Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
A conservative group put UM historian Tobin Miller Shearer on ‘Professor Watchlist.’ To Shearer, the threat sounds awfully familiar.
In the weeks since I was put on an academic watchlist, I have thought often about one of the biggest bastards that I know. I only talked to him once and that was by phone. Even then, the conversation was short, truncated. He told me a story and then we hung up. He recently passed away. Up to the end, he was apparently a full-fledged s.o.b.
I’ll tell you who he was shortly. And I’ll get around to explaining what he has to do with being watchlisted, but first I have to let you in on a secret.
The watchlist is not the problem.
More on that later.
First, the context. Since its appearance early in the week of Thanksgiving, Professor Watchlist—a website sponsored by conservative student advocacy group Turning Point USA—has accused a shortlist of professors of discriminating “against conservative students” and advancing “leftist propaganda in the classroom” and a “radical agenda in lecture halls.”
Although the list has been widely criticized for inaccurate information, false representation and the reintroduction of McCarthy-era scare tactics, the group’s instigator, Charlie Kirk, claims his site is nothing more than a “tool that students can use in determining where to go to colleges… .” Montana gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte provided financial support to Kirk and his organization, and white supremacist news site Breitbart.com has publicly defended the list.
As of the second week of December, I have the dubious distinction of being the only professor in the state of Montana to be included on this watchlist of about 150 professors.
By way of additional context, let me tell you a bit of my backstory. I am a history professor at the University of Montana. I’ve had the gig for going on nine years. During that time I have directed the African-American Studies program, the country’s third oldest. And, yes, I’m white. As I frequently tell my students, “As a white man I can demonstrate that African-American history is at the very center of our nation’s story—that it is one we all should know.”
Before I switched careers to attend graduate school, I worked for nine years as an anti-racism educator and organizer. Along with a cherished friend, an African-American woman from Cleveland, Ohio, I co-founded a training program focused on dismantling racism in white Mennonite institutions. Together we crisscrossed the country to consult with colleges, universities, mission agencies and denominational offices. During those years I led or co-facilitated more than 400 workshops. It was a heady time.
I made the decision to enter graduate school after falling in love with teaching and realizing that, due to my anti-racism work, I had been pushed to the margins of my religious community. I was no longer welcome to write for our national church magazine, work in our church institutions or preach at our congregations. Although Mennonites have a reputation for being peacemakers, they can be really passive-aggressive. In essence, this was the first time I was put on a watchlist.
By the time I arrived in Missoula in 2008, I was ready for a change. People did not know me. Few Mennonites lived in the area. I could start with a clean slate. Although teaching African-American studies in one of the whitest states in the union presented its own challenges, the program grew five-fold in as many years. I found a host of supportive colleagues in the history department and throughout the university. I engaged and challenged my students even as I learned much from them.
I was happy to be off the radar, no longer on a watchlist.
Then I gave a talk in Bozeman in January 2014 on the history of white privilege. The content was not new. I’d discussed similar ideas thousands of times. I described our country’s history of genocide and appropriation of Native lands. I explained how white people—and specifically white men—designed institutions to serve themselves. I discussed the history of U.S. apartheid. I argued that white power was at the very center of the American project and needed to be dismantled for our multicultural democratic experiment to succeed. As I do in almost every public talk that I give, I invited strong criticism.
At the workshop’s end, a group of student journalists interviewed me. They asked some easy questions. I recapped my argument. It was a congenial exchange, although I remember feeling really tired. My responses had gotten long-winded.
A couple of weeks later, Campus Reform, a self-described “watchdog to the nation’s higher education system,” re-posted the video interview. On their site, they excerpted my densest, foggiest, most convoluted quotation: “To be white in America is to claim an identity that attempts to be de-racialized and is predicated upon the receipt of power and privilege simply on one’s appearance: a racialized appearance from the fundamental equations that whiteness equals access to power and privilege based on one’s racial identity.” Frankly, I am surprised that they didn’t just shake their heads and walk away.
