White supremacy and settler colonialism at UMass

By Matthew Cunningham-Cook

(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)
(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)

The mobilization of students – particularly students of color – prior to and during last week’s Diversity Strategic Planning Steering Committee Town Hall Meeting was beautiful. It was a strong show of support for our brother Josh Odam, and the community let the Chancellor know the precarious state that students of color – black and brown students in particular – live in at the University of Massachusetts.

The actual meeting though, was a farce. Start with the name. By reducing questions of white supremacy, settler colonialism and hate crimes to “diversity” the administration papers over the historical violence that made and makes UMass what it is today – an institution that almost exclusively serves the white and wealthy.

The chancellor made a distinction between promoting diversity in times of crisis – like the aftermath of the two death threats – and “regular” times. What the chancellor seems to fail to realize however, is that these events are inevitable on a campus that has no consistent and sustained effort to analyze the interlocking oppressions that largely determine who we are as a culture. And that the hate crimes are only the most extreme examples of a campus that offers the black and brown members of their community an unending stream of micro and macro-aggressions.

To paraphrase activist Kwame Ture, this is a country built on the enslavement of black people and the genocide of the First Nations peoples. These two facts are integral to any type of social, economic, psychological or geographic analysis of both UMass and the nation at large. But white supremacy and settler colonialism are rarely confronted on campus. Town Hall meetings and blue ribbon committees are on diversity, or at the extreme, “racism.” Black and brown people are “underrepresented” rather than deliberately excluded via a Eurocentric admissions process.

It is apparent that people at the University consistently engage in a cruel form of black and First Nations Holocaust denial. But why exactly do the forces of white supremacy and settler colonialism continue to hold such sway, 522 years after their introduction to this continent?

The answer is that the same economic regime that accompanied their introduction here is still in place.

According to the black American historian Phyllis Boanes, in the 16th, 17th, 18th up to the beginning of the 19th century, the planter and merchant class that owned the original 13 colonies were faced with a dilemma. Too often black people, First Nations people and white workers would realize their interests would align and fight against their oppressors. The planters and merchants realized that they needed what the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci would later call a “historic bloc” to align a section of the working class with the elite.

This was done through rampant, white, supremacist chauvinism. The myth of “manifest destiny” – that the entire continent belonged to the white man – was propagated, and a new doctrine of universal white manhood suffrage was implemented. In a cruel twist, while the voting rolls increased massively in the beginning of the new republic, the amount of black voters went down, as the previous landholding and taxpaying requirements were revised in favor of a sole whiteness requirement.

We can see the continued reification of this historic bloc today. The average white family has six times the wealth as the average black or Latin family. When the racial statistics intersect with gender, the differences are even starker. According to a report from a leading economic research group, “while single white women in the prime of their working years (ages 36 to 49) have a median wealth of $42,600 (still only 61 percent of their single white male counterparts), the median wealth for single black women is only $5” – meaning that the average white woman in the prime of her working years has more than 800,000% more wealth than the average Black woman.

It is in the economic elite’s best interests to have white students crowing about affirmative action taking “their” spots than talking about the crushing load of student debt or the outrageous administrative overhead at UMass, or the varying tax deductions that allow the wealthy to pay barely any taxes.

It is in our best interests – the working classes – to relentlessly critique white supremacy and settler colonialism so we can defeat the capitalist forces that are intent on destroying us.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]