Zandria Robinson started tweeting because she lost a bet. Several years ago, a student told the sociologist that she should try her style of engaging analysis on Twitter, where ideas about race, gender, and class were bandied about by academics, media makers and incisive thinkers of all stripes. Robinson, author of This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South, calls herself a late adopter of social media, but she made a good-natured wager: She’d try it if the student was accepted into a graduate program she’d applied for. The student got into UCLA, and Robinson got on Twitter.
Fast-forward three years, and Robinson’s Twitter and Facebook feeds and her personal blog have landed her in the midst of a national controversy. Critics seized on comments she made publicly while employed at the University of Memphis—including those about the Confederate flag, capitalism, and the challenges students of color face in applying to graduate school—to build a case that she is unfit to teach, especially at a public university. One Daily Caller headline puts the descriptor “taxpayer-funded” in all caps.
Reports of Robinson’s comments bubbled up from the corners of the conservative blogosphere—from sites called SoCawlege.com and Campus Reform to Fox News and Memphis’s daily paper. So when the University of Memphis posted a tweet on June 30 that read, “Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis,” it appeared that administrators had caved to the pressure.
Sound familiar? As my colleague Michelle Goldberg reported recently, attacks on academic freedom are at a fever pitch these days, with professors being sanctioned and, in some cases, ousted for making comments that an individual student or an organized group finds offensive. In fact, Robinson accepted a position at another university, and hadn’t been fired—but as outcry mounted, the University of Memphis failed to mention this. A letter that began circulating last week in support of Robinson and signed by more than 100 black intellectuals, argues that black scholars are at particular risk right now, when campuses are rife with heightened surveillance by disgruntled students and administrators unwilling or unable to go to bat for faculty. Beyond the specifics of Robinson’s situation, the pattern of attacks on black scholars deserves attention, the signatories attest.
Efforts to damage Robinson’s career follow closely on the heels of a similar attack on another young black woman sociologist. This spring, Saida Grundy’s tweets were mined for the most potentially inflammatory content, which then ricocheted around the conservative echo chamber until they reached mainstream news and Boston University, where Grundy had recently been hired as an assistant professor. Grundy eventually expressed regret over her comments, and Boston University’s president released a statement distancing the university from her tweets but stating that she would join the faculty there as planned.
Aimee Meredith Cox, a cultural anthropologist who teaches in the African and African-American Studies department at Fordham University, said the letter in support of Robinson is intended to highlight what it calls a “fire that threatens to engulf the entire academic industry.”
“We are not going to allow this to become about one individual,” Cox said. “This is a larger attack on black intellectual life and through that, an attack on black lives in general.”
A July 1 Inside Higher Ed post goes a step further, stating that these attacks are not only raced but also gendered, and that we’re in the midst of “a culture war going on about the online comments of black women in academe, and specifically in sociology.” Black people in tenure-track positions are scarce on campuses nationwide. In 2011, black professors held 5 percent of tenure-track jobs (those with the titles of assistant, associate, or full professor), according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Black women held 2.6 percent of those jobs, while white women held 30 percent and white men held 45.6 percent. Clearly, students at predominately white institutions are often not used to having black teachers or professors. Some appreciate the new experience, and others are challenged by it. Cox of Fordham, who describes herself as a dark-skinned black woman who reads as younger than her years, says she’s experienced this first-hand. “It makes people angry before you open your mouth,” she said. “There’s a resistance when you just come in a classroom before you’ve even said anything.”
Robinson said the critical responses she’s received online have an undercurrent of both racism and sexism, with people questioning her intelligence and qualifications and skewering her looks. In a recent blog post responding to the controversy, Robinson asserts that she’s a legacy alumna of the University of Memphis, where she received both her undergraduate and master’s degrees. Her PhD is from Northwestern. “When they’re trolling a white guy, no one says ‘How did you get this job?’ It’s not this ‘taxpayer funded’ [language],” she said. Some attacks are specific to her gender as well. “People aren’t often trolling men about their appearance.”
So why do scholars set themselves up to get trolled on social media in the first place? Why not stick to communicating ideas through academic writing and the classroom? Because, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has explained, industry pressures have put an end to the days of the cloistered, dignified but obscure academic, particularly for those who work in a discipline that’s focused on contemporary culture and politics.
Shana L. Redmond, a signer of the letter in support of Robinson and an associate professor of American studies and ethnicity at University of Southern California, spoke of a “push toward a more Melissa Harris-Perry model of scholarship in which you’re constantly on television, you’re on the radio, you’re on social media. You have a public profile.” In an effort to build a brand and engage with a like-minded audience, many up and coming academics in the social sciences and humanities go online. Employers’ encouragement to do just that can be explicit. “That is the language that I heard while I was being recruited,” Redmond said. “This language of ‘entrepreneurship.’”
#BlackLivesMatter organizing has captured the public imagination in the past year, and many black intellectuals who study and offer frameworks for understanding contemporary black life are caught between a rock and a hard place. They want and perhaps even need to engage with an audience outside the ivory tower—people who aren’t reading the academic journals where they’re published, but who are on the front lines of the issues they research. But these public conversations leave them open to attacks from those who want to undermine the activism and any scholarship that helps fuel it.
Cox of Fordham said while many of these attacks can be traced to the conservative blogosphere, they indicate a larger trend she’s seen on campuses—expressions of resentment from, say, the pre-med or engineering student required to take an ethnic