Dispatches from the University of Virginia….

UVA's Rotunda. Photo by Karen Blaha UVA’s Rotunda. Photo by Karen Blaha

By Bonnie Gordon

It’s getting really noisy here.  In a few days local and national news cameras will capture pictures of a large Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Right-wing spokesmen say they demonstrate against a City Council vote to move two statues of confederate generals. But really, the demonstration will transform generalized white resentment into a live operatic display of misogyny, racism, white supremacy and fantasies of world domination.  Local and national groups will resist, bear witness and protest. Officials predict crowds in the thousands on both sides, and they warn of a credible threat of violence.

We don’t need to wait for people to get hurt and arrested to think, reflect and act. The demonstrators coming here want to deny the rights that diversity policies of every public institution in this town are designed to protect and that so many mandatory trainings supposedly ensure. Virginia takes great pride in our place as one of the cradles of democracy.  We also take pride in our public universities, and especially this one.  We at UVA are a natural flashpoint for responding to such expressed malice and we have often found ourselves as the center of a media firestorm. It sometimes feels like the big news outlets have reserved hotel rooms here as they wait for the next eruption. The only option for an institution of higher learning is to fight back, not just on August 12, but every day.

The University of Virginia president distributed a mass email on Friday, August 4, that urged students, faculty and staff avoid the August 12 rally for their own safety. She wrote that “to approach the rally and confront the activists would only satisfy their craving for spectacle. They believe that your counter-protest helps their cause.”  The email goes on to say, “The organizers of this rally want confrontation; do not gratify their desire.”  This will help to cover the university should violence erupt, but it does not speak to our function in society.

Her job may mandate this message.  But the rest of us, especially tenured faculty, do not have that mandate. We can no more tell students, faculty and colleagues what to do on August 12 then we can tell them whom to vote for. But we do have a pedagogical imperative to help them make ethical choices. Some people may feel compelled to direct action against these threats. Some feel morally—or religiously—obliged to bear witness to the hate. Some will feel that to go about their usual business and ignore the hate will constitute resistance. For many at the university that business is, in fact, working on long standing issues of racial injustice in the community. Moreover, for many in this community, as on other college campuses, the simple act of walking down the street the weekend of August 12 will not be safe.

If university community members have convictions driving them to appear and stand against hate, we should applaud, support and stand with them. And university faculty should do everything in our power to help them make educated choices. We could, for example, follow the lead of local clergy leaders who told their readership, “We do NOT recommend that you be in Emancipation Park on August 12 unless you have received training in non-violent, direct action.”

Herein lies a teachable moment about the complexities and challenges of the Constitution’s First Amendment. With freedom of speech comes the responsibility of speech, and those of us who are educators, especially tenured educators, have an obligation to speak out against hate and falsehoods. The University of Virginia will, as it should, go to great lengths to defend reprehensible content. But those who protest the alt-right also deserve to have their speech protected.  

Much of this coming weekend will be about history, and we should not, while working to educate and inform, forget the university’s own history.  The University of Virginia granted degrees to Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler (music and English, and psychology, respectively), the men behind this particular gathering of haters. We also should remember that UVA was built by enslaved labor and that it had deep links to the KKK and eugenics.

UVA is not alone here; most universities have ties to very ugly pasts. It’s much harder, but just as vital, to think about hidden complicity, collusion and promotion of ideas that go against purported ideals of the institution. It’s even harder to acknowledge and think about the racial injustice that existed before, and will exist after, the famous activists from all sides of the war have come and gone.

On Sunday, August 13, we will still live in a town where African-American students are six times more likely to be suspended. We will still teach at a university where many minority students do not feel safe on our campus. We will still have a lot of noise to make.

Bonnie Gordon is an associate professor in the McIntire Department of Music at UVA.

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