But that’s where my second watchlisting started. More than 5,000 Campus Reform readers viewed the video. In response, I received several threatening emails. One said, “Kill Yourself!!!!” Another: “If you’re so overwrought about your ‘whiteness’ suicide is an option and it’s painless.”
The theme continued in subsequent posts:
“Maybe this guy should take a walk through the average trailer park and spew his crap about ‘white privilege.’ I want to see how far he gets in relation to how much popcorn I ate prior to his beating.”
“I hate looking at the photo’s [sic] he’s posted on facebook of hmself [sic] sitting and smiling with the students who are white. This guy is more like a snake and an enemy to white people. Can’t wait to see this joker called out.”
“I know a neighborhood in Oakland where he can get his guilt trip fixed. ‘Coordinator’ of African-American Studies? So is he responsible for buying the malt liquor, or the crack?”
Even though the missives were more ugly and anemic than truly menacing, I was encouraged to treat them as legitimate death threats.
Nonetheless, I was not too worried.
At the behest of my life partner, I informed campus security. With time the comments dissipated. I continued working with some of the best students and colleagues that you’ll find anywhere.
Then, on the evening of Monday, Nov. 21, 2016, I came home from teaching a three-hour graduate seminar to find an email from one of my colleagues in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality program at UM. She wrote, “You are on a ‘professor watch list’ compiled by a right-wing group … Sorry to be the bearer of bad news …”
I visited the site, noticed who else was on the list and immediately realized that this watchlisting was going to be different. A thin-skinned demagogue was poised to enter the White House. He had done more than any presidential candidate in the last 40 years to legitimize and embolden white supremacy groups. A watchlist designed to “expose and document … professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” was going to have a much more chilling effect. According to Pam Vogel of Media Matters, Kirk has parlayed his post-list notoriety into a meeting with the Trump transition team. Suffice it to say that a meeting between the incoming administration and the chief author of a shoddy watchlist does not bode well. It could be very dangerous for those included on the list.
So what do you do when a conservative group with white supremacy connections paints a target on your back? The first thing is to point out the target to as many people as possible. That way, if anyone takes aim, there are a lot of people paying attention and poised to intervene. The next morning I sent a note to my dean, the provost and the president alerting them that I and one other professor at UM had been put on the list. The administrators responded positively. In less than 48 hours President Engstrom sent out a message reiterating the university’s support of academic freedom. Oddly enough, between the time of the watchlist’s release and President Engstrom’s statement, the other professor’s name had been removed from the list. As that professor later noted, Turning Point’s ability to add or remove names at will emphasized the impunity of its actions.
This is exactly how prior attempts at watchlisting have unfolded. As historian Ellen Wolf Schrecker has pointed out, McCarthy-era professorial “blacklists”a racially problematic term from the Red Scare of the 1950shad two phases. In the first, an official organization identified the so-called subversive faculty. In the subsequent phase, the professors were fired or received economic sanction.
Turning Point personnel are currently setting the stage for the first phase by winnowing their list. After opening with 200 names, the list was down to 150 by Dec. 9. Historians account for the largest portion of the remaining group, followed by political scientists, English professors, and women’s and gender studies faculty. Dangerous disciplines indeed. By demanding that history be grounded in evidence, we historians threaten those who tell stories about the past without regard for the historical record. In the same way, the ability to analyze political discourse, literary narratives and gender dynamics prove equally threatening. That these disciplines emphasize critical thinking and thoughtful writing is not coincidental.
Whether a second stage will follow is still difficult to determine. In the aftermath of 9/11, when conservative author David Horowitz released a similar list, the prosecutorial stage did not follow. His subsequent book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, claimed to reveal the “shocking and perverse culture of academics,” many of whom appear on the current Professor Watchlist. According to Publishers Weekly, “the most egregious crimes perpetrated by the majority of these academics is that their politics don’t mesh with Horowitz’s.”
Something similar could be said of the current list. The primary crime of those of us who are listed is that we don’t agree with Kirk and his Turning Point colleagues.
