Why aren’t we talking about racism and colonialism in the Salaita affair?

The University of Illinois board of trustees has a history of not taking seriously charges of racism from indigenous peoples, including those regarding the university’s former mascot. (Image source: Flickr)

Since the news broke a few weeks ago that Steven Salaita’s tenured appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) was rejected by Chancellor Phyllis Wise and, though without a formal vote, by the board of trustees, a great deal of disappointment and outrage has been expressed in social media and in letters to the university.

Some have expressed concern that the university’s decision is unconstitutional and illegal, because it is violates Salaita’s First Amendment rights. Others have argued that the firing contravenes the principle of academic freedom, as well as those of shared governance and unit autonomy within the university. Finally, many have understood this affair as part of a broader silencing of those critical of Israel’s assault on Gaza, suggesting that Salaita is being targeted for political views that are unpopular among the university’s trustees and donors.

While all of these have been crucial interventions, very little attention has been paid thus far to the role of systemic racism and colonialism in the Salaita affair.

Systemic racism

This silence with respect to the role of racism and colonialism in this affair might be regarded as somewhat odd, considering that this affair surrounds a highly unusual and drastic action taken by the university against a Palestinian-American scholar and an American Indian Studies program. Somehow these details about the targets of this action are being treated as merely incidental by those academics who are now concluding that they, too, could have been Steven Salaita.

If any of us could be Salaita, then racism and colonialism must not have had anything to do with this affair. But perhaps we need to think a bit harder about this conclusion.

First, let’s be clear. Systemic racism and colonialism extend far beyond (and in fact do not require) any conscious, willful intent to be racist or a colonizer (although they often do); rather, they simply need to produce outcomes that reinforce an entrenched historical pattern in which people of color and/or the colonized are disproportionately marginalized or harmed.

As such, these systemic injustices can be produced through any number of actions that are nominally colorblind and/or contain only unrecognized biases. Furthermore, because systemic racism is primarily a trait of a social system, rather than of individuals, it can actually be perpetuated by people of color, including Chancellor Wise and others on the University of Illinois’ board of trustees. In fact, systemic racism often benefits from and seeks out the inclusion of “multicultural diversity” because it helps to deflect attention and blame from ongoing racist outcomes.

With that in mind, there are many questions we should be asking about the role of systemic racism and colonialism in this affair. First, what effect has it had on this case that Salaita is a Palestinian-American and a person of color? As in all cases of systemic injustice, it is extremely difficult to draw any straight causal connections, as these cases are usually determined by several compounding factors at once.

Mere coincidence?

Nonetheless, might it not be more than a mere coincidence that the board of trustees has taken this extremely rare, if not unprecedented, action in a case involving a scholar of color? It could hardly be denied that racism, white supremacy and colonialism shape which research, and which researchers, are considered valuable and which are considered dispensable in the academy. The concerns of those who make up the university are more likely to be recognized as “the” important concerns.

Furthermore, research that is highly critical of prevailing power structures, which is perhaps more likely to be produced by scholars of color, is routinely judged too radical, too biased, too unobjective, to bring on board. This will obviously be true to an even greater extent when one belongs to a group actively being targeted by these power structures, with which the modern university is enmeshed, and when the knowledge one is producing actively confronts and threatens those structures.

Let’s be frank — the kinds of judgments made by the chancellor and trustees about Salaita’s unsuitability happen all the time in academic hiring, but usually at the level of the department screening processes, when the stakes and public scrutiny are much lower or non-existent. Such judgments both reflect and reinforce not only the role of the modern university within structures of power, but also to the underrepresentation of people of color in the academy.

We know very well that white privilege, including that which comes from integration into white academic and administrative networks, often provides white scholars with a higher degree of protection against such actions, as they are more likely to be regarded as likeable and collegial, and to be afforded greater benefit of the doubt with respect to their qualifications, objectivity and competence. This doesn’t make white scholars immune to the type of actions taken in this case — far from it — but it does tend to provide them with a stronger buffer.

In short, the board may not be consciously targeting Salaita because he is a person of color, but race may still be affecting the type of scholar against whom the board would, and would not, be willing to take such a drastic measure.


