we express and concern in the case of Professor Salaita, we must also keep before us the deepening plight facing Black people across the U.S. These events contribute to a worsening climate and growing tension at the University of Illinois. This Department hopes to contribute to finding solutions by informing and educating the University and the wider community of our perspectives on events in Ferguson and the Salaita case, both of which have significant but not necessarily equivalent implications for “race relations” and the quality of life in our academic community.
We believe it is not too late to find just solutions to these matters. We call on Chancellor Wise to continue the process of hiring Professor Salaita as a tenured associate professor in American Indian Studies at Illinois. This will require the University of Illinois Trustees to reverse its stipulation to Chancellor Wise that they would not approve his appointment if presented. We call on the University’s Trustees to engage in the same kind of full and objective discussion of the merits of Professor Salaita’s academic record that University committees in the Department of American Indian Studies, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Office of the Provost conducted before concluding that Professor Salaita should be awarded tenure at the University of Illinois. The Trustees and the Chancellor should also consult these faculty representatives.
These steps will contribute to restoring the operations of shared governance, respect for Ethnic Studies and the role of faculty peer review in the process of evaluating faculty, and the protection of free speech. In addition, we have deep concerns regarding other vital issues. This year’s admissions statistics continues a troubling multi-year trend: smaller and smaller enrollments of incoming AfricanAmerican students since Project 500 in 1968. We call for a concerted effort to reverse this trend—a Project 500/2.0. In addition, we call on the University to expand its continuing support for Ethnic Studies, and the study of the experiences of Black people and underrepresented people of color in the U.S. and around the world. Such courses should be required as part of the general education curriculum and as a graduation requirement. Deeper study and understanding of the conditions in U.S. communities such as Ferguson and the plight facing the peoples in the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world must be fostered.
These are appropriate and urgent academic measures that can help transform the climate on campus, and enhance the academic and intellectual life at the University of Illinois. They will also contribute to realizing the strategic goals of diversity and inclusivity that must be achieved if the University of Illinois wishes to lay claim to being “the preeminent public research university with a land-grant mission.”
Ronald Bailey, Head