The accomplished football player, actor and singer Paul Robeson provides an example of what can happen to those included on such lists. Along with African-American scholar W. E. B. DuBois and New York City councilman Benjamin Davis, Robeson drew the attention of McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. In response, Robeson remained unbowed, declaring, “I am a radical. I am going to stay one until my people are free to walk the earth.” Despite McCarthy’s blatant fabrications and refusal to back his claims with evidence, the State Department confiscated Robeson’s passport, thereby robbing him of his primary source of income—performances abroad. His income plummeted, surveillance increased and, even after the Supreme Court effectively renewed Robeson’s passport with its 1958 Kent V. Dulles ruling on free speech, Robeson’s health declined due to the pressures of social hostility and ongoing governmental scrutiny. He lived the remainder of his life in seclusion.
It is a sobering story.
But now back to the unnamed bastard I began with. He was the Rev. Will D. Campbell, a southern Baptist preacher, civil rights activist and author of the memoir Brother to a Dragonfly. He has long fascinated me. Here was another white man who cared passionately about African-American history, operated within a faith community, and had—in effect—been put on a watchlist. After facing down segregation at the University of Mississippi in 1955, supporting integration at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and participating in the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963, Campbell ministered to those who were disaffected with religious and secular institutions.
I will never be half the writer that Will Campbell was, or half as courageous a human being. His memoir is a masterpiece. His acts of speaking truth to power are legion.
He was also a bastard.
I use that word intentionally, despite its problematic baggage, because it figures centrally in one of the most important passages of Brother to a Dragonfly, in which Campbell recounts a conversation with P. D. East, a white southern newspaper editor and an atheist. East, like Campbell, was adamantly opposed to southern segregation practices. East kept hounding Campbell to define his faith—which East found highly objectionable—in 10 words or less. Campbell replied, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyhow.” East would later challenge Campbell to stand by those words after segregationists murdered a young civil rights activist by the name of Jonathan Daniels.
Campbell took East’s challenge seriously and decided that, if he really believed we are all bastards, then he had to spend time associating with and understanding some of the biggest bastards that he knew. So Campbell began meeting with leaders of the KKK, drinking whiskey with them and listening to their stories. All along, he maintained his deep commitment to racial justice, his unflagging opposition to institutional hypocrisy and his connection to civil rights leaders.
In essence, he tried to love the KKK bastards without ever forgetting that he was a bastard as well.
I spoke with Campbell only once, back in the 1990s. At that time, I had set out to ask 100 people in the course of one month, “What gives you hope?” Campbell was one of the last people I contacted. After I explained my project, he told me a story. In the mountains of Tennessee where he then lived, an ice storm had socked in his neighborhood. Few could get out to buy supplies. He said, “My white, liberal neighbors who never use the n-word stayed at home and did nothing to help their black neighbors, but my white, conservative neighbors who sometimes used the n-word were the ones out delivering coal and milk to their black neighbors.” He added, “Who, really, was more offensive?”
Rev. Campbell was talking about integrity, a word that seems antiquated in this moment of bombast, fake news and unapologetic prevarication. Campbell’s path of integrity took him into the darkest woods of racism. He chose to travel there with a fifth of whiskey in his hand. The whiskey was for sharing.
Like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. Here’s why.
I’ve ended up on the Professor Watchlist for a variety of reasons. As I noted before, I direct the only African-American Studies program in the least-black state in the union. I sometimes say controversial things. I really do believe that every institution in this country was created to serve white people. I am a self-declared feminist. I am convinced that men need to take responsibility for dealing with our sexism. I am aware that I directly benefit from the forces of gender, race, class and heterosexism. It appears that those convictions are enough, in this political moment, to get me watchlisted.
I suspect that this watchlist will soon blow over. Yet even if it doesn’t, even if Turning Point leverages its access to the Trump administration into federal pressure that results in the dismissal or sanction of the 150 or so of us currently on the list, it would not be the end of higher education. It would be incredibly disturbing, consistent with the history of such lists, and a severe attack on academic freedom, but it would not itself be the problem.
The problem is much deeper, far more insidious and not nearly so dramatic. The problem is that we are poised on the brink of a breakdown of this country’s social safety net. We are about to have some of the most powerful positions in this country filled by people with direct connections to white supremacy groups. The incarceration of black men for nonviolent crimes has come to replicate the scale and scope of slavery. Civil discourse has been worn thin to the point of transparency.
The problem lies in the legislative and policy decisions that will be made in disregard of the poor and oppressed. The problem is found in the systems of white power and privilege that have been emboldened and strengthened anew. Historian Nell Irvin Painter observes that at this point in history, “white men in charge will not simply happen to be white; they will be governing as white, as taking America back, back to before multiculturalism.” An ideologically oriented watchlist is just one small cog in the larger engine that is threatening to overpower our constitutional democracy. Whether this is the last gasp of institutionally sanctioned white male privilege or a long-term resurgence of the same will hinge on which actions we collectively take in the next number of years.
So, returning to Will Campbell, my question is, “How can I act with integrity after having been watchlisted?”
To begin, I have assured my students that I will not be intimidated. This is what I posted on my blog the day after I appeared on the watchlist:
If the organizers of this so-called “watchlist” thought that including our names and pictures on their website would somehow curtail our voices, our intellects, or our pedagogical commitments, they seriously misjudged the professoriate. I will go about my work, my teaching, and my writing and research with the same passion, commitment, and clarity that I did before the list appeared.
I continue to stand by those words.
Yet that is just my first response. My second is to make this public challenge to Turning Point personnel:
Since you have not contacted me, talked to me, or done anything but threaten me via the internet, I challenge you to have the courage to meet with me in person. I will pay for a beer, whiskey, or soda at a bar, restaurant, or other public location where we can both feel safe. I have no interest in martyrdom, but I do have interest in listening to you. I want to know your story. I want to listen to your voice. I want to know how you have come to hold the beliefs that you do. I want, in the end, to know why you have painted a target on my back.
I am easy to reach. You can contact me through my university. Write me. The drinks are on me.
I don’t know if anyone from Turning Point will read this, but I will post this challenge on all my social media outlets. I encourage anyone reading this essay to distribute my challenge as widely as possible.
In any meeting that results, I will carry the spirit of Will Campbell with me.
But I will also carry something else.
Because there is also this: Ever since I was watchlisted, I have been inundated with expressions of support from throughout Montana, across the country and around the world. If someone from Turning Point has the courage and integrity to meet with me, they have to know ahead of time that this community of friends, colleagues, family members and former students has got my back. They will be with me in spirit in the room. Hundreds of them.
There is Ray, whom I work out with in the gym, who came up to me and said, “Tobin, where do I have to stand? I’ll get in the way if they come to get you.” Ray is a veteran and a very big man.
There is Todd, a former student, who wrote, “Whatever the amount of insecurity and hatred that may exist, or try to manifest, there is 10 fold the amount of support, care, protection and love for you. … I am on your side!”
There is Valerie, another former student, who wrote, “I am just one who hopes that someday I too can be placed on a watchlist for dissident ideas, thoughts, and language. If I am ever lucky enough to make such a list, know that it was your classroom that gave me the voice I needed to resist the racist, misogynistic, and hate-filled discourse of our society.”
And then, of course, there is my son Zachary. He adds this delightfully mocking warning to those who might attack me: “Do not approach. A committed pacifist but does Crossfit. Consider him a threat at all times.”
So in this particular moment in history I will bring all the good humor, joy, subversiveness and academic rigor I can to the classroom. I will show up. I will stay engaged. And, as I posted on my door after Donald Trump was elected and my students of color witnessed a substantive rise in racial harassment right here in Missoula, my office will be a place where my students are cherished, where they will be as safe as my body and voice can make them, where they will be known by their names regardless of their identity.
That is my guarantee regardless of who may watchlist me.
The original print version of this article was headlined “Watchlisted”