by Jamara Wakefield
There is a debt that lingers among us. At best, we try to remedy this debt in the name of democracy with Bandaids of social justice and radical action. Yet, without a profound acknowledgment of the crimes against humanity that have taken place in the United States at the through imperialism and colonialism, it is difficult to imagine a society where we can move from collective healing to tangible reparative practice. As we ignore this debt, it continues to haunt our laws, policies, culture, and consciousness daily.
In June, I watched a haunting. In a congressional hearing, politicians, artists, activists, and celebrities testified to the validity of H.R. 40, a bill that establishes a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. The bill examines slavery and discrimination in the Colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present, and recommends appropriate remedies. H.R. 40 is one attempt to exorcise the specter of debt between us. This type of sociopolitical debt between people and their government is convenient for politicians to discuss in an election year for soundbites, but manifests daily in the lives of regular people in a plenitude of crippling ways.
As a black woman and college professor with almost $300,000 in student loan debt, I have a sense of what reparations would feel and look like. It would feel like not being constantly punished for my blackness under the white academic gaze, punished for my womanness with low wages, or for the poverty in which I was raised, which predetermined challenges to access quality education. For me, reparations would include decolonizing the American college industrial complex—meaning indigenous land acknowledgment, the abolition of institutional power, and the abolition of tuition. This can only happen through decolonization-centered movements led by coalitions of artists, organizers, students, and all people impacted presently and historically by violence at the hands of universities. After all, colonial colleges—the nine institutions of higher education chartered in the 13 colonies that laid the groundwork for our entire system of higher education—were key players in the domestic terrorism of colonial settlerism and active white supremacist participants in sustaining the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The implications of decolonization are immense. Decolonizing higher education means future students will not bear the weight of profound economic and psychological debt created by simply going to school.
The American higher education system is an unstable business model that requires the oppression of “the Other” to be fiscally operable
Colleges require the oppression of the other to reproduce elitism and to operate. This othering extends from students, to adjuncts, to the low-wage workers who maintain campus facilities. Historically, this othering looked like the ownership of slaves and the creation of Indian missionary schools in colonial days. It looked like barring women and African Americans from matriculation during the civil rights era. Today, it looks like restrictions on financial aid based on citizenship, immigration status, or arrest records. Othering reinforces binaries that justify exclusion in the academy. It condones policies and practices that serve solely the interests of the institution.
Elitism is a problematic construct for both political left and right. Conservatives use it to justify crushing others to attain wealth. Liberals use to it affirm their righteousness as do-gooders in the world and, in turn, exploit the suffering of those they are missioned to help. I have been struck by the delusion of elitism by attending private institutions. Admissions processes breed elitism. Honors courses breed elitism. Being the only black person in a classroom or program at a predominantly white university initially breeds oppression, only to then breed elitism and antiblackness when returning to brown communities. I now realize there is no room for an “us versus them” dynamic in any liberation struggle. Either we are all free or no one is free. Any institution that requires some people to be exploited in order for it to function must be decolonized. If this practice continues, the whole system deserves to be brought down.
Since the university business model was built on free labor, it does not know how to function without it. Labor abuses range from tenured faculty carrying course overloads beyond their union contracts, to the incessant abuse of part-time adjunct faculty, to the hourly-wage college staff who are often blocked from organizing unions. These unstable business practices fall into the category of labor abuse and stem from colonial settlerism. Colleges are borrowing billions to launch renovation projects, buy property, and build new buildings, hoping to reverse low enrollment trends. Large portions of their budgets go to servicing and making payments toward their own debt. This Manifest Destiny business model requires individuals to bear the weight of these decisions, including students taking on debt to balance the lack of institutional funding. It also includes the societal ripple effect of displacing communities due to gentrification.
The American higher education system is loyal only to itself as a business practice
The goal of any institution is to preserve itself at all costs. Colonial colleges were educational institutions designed for the implementation of colonialism and the politics, business affairs, and morality of colonists. Their systems of learning were created to administer the policies and practices of acquiring control over a space by occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. They offered courses leading to a degree (such as a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree) for the direct or indirect purpose of reproducing Eurocentrism, modernity, colonialism, imperialism, and all other iterations of white supremacy. As the U.S. college and university network grew, future institutions used the colonial colleges as blueprints for their founding. This is why implicit and explicit traces of settler colonialism exist at every institution of higher learning in the United States.
