What follows is first a letter to Black Academic Student Employees and Postdocs, followed by a call to action for white and non-Black POC union members, to: 1) rescind or offset donations to the Black Opportunity Fund by donating instead to BLM UW and 2) start an internal audit of anti-Black racism within their own departments; please find guidelines here.
Dear Black Academic Student Employees and Postdocs,
We, Black and non-Black organizers of UAW 4121, write this letter first to acknowledge the profound and overwhelming grief of these past months. The tragedy of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Charleena Lyles, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others may have landed heavy on your hearts, as it has on ours. We also write this letter because we know that the tragedy of these deaths has been compounded by the breathtaking loneliness of processing it all within an incredibly white campus, within an incredibly white city, during an era of social distancing amidst a historic pandemic. We also write in mourning and in memory of John Lewis, whose lifetime of activism for Black lives is source of continual inspiration, and whose death this past weekend is yet another source of deep heartbreak. We write to wish you peace and gentleness in the tumult and heartbreak of these past few months.
We also write to note the ways in which the details of this moment conspire constantly to add insult to injury. We write to share a virtual eye roll with you at all the lazy, oblivious, narcissistic check-in texts from white acquaintances who don’t really know you, but who chose to use you as a means to assuage their white guilt. We write to cringe with you at all the “listening sessions” you have been invited to, in which departmental, college-level, and university-level administrators have performed their polite, bland sympathy, eyes on the clock, waiting for this fluke of anti-racist energy to pass as quickly and with as little inconvenience to them as possible.
We hope that in these weeks of awfulness, there have been good moments too. We hope that you have found that you had allies you weren’t aware of, that some people have shown care and concern for you as a person rather than you as an emblem of the Black plight in America, that some people have listened to you, have comforted you, have distracted you, have made you laugh, have taken some work off your plate. We hope that you’re eating good food, and drinking enough water, and getting enough sleep; we hope that you have felt safe and understood; that you have had access to spaces in which you experience genuine community.
Right now, we also write to reach out about a recent addition to the parade of indignities, sleights, missteps and white feel-goodery comprising this moment: namely, the Black Opportunity Fund. If you missed this announcement, last week President Cauce announced the creation of a fund that she invited alumni, students, faculty and staff to donate to, with the promise that the donations would go to GO-MAP, OMAD, and the Women’s Center.
Because this moment is rife with gaslighting and we are expected to be grateful for even the most scant gestures of acknowledgement, there is value in taking time to name things for precisely what they are. The Black Opportunity Fund is a racist reaction to the ways in which police violence, white supremacy, and racial capitalism stymie Black opportunity at UW’s three campuses.
The Black Opportunity Fund is racist because it frames addressing racial inequity as an act of charity, when in fact it should be understood as an obligation that is long overdue. Black people do not need hand-outs or charity; we need the UW to pay what it owes, in much the same way we need all American institutions that have profited from the stolen land, labor and bodies of Black people to pay what they owe. Racial justice cannot be cordoned off, understood as separate from or in addition to the other operations and costs of running the university. A commitment to racial equity cannot be enacted with whatever is left over after all other budgetary considerations have been taken into consideration. Rather, enacting a commitment to racial equity requires reconfiguring university operations at every level, always remembering that the UW’s wealth originates first and foremost from the exploitation of Black and Indigenous peoples, both historically and in slavery’s afterlives within the colonial present.
Fundamentally, by promoting a one-time voluntary private dollar fundraiser over a sustained reallocation of central funds, the UW administration seeks to position itself as innocent and benevolent. They treat systemic racism as the University of Washington was designed to treat systemic racism: as an external issue separate from the mission of the university and as less important than literally anything else they spend money on. The notion that we can remedy the damage wrought by anti-Black racism via white liberal pocket change is an insulting and outrageous joke.
The Black Opportunity Fund is racist because it name-checks the Black Student Union (BSU) without actually responding to their demands. This fund appears to be a performative version of the demand to fund Black RSOs and the American Ethnic Studies department. When Black students tell the UW what we need, the UW should just listen–full stop. Reinterpreting those needs so that they can be absorbed within the university’s existing frameworks is insulting.
The Black Opportunity Fund is racist because it reproduces disparities between the three separate campuses in ways that only reinforce structural racism. The fact that UW Seattle has received far more donations than UW Bothell and UW Tacoma, which both have far more Black students relative to their overall population than UW Seattle, aptly exposes what happens when the UW refuses to think about systemic racism in a holistic and equity-minded way.
The Black Opportunity Fund does nothing to address the ways police violence and white supremacy have systematically prevented Black students from ever getting to the UW in the first place. It is farcical to purport to expand Black opportunity without doing anything for those of us who never make it here in the first place and never will. The UW should refrain from patting itself on the back for expanding “Black opportunity” unless and until it materially supports the Black people whose experiences of police violence and white supremacy systematically prevent their entrance and retention at the University of Washington.
The Black Opportunity Fund is racist because it pits Black students against each other. The white charity of the Black Opportunity Fund pits Black students against each other, encouraging lateral violence through an application process that demands, consumes, and compares the trauma of Black applicants. Rewarding the pain and suffering of Black students rather than mitigating its conditions of possibility, the Black Opportunity Fund also gaslights Black students into thinking this fund is something other than an opportunity for the administration to manipulate, exploit, and tokenize them.
The Black Opportunity Fund lacks transparency. That the funds are channeled and distributed by GOMAP, OMAD and the Women’s Center raises questions about whether these funds will go to students of color or women broadly or to Black students specifically. If the intention is for this money to go Black students, the UW owes us far more clarity on how these funds will be distributed. That we do not even know the precise protocols on how, when, or under what basis these funds will be allocated demonstrates the complete lack of transparency on the part of the administration, and their ongoing refusal to implement the demands of the Black Student Union and Decriminalize UW.
The Black Opportunity Fund is racist because it seeks to pay for what should be a central mission of the university by soliciting funds from UW workers under the guise of charity and solidarity. When the UW administration doesn’t want to pay for new initiatives themselves, they habitually find ways to offload costs onto their workers through new fees, wage freezes, cuts to healthcare and benefits, layoffs and job cuts. Just in 2018 the UW administration fired nearly 100 workers at the UW laundry, the vast majority of whom were Black women. UW workers currently face sky high rent costs and an uncertain funding situation amidst the current pandemic. The UW administration cannot continue to pay for core initiatives like supporting BIPOC students by harvesting money from their workers, whether voluntarily or otherwise.
As the Black Opportunity Fund remains President Cauce’s only material response to the ongoing work of largely undergraduate Black women organizers within the Black Student Union, the UW African Student Union, and BLM UW, the University of Washington has chosen crumbs over redistribution, white virtue-signaling over a systematic restructuring of the University.
Invitation to Black ASEs and Postdocs: Join the recently emergent Black Caucus at UAW 4121! Join the Anti-Discrimination Working Group!
As you manage all this, if your go-to strategy is to keep your head down and get your work done, we honor that. This institution’s racism is not your responsibility to fix. When you are accomplishing what you came to UW to do, that is anti-racism enough. But if it would help to be in community with Black organizers or stay informed on what the union is doing to address anti-Black racism and abolition politics, please email the UAW 4121 Anti-Discrimination Working Group at email@example.com. We’re in the process of starting a Black Caucus, and we would love to have you — please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to join.
Call for Solidarity from white and non-Black Union Organizers Against Anti-Black Racism: Write to your Department and Conduct an Internal Audit to Address Systemic Racism against Black ASEs and Postdocs!
We must not forget that just nine months before the most recent iteration of acute premature death amongst Black people, before police abolition made it to the New York Times, and before ten of thousands Seattlites marched on the streets to mourn a collective loss, affirm Black life, and demand systematic social change, Washingtonians voted against affirmative action policies that would have supported Black presence on our campus.
White union organizers, in particular, have a responsibility and obligation to keep the pressure on and demand systematic change before the next wave of anti-Black racist violence and white liberal sympathy. As a part of this statement, we call on white and non-Black union organizers to use the attached guideline for white union organizers, and non-Black union organizers more generally, to begin an internal audit to address your department’s complicity in systematic racism against Black ASEs and Postdocs. This guideline is the beginning of a long-standing commitment from the Anti-Discrimination Working Group to support Black ASEs and Postdocs within the union and within our departments and to organize against everyday experiences of alienation, isolation, and tokenization at the University of Washington. Mourning for the Black scholars, union organizers, and academic workers who are not with us at the University of Washington must therefore be a struggle with the Black scholars, union organizers, and academic workers who are already here. Black union organizers should not have to do this work alone. Instigating internal audits across the University of Washington is just one method to mitigate the conditions that structure it as a colonial, white supremacist institution. If you would like to strategize on how best to implement a departmental audit, please contact the anti-discrimination working group at email@example.com.
Finally, for the above reasons we ask that members of UAW 4121 rescind or offset any donations that they may have given to the Black Opportunity Fund and instead reallocate funds to BLM UW’s donation page so that Black undergraduate organizers can continue to organize for life-affirming institutions that celebrate, honor, and cherish the vibrancy of Black students on UW’s three campuses.
In sum, we believe the creation of Black Opportunity Fund reflects and reinforces a wide array of White Supremacist values that are deeply embedded within the UW institution, and which contribute to systemic inequity. In particular, the creation of the Black Opportunity Fund reflects the White Supremacist values of Paternalism, Sense of Urgency, Power Hoarding, Fear of Open Conflict, Individualism, Right to Comfort. In order to properly address the issue of racism and structural inequality on campus, leaders within this institution are encouraged to explore antidotes to these values.
Monica Cortés Viharo