Thoughts on ASA’s call for Racial Justice and Solidarity

I’m grateful for the inspiration I found at the American Studies Association conference this weekend in Toronto, but I can’t help but think about how much more we should be doing, especially given ASA’s recent call for racial justice and solidarity. I’ve attended ASA periodically for the past 15 years, and this one had a unique sense of urgency, with multiple sessions not just making passing reference to #blacklivesmatter but actually focusing on it. I was especially impressed by David Roediger’s presidential keynote address and panels with scholars I admire, including Lisa Lowe and Edwin Mayorga. I’m eager to start following the work of Saidiya Hartman, Ujju Aggarwal, Connie Wun, Jesse Goldberg, Kashif Powell, Dennis Childs, Dylan Rodriguez, Anoop Mirpuri, Toussaint Losier, and Kinohi Nishikawa.

For the first time, I felt that this conference lived up to the interdisciplinary mission it espouses so strongly. Intersectionality was a primary focal point of several presentations, and I heard the name critical race theory (a legal studies field) many times. As someone who finished a dissertation back in 2003 on critical race theory and contemporary literature by US women writers, it’s taken a long time for me to see the disciplinary wall separating critical race theory and the humanities be permeated, but I think that’s finally happening. It seems like Ethnic Studies is a space that invites some of the most cutting edge work, whereas more traditional disciplines (like English and history) are still reluctant, though that is getting better.

However, I didn’t see any fellow community college faculty, and I think that’s something that needs work on both sides. The ASA would benefit from more strategic outreach to us, and we would certainly benefit from greater participation in this conference. I suspect it’s hindered on both sides because few (if any) community colleges have formal American Studies programs; however, that doesn’t mean we’re not doing American Studies. It just might be within an English or history course.

With that in mind, I was disappointed to see the stress level of graduate students and untenured faculty, and that seems to be getter worse not better. At least ASA is providing sessions and spaces for explicit conversations about networking and job hunting to occur, but in some ways, such conversations fuel the stress. It doesn’t seem like graduate students are being encouraged to apply for jobs at community colleges, and that is a shame. Even in the most progressive American Studies and Ethnic Studies departments, graduate students are still taught to believe that getting a “real” job means getting a job at a research university. While I’m not diminishing the rewards of such a position, there are a lot of exciting opportunities at community colleges for graduate students who are committed to teaching at an institution with a social justice mission.

Finally, ASA’s recent statement calling for “Racial Justice, Strengthened Solidarity among Activists and Scholars” is very important, but when the vast majority of presenters and participants are graduate students and faculty from competitive colleges and universities, the conversation will never include all of the voices it needs to. Where are the community college faculty? Where are the activists who are committed to justice but who have never attended or finished college? Conferences like Facing Race and Netroots Nation tend to attract a lot of activists but not too many college faculty, and that’s a problem too. We still need to figure out ways to bring together a more genuinely diverse group of people who care about justice if we really are going to talk about building solidarity.

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