Colleges used the business of colonization to build their empires. Craig Steven Wilder, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a book on the topic called Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities. The book is a detailed look at the rise of the 13 colonies and the rise of the colonial colleges. According to Wilder, when it comes to the rise of the colonies and the rise of the colonial colleges, you cannot separate the two institutions; they are intimately intertwined. After all, Princeton University raised money and recruited students through rich families who owned enslaved people in the South and the Caribbean. Brown University’s governing board captained slave ships. Their donors lended enslaved people to help with campus construction. Harvard was established on stolen indigenous land left to the school by a wealthy plantation owner. Enslaved people were used to serve the children of wealthy white people while on campus. Dartmouth College used enslaved people as experimental tools for universities. According to Wilder, Dartmouth University founder Eleazar Wheelock dragged “the body of a dead enslaved black man, named Cato, to the back of his house and boil[ed] the body in a pot to free up the skeleton, to wire it up for instruction.” This isn’t the only dark narrative told in Wilder’s book. He explains that academies were created for conquest in response to European nations hoping to secure land and wealth and ward off foreign rivals. Colonial college founders, trustees, and officers used enslaved people to raise buildings, maintain campuses, and enhance their institutional wealth.
Students owe no loyalty to the American college and university system
Student activism is nearly as old as the university system itself. When students organize and speak to power, they are not only activating change on campus; they are making a statement to the world. In 2015, New York University students were tired of the student loan debt they had acquired at the university and were angry at the ways the institution was using the money to further gentrify Greenwich Village. That’s when they organized the NYU Student Debt Protest. After months of no response from the administration regarding racist incidents on campus, Concerned Student 1950 occupied the quad overnight and initiated a food strike. During the Spring of 2018, New School students received notice that the cafeteria workers—almost entirely people of color, many of them women—would be laid off when their contracts ended in May. In solidarity, students and community workers organized the Cafeteria Occupation.
These recent protests are built upon the history of events such as the Little Rock Nine in 1957, the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, which protested the ban on on-campus political activities. In 1968, the Morningside Park Protest at Columbia University was sparked by the building of a segregated gymnasium that would displace people in Harlem. That same year, there were gender equality sit-ins at the University of Georgia, and Third World Liberation Front strikes at the University of California, Berkeley—a protest that demanded students’ curriculum be created for and taught by people of color. This is only a short list of times when student’s loyalty to social change was sparked by critique of institutional power.
The liberation of black, brown, and indigenous students is critical for the liberation of all students within the colonial university model. Education and organizing will counteract the isolation that the colonial university model has sought to impose since its founding
There is no way to fully reconcile the political debt that exists between indigenous people, descendants of African slaves, and the university. The American higher education system established its wealth and prestige in the most gruesome way by committing and justifying acts of war against black and brown bodies. The void between is filled with blood, dead bodies, disrupted families, free labor, exploited land, dispossessed people, and the mythology of white supremacy. This is a long history that spills over into present-day oppression.
The role of indigenous and black students within the academy is precarious. Not only are students required to pay into a system that murdered, enslaved, and exploited their ancestors for centuries, but they also pay into their own economic enslavement by acquiring student loan debt to participate in the institution. Since institutions rarely offer decolonized learning practices or courses of study, these students are also paying to colonize their minds with Eurocentric ideas, philosophies, and research practices. While Georgetown is deciding whether to create a scholarship fund for the 12,000 to 15,000 descendants of the 272 enslaved people it sold, such reparations to ease the hearts of universities that have been called out for their white supremacist history are not enough. Doing so does not address the ongoing colonialism of higher education for all students.
Before pivoting toward reparations, the American higher education system must recognize its history of dispossession—its role in the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. Universities must acknowledge that they are built on unceded indigenous land. Acknowledgment is a simple and powerful way of showing respect, and a step toward correcting the stories and practices that erase indigenous and African people’s history and culture. It moves us toward inviting and honoring the truth. Perhaps it is the only step that will lead to equity for all students, staff, and faculty who are navigating the roots of colonialism every time they step foot on their campuses.
The university must align itself with community coalition groups that will actively keep the university accountable for its decolonizing practice in its policies, community relations, admissions, board activity, business alignment, and land development. Applied pressure and community accountability are the only way to minimize the violence that all institutions have the propensity to reproduce as they execute their business interests.
Universities must secure the bag and distribute it. They must pay their faculty, especially their adjuncts and graduate student workers. They must commit to fully funding students. They must commit to especially funding indigenous, black, queer, disabled, immigrant, undocumented, working-class, formerly incarcerated, and all students for whom carrying debt is a systemic burden.
In many ways, I know it is too late for me. The scars of being a black person attending predominantly white institutions are deeply ingrained in my consciousness. The student loan debt that I carry will follow me for the rest of my life. The violence I experience as an underpaid, undervalued faculty member impacts my self-esteem, despite the talent and brilliance with which I educate my students. And yet part of the black radical tradition is hope—persistent, strategic, radical hope. The same way my grandmother, a woman born during the Depression, and my mother, who came of age during the Black Power movement, could never imagine seeing a black president, it is hard for me to imagine a decolonized future. It is hard for me to fathom a world where systems of higher education are active agents in the fight for decolonization and are on the front line of indigenous and black liberation struggles. However, like my mother and my grandmother, I want that future. I yearn for it, even if I can’t participate in it.
Jamara Wakefield is an arts and culture writer. She currently has bylines with Shondaland, Playboy, ZORA, and DAME magazine.