Let’s also consider the language of “civility” in this affair. The justifications given for Salaita’s termination repeatedly point to the “incivility” of Salaita’s tweets. Of course, the concepts of civility and civilization have a longstanding connection with racism and colonialism in this country, with racialized and colonized peoples regularly portrayed as uncivilized brutes in need of a civilizing mission by their colonial masters and racial superiors. In this case, the board need not have actively thought of Salaita as a savage (although there is some indication that they did); it is enough that racism and colonialism have shaped our society’s standards of civility and in turn our assumptions, habits, biases and judgments about what constitutes “civil” behavior (and who tends to exhibit it).

Again, white privilege often confers greater leeway in this regard with respect to tone, comportment and decorum. But white supremacy also affects which issues are deemed worthy of outrage and “incivility” and which are not — which issues allow for “demeaning and disrespectful words” to be used, and which do not. White privilege is then further distributed to those who only get upset about the “right” things — those who, for example, only become outraged at the massacre of the right kinds of bodies.

It is quite clear that in our society the content and styles of speech (as well as the kinds of speakers) that are likely to be regarded as uncivil(ized) are disproportionately those of indigenous peoples and people of color. Again, this is especially the case when one belongs to a group against whom the United States is actively and publicly involved in carrying out immense colonial violence. Further, the language of incivility is even more likely to be deployed against indigenous women and women of color, for whom misogynistic discourses of women’s emotionality, hysteria and lack of reason come into play to challenge their ability to participate in civil public debate.


Finally, it cannot be regarded as merely coincidental that this highly unusual termination has been directed toward an appointment in the American Indian Studies program. The university’s largely unprecedented step of violating the autonomy of the hiring unit — comprised of those who actually possess the scholarly expertise to make academic appointments — is paternalistic and treats the hiring unit as incompetent in their decisionmaking.

Could this affair not be regarded as yet another instance of the historical pattern of colonial paternalism against indigenous peoples on this land? Is this history not shaping what kind of department the board would be willing to second guess, undermine and override in this way? The long history of colonial interactions between the United States and indigenous peoples continues to structure our society’s habits, assumptions, biases, judgments and institutions, such that indigenous peoples are more often, more easily and more reflexively treated as incapable of making their own decisions, and in greater need of guidance and tutelage.

It is the white man’s — and today an increasingly multicultural elite’s — burden to carry out this civilizing mission. As Jacki Thompson Rand has written, the UIUC administration’s actions in the Salaita affair are “painfully reminiscent of colonial practices” and have “put our colleagues on a reservation where they must ask for permission to step outside its boundaries in matters of program administration, expression of opinion and affiliation.”

The systemic colonial character of this intervention becomes even clearer against the backdrop of the University of Illinois’ ongoing mascot and team name controversy, especially the Illinois board of trustees’ longstanding reticence to take seriously charges of racism from indigenous peoples, and to deal with this controversy in a robust and comprehensive manner.

The board’s recent open letter in response to the Salaita affair provides further evidence, as the board aligns the university’s mission with the American nation-building project — and we all know how this nation-building project has dealt with indigenous peoples who have been viewed as “getting in the way.”

We need to ask some different questions about the Salaita affair, beyond those we have been asking about free speech, academic freedom and Palestine/Israel. Intertwined with all of these issues (and intersecting with related issues of racism and colonialism in Palestine) is the presence of entrenched, systemic racism and colonialism in the United States that not only shapes our society’s judgments, practices and institutional outcomes, but also enables extraordinary and heavy-handed expressions of power to be carried out more easily and reflexively against indigenous peoples and people of color.

Jakeet Singh holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics & Government at Illinois State University, where he teaches political theory.




How appropriate that this columnist intersects the lives of Native Americans and Palestinians, both victims of insane quasi-religious "doctrines": in the case of the indigenous people of North America, European whites were supposedly "compelled by god", by the concept known as Manifest Destiny, to make North America "white and christian from sea to sea".
In the case of the Occupied Palestine, of course, Zionism refers to the idea that some imaginary deity involved himself in the real estate business and purportedly "gave" a certain portion of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea "to the jews".
As an American Pagan of Native American (Cree) descent, I condemn this utter nonsense. Israel appears to have learned well from the Americans in its belief that it's perfectly acceptable to commit genocide, land theft and subjugation of the indigenous population in order to gain land and resources.
And the Jews think they "own" the word "holocaust"!


