Black Alumni at Yale Weigh In With Major List of Demands

Among the more dispiriting responses to the wave of protests around racism on campus is the claim that this unrest, particularly at Yale, is the work of privileged and pampered campus crybabies. Now I cede to no one in my contempt for Yale. But I think that criticism is unfair. As I’ve pointed out a number of times, if we want to turn every conflict over social justice into the Oppression Olympics, where you can’t talk about one case of injustice until you’ve talked about every other case of worse injustice, no one in the United States is going to deserve anything. You can always find someone who is worse off and more deserving; by that definition, most people around the globe are privileged. I suppose I’m also sensitive to this charge because I heard it so often when we were organizing at Yale: you’re at Yale, you’re privileged, you don’t need a union. I hate to see students of color subjected to the same dismissive brushoff.

All the more reason that people should pay attention to this list of demands just released by a group of black alumni from Yale. Contrary to a lot of the reporting on the problems at Yale, it focuses on the real material factors that make that institution so inhospitable to people of color. The phrase “structural racism” is often tossed around without much definition; these proposals give definition and substance to it.

The proposals are all important, but four in particular deserve emphasis.

Here’s the first:

Implement and complete the $50 million diversity initiative within three years with student and alumni of color oversight. The current plan further casualizes academic labor by proposing to hire “as many as ten visiting professors each year,” funneling people of color into temporary, unstable positions and in so doing undermining the stated commitment to diversity. Instead, Yale should hire permanent tenured and tenure-track faculty of color across the University in areas that contribute to interdisciplinary understandings of racial inequality and take real measures, with faculty input, to retain professors currently in their employ.

I hadn’t realized that so much of Yale’s diversity initiative was dedicated to contingent positions. This proposal refocuses us on where we need to pay attention: the tenure-stream.

Here are the second and third:

As per the calls of the Black and Latino caucus of the New Haven Board of Alders, prioritize New Haven residents, especially those from Black and Latino neighborhoods, in hiring for all University staff positions. Create real measures for advancement in these positions rather than the racialized job compression and segregation that exists currently.

Retain the stable, union jobs that currently exist in order to preserve the rights of women of color at Yale who are concentrated in clinical positions.

Discussions around campus racism too often leave out university staff. Campuses aren’t just students and faculty; they’re also workers. I’m really glad this one brings those workers—and unions—back into the conversation. Yale is New Haven’s largest employer. Its hiring and promotion decisions have a huge effect on people of color in that city.

Here’s the last:

In recognition of the fact that precarity in graduate teaching and research disproportionately impacts people of color, recognize the Graduate Employees and Student’s Organization (GESO)—who have demonstrated a majority of graduate student support—and negotiate a contract in good faith for graduate teaching assistants and researchers.

For obvious reasons. But one of them is that some of the signatories to the statement include friends and comrades from GESO days like Michelle Stephens, Prudence Cumberbatch (who now teaches with me at Brooklyn College), Cynthia Young, Lori Brooks, and Leigh Raiford.

I hope these demands move us beyond the free speech v. racism debate, and get us talking about institutional reforms that could have a measurable effect on people’s lives at Yale, New Haven, and beyond.





  1. MMC November 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm | #

    Sensible post and I agree that diversity needs to be institutionalized at our finest universities.

    However,at the risk of joining the oppression Olympics, let’s remember that a vast majority of minority college students attend state universities with ever-shrinking budgets. I teach at a Cal State that serves mostly east LA Latinos and we could sure use 50 million. We are bursting at the seems–students can find neither classes nor parking. We are now told there isn’t enough physical classroom space for all the classes that need to be taught. The solution? Shove students online and similar tech formats that greatly limit contact hours and interaction with faculty. Even Democrats readily line-up behind the latest new tech efficiency to make higher education more accessible and less expensive–all at the cost of quality and a true college experience.

    Do what has to be done at Yale. But, I would like someone to acknowledge that perhaps the greatest injustice in higher education is the painfully inefficient and grossly unfair manner in which colleges and universities are funded. Alumni donations means that much of the money goes to the top 1% institutions–and many first-time college students, many of whom are students of color, are paying more and more for less and less. If you really care about diversity, there are many branch-campus state schools that could use your donations much more than Yale. Why not send your dollars to a place that really needs it?

    • Lichanos November 18, 2015 at 6:16 pm | #

      Since I attended Princeton, CCNY, and Hunter College-CUNY, you can bet my alumni giving goes only to CUNY. PU has a 15+ billion dollar endowment, and they still pester me for contributions monthly. They cannot even spend the money they make off their little nest egg.

      Too much attention paid to the so-called “elite schools” in general, I agree. Nevertheless, CR has a good point as far as Yale itself is concerned.

  2. wetcasements November 17, 2015 at 11:26 pm | #

    Nicely put. According to the logic of many critics of the new campus activism, only starving peasants missing a limb or two working in the salt mines are allowed to have genuine grievances.

    At the end of the day, the (presumably privileged) economic backgrounds of these students are completely irrelevant.

  3. Frank Wilhoit November 18, 2015 at 12:29 pm | #

    Categorically wrong. Racism is only a manifestation of sadism, against a target of convenience. It is no good telling a sadist “this target is now off limits”; another target will at once be found, ad inf. The best possible outcome is to get down to a target that no one cares about…and how does that sound?

  4. Will G-R November 19, 2015 at 3:56 pm | #

    Re: points 2 and 3, good luck trying to wring any transparency out of universities regarding the outsourcing of their blue-collar labor to service companies like Compass, Aramark or Sodexo and staffing agencies like Randstad, Addeco, or Kelly. Indeed, in a sense the lack of transparency is the whole point: employment conditions at the university can be no less miserable than anywhere else, with plausible deniability preserved for all concerned, as long as the employment is never officially “at the university” to begin with. Dragging these sorts of jobs back into the daylight of university payrolls and public-sector bargaining rights would represent decades’ worth of regression for that aspect of the neoliberal project.

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