As expected, the identity inquisition! How questioning ‘systemic racism’ ruined an academic’s career and got him branded a heretic
is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte
Academic freedom in the Anglo-American world is in deep trouble. As the case of Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida Charles Negy demonstrates, the prevailing consensus that “systemic racism” and “white privilege” dominates society is beyond discussion.
The minute that Negy called into question the narrative of systemic racism, he became a target of an angry mob of students and university administrators. Almost instantly, the hashtag #UCFfirehim was launched, a petition was circulated, and the Student Senate passed a resolution condemning Negy. Local cancel culture warriors got busy and organized protests on campus and in front of Negy’s home.
In this, as in many other attacks on academic freedom, it is tempting to point the finger of blame at student protesters. However, the most insidious feature of the inquisitorial rage directed at Negy is the collusion of university administrators. The university issued a statement on Twitter indicating that UCF President Alexander Cartwright, interim provost Michael Johnson, and interim diversity officer Kent Butler talked to students about Negy during a campus protest. This was the university’s way of saying that they were fully behind the protest and regarded Negy as a heretic who needed to be cast aside.
UCF President Alexander Cartwright did not even pretend to take Negy’s right to academic freedom seriously. He informed the Orlando Sentinel that due to the protection afforded by the law, he could not fire Negy for his tweets. He stated: “The Constitution restricts our ability to fire him or any other university employee for expressing personal opinions about matters of public concern. This is the law”!
Cartwight got around the obstacle posed by “the law” by launching a retrospective inquisition into Negy’s behavior in previous times. He posted a message on the university website that stated: “If any student, current or former, believes they may have experienced abusive or discriminatory behavior by any faculty or staff member, we want to know about it. UCF takes every report seriously. Concerns can be reported to UCF’s IntegrityLine, which also takes anonymous complaints.”
This stratagem of inciting students to make anonymous complaints against Negy’s behavior during the previous 15 years achieved the predictable outcome. The complaints flooded in and the university administration subjected Negy to an “investigative interview.” No doubt the accusations against Negy will escalate and there are more Kafkaesque interviews to come.
Whatever the outcome of the witch hunt against Negy, the message it sends out is that the numerous complex issues surrounding race are beyond discussion. Criticism of the narrative of systemic racism and white supremacy constitutes a 21st century heresy. University administrators have de facto declared that this topic is a no-go area for debate.
As it happens, Negy’s views on the narrative of systemic racism are both very right and also very wrong. In one of his tweets, Negy asserted that black privilege is a very real phenomenon. In reality, the term black privilege is at best a polemical concept. It mirrors an equally empty concept, which is that of white privilege.
The project of assigning a privileged status to the color of one’s skin – be it white or black – reduces everyone to a homogeneous mass. It deprives people of their individuality and overlooks their specific circumstance and destiny. Countering the fiction of white privilege with the equally fictitious term black privilege simply plays into the hands of identity entrepreneurs.
Where Negy has a point is in drawing attention to the fact that the narrative surrounding the systemic victimization of black people cannot be questioned. His own awful predicament illustrates this fact. What the institutionalization of this narrative indicates is that blackness enjoys the status of a protected identity. In so far as anything is privileged, it is not blackness but the identity that is claimed on its behalf.
In Anglo-American culture, black identity enjoys the dominant status in the hierarchy of victim identities. This development, which is best captured by the term ‘the aristocratization of black identity,’ has gained momentum during the past decade. The speed which with the language that supports this development has gained cultural influence is truly remarkable. More importantly, the moral superiority attached to black identity enjoys widespread cultural valuation. Scenes of mildly irritated black people rolling their eyes when they encounter white folk who “don’t get it,” is a recurrent feature of Netflix and related media productions.
The aristocratization of black identity is most visible in relation to the devaluation of whiteness. Media representations of “white people” are not a million miles away from the traditional depictions of “white thrash.” The invention of the Karen phenomenon depicts white women as morally and intellectually shallow, selfish and toxic. In Britain, the white male version of Karen is the gammon. These repulsive white men exude stupidity and xenophobia in equal measure. They do not possess any redeeming features and it’s no wonder that their moral superiors have no choice but to roll their eyes when they encounter these vile people.
No doubt Negy got fed up with having to conform to the racial etiquette imposed by university administrators. His brave stand against the insidious climate prevailing in universities should be commended. However, the way to counter the myths surrounding white privilege is not by mirroring it with the rhetoric of black privilege.
At some point all of us, black and white, will need to overcome our obsession with racial identity and see and judge each other for what we are – individuals and human beings.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.