I could not agree more, Gypsy Roberts. However, just to be clear: many Jews dislike the use of the word 'holocaust', as it does not put across the severity of their people's ordeal. As I understand it 'Shoah' is preferred by many. But I do certainly agree that there is an exceptionalist arrogance underlying Zionist thinking (just to be clear, as unfortunately we have to be, I said ZIONIST not Jewish): a desire to present the Shoah as the only/most important major genocide in human history. This is expressed quite clearly through the hackneyed cliche that the Shoah is 'an event that transcends history'. Nothing transcends history.


What about the convergence between the Palestinians, Native or American Indians and African Americans. Their lands were not taken but they were taken. They were totally dehumanized by the white race to make slavery seem God's Will. Things have not change so much.


Please forgive me for unwittingly excluding the subject of slavery, Barbara. The slave trade which took place over hundreds of years undoubtedly resulted in more deaths than even the events that resulted in the genocide against the Native Americans. (And as you pointed out, those who didn't die as a direct result of capture, living conditions, etc. were...well, SLAVES.)
I didn't intend to marginalize the horrors suffered by the African people.


Of course history has ugly examples of racism and nativism and vicious mistreatment. We recognize these events in history and we recognize their ongoing. But we are talking about Palestine and the Israeli genocide of the native people, the theft of their land and the slaughter of that population. Let's focus on what we are seeing happen right now. We should not be distracted from the issue set before us into a worldwide discussion of racism and mistreatment. Ferguson is on another site. Native American issues are on another site. This is about Palestine. Trying to find equivalencies simply agrees to let Israel off the hook for their apartheid and murder, their land theft, and their calculated process of genocide.


Maggie, the point isn't to let Israel off the hook, Hon. In my case, at least, I'm trying to make a parallel involving several different horrific historical situations; I don't think one would find a single human being who thought that the genocide of Native Americans, or slavery, was the least bit acceptable. Unfortunately, their were no Geneva Convention or United Nations standards during those times; but there sure are now, and Israel currently stands in violation of (I believe) 102 UN resolutions, and the government has been both tried and convicted of war crimes.
The problem is that in spite of these standards, no one appears to be holding Israel accountable, largely due to the influence of the United States.
I promise you, Maggie, I advocate for the rights of the Palestinians as much as anyone on this planet; I would walk through fire for them.


Jane: it's signed, and I ask others here to consider signing it as well. I've never understood why a derogatory name for a Native American made a "good" team name.
Why doesn't New York name one of their teams the Fighting Jews? Would that not be equally offensive?


White guilt, not paternalism. The reason that a small program with so few majors could receive another tenure appointment was not because of white privilege but because the university administration felt guilty about the Chief.


As a Jew, I would also emphasize that the Great Turtle Island Holocaust on these continents starting in 1492 has been very explicitly used by political Zionists as a precedent and justification(!) for al-Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1947-1949 that has continued to this day. And as Professor Salaita reminds us, indeed standing at the intersection of these oppressions (as another commenter has well noted), Jews really shouldn't be denying or justifying the evils of ethnic cleansing and physical or cultural genocide.

Curiously enough, on the topic of civility, my own take is that talking with civility means speaking truth to power and daring to go to the roots of injustice in Palestine/Israel.

That would mean recognizing that for the last 66 years, Gaza has been a ghetto for displaced and disenfrancised Palestinian Arabs whom political Zionism seeks above all to prevent from returning to their ancestral districts within Green Line (pre-1967) Israel.

One good solution for a ghetto is open housing, known in this situation as the Palestinian Right of Return or Haq al-Awda. Another is a policy of equal citizenship -- truly equal -- for all Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews from the River Jordan to the sea.

There are also very intricate matters of binationalism or maybe bicommunalism, with national or communal rights for Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews; and of maybe a federal system with a dozen or so districts or cantons to represent the diversity of the country (as in Switzerland, for example).

But as Professor Salaita must be well aware, such civil and constructive dialogue doesn't fairly get started because political Zionists are busy erasing most of the players from the "peace process," like the millions of Palestinian refugees of 1948 and also the 1.5 million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Might Professor Salaita's witness open up a "People's Peace Process" based unerasure, truth, and reconciliation?


This firing is indicative of how brazen the zionists are in the USA, once the land of free speech and democracy. It is ludicrous that this blatant racism is allowed on an academic campus in this country. Who gives the zionists the power to do these things America?


This is an excellent analysis of the ways in which racism continue to touch all aspects of life here in America.


I like this comment from Salaita: “Next time a Zionist asks you to ‘dialogue,’ remind him that you heard everything he had to say when Israel was murdering children in Gaza.”