#CampusJustice: Addressing the “Past That Is Not Past”


By Sharon Stein [*]

They say “don’t normalize Trump,” but what if Trump is what is normal? What if the first step is admitting that? What if, at the end of the blind alley that is America, there is Trump?[1] Trump’s victory is both exceptional – and not. The “and not” matters because it should shape how we respond. So let’s start with this: The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.[2]

And what should our conception of history be if we read back-then and the over-there as constitutive of what happens right-now and the right-here and what is yet to happen?[3]


Description: Close of photograph of dozens of old, metal chains hanging in a row.

We’d have to rethink our origin stories. American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery…. Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas…. The fate of the American college had been intertwined from its beginning with the social project of dispossessing Indian people.[4]

Racial violence is the rule; it is the ongoing emergency. White entitlement, white resentment, white accumulation is the rule. We white folk think we are owed “the rule of law” – security, assurances, “a peaceful transfer of power.” We take credit for the good and disavow the rest, as if the law was not the stuff of violence too. What does it mean to describe the transfer of power as “peaceful” if the power that is transferred is the power to make live and let die, to murder, bomb, occupy, poison, incarcerate, displace, drone, deport, extract?[5]

The slogan on the Left, then, universities, not jails,’ marks a choice that may not be possible. In other words, perhaps more universities promote more jails.[6] In that case we must ask the new form of the question – what is wrong with our education?[7] Ask how much of the knowledge that universities produce rationalizes living off of someone else’s loss, and what it means if all the things called “public goods” are also theft. Lands, lives, labor. Entire worlds obliterated, or forced into hiding, to make way for this one.

This sense of society with limitless possibilities for all, largely (though not exclusively) through higher education, is what is usually meant by ‘the American dream.’ The end of the American dream is continually proclaimed, usually by intellectuals who never believed in it to begin with, and wished no one else would.[8]  Yes, it is premature to declare the death of the dream, but it is also past time to hospice it, which is not about “not believing” but becoming disenchanted with its promises, and dismantling the architectures that, in the process of making this world possible, necessarily refuse other worlds – worlds that nonetheless exist, insist, persist. No, not “limitless possibilities for all,” just one possibility, which is really only possible for a few. As for the rest, I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.[9]  What would higher education be without the nation-state, without capitalism, without humanism, without America?

In her book, “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” Christina Sharpe writes of trying to articulate a method of encountering a past that is not past, and points to the failure of institutions like museums (or universities) to do this work.[10] Further, even when these institutions try to account for slavery and colonialism, it is falsely presumed that these are past events that are now “over” and done, or at least progressing toward an inevitable end, rather than identifying them as the organizing logics of contemporary existence that continue to produce the present, the everyday. In response, Sharpe asks: How does one, in the words so often used by such institutions, ‘come to terms with (which usually means move past) ongoing and quotidian atrocity?[11] Universities are always trying to move past what is not past. But our efforts to address “#campusjustice in the wake of the 2016 election” will be incomplete if we do not frame our work as part of the effort to address #campusjustice in the wake of slavery and conquest, which have not only made the campus possible in the first place but which the campus also continues to make possible.

With this imperative at the fore, and inspired by Dean Spade, I will end with some questions to keep in mind when we are creating or assessing plans for campus justice: How does the injustice being addressed relate to longer histories of injustice, and how does the vision for resisting it connect to longer histories of resistance? Can we better integrate our efforts to address immediate campus concerns with long-term visions for transformative justice that address sedimented harms? In the proposed plan, whose visions of justice are affirmed and enacted, whose are silenced or tokenized, and whose still haven’t had the chance to be voiced at all? What/whose is the underlying theory of change and how it happens? Whose safety and comfort are prioritized? Whose/what kind of labor is being valued and devalued? What might be the unintended consequences of the proposed vision, including the possible effects of the proposal beyond formal campus boundaries? Are we denaturalizing and dismantling existing hierarchies of knowledge and humanity in curricula and campus practice, or just rearranging them? In our pursuit of justice, how do we account for our own complicity and foreclosures? What else might we build at the same time as we work toward transforming the institutions we have?

Sharon Stein is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, where she studies the social foundations of higher education.


* Author’s Note: This composition combines my text with that of many others. For ease of reading, other authors’ words are in italics, and full citations are included in the endnotes. The non-italicized text is my own – insofar as any writing is ever “our own.”

[1] Césaire, A. (2000). Discourse on colonialism (J. Pickham, Trans., p. 37). New York, NY: Monthly Review Press. [LINK]

[2] Benjamin, W. (1940). On the concept of history (para. VIII). [LINK]

[3] Silva, D. F. D. (2016). The racial event or that which happens without time. In R. Cooper, S. Parmar, & D. Willsdon (Eds.), The two-sided lake: Scenarios, storyboards and sets from Liverpool Biennial 2016 (pp. 256-263). Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press.

[4] Wilder, C. S. (2013) Ebony and ivy: Race, slavery, and the troubled history of America’s universities (pp. 114, 150). New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

[5] Foucault, M. (2003). “Society must be defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (M. Bertani & A. Fontana, Eds.; D. Maey, Trans.; p. 241). New York, NY: Picador.

[6] Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning & Black study (p. 41). New York, NY: Minor Compositions.  [LINK]

[7] Wynter, S. (1994). “No humans involved”: An open letter to my colleagues. Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, 1(1), 42-71 (Originally written in 1992; pp. 57, 59).  [LINK]

[8] Trow, M. (2000). From mass higher education to universal access: The American advantage. Minerva, 37(4), 303-328 (p. 312).

[9] X, Malcolm. (1964, April 3). The ballot or the bullet (para. 10). [LINK]

[10] Sharpe, C. (2016). In the wake: On Blackness and being (p. 13). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[11] Ibid. (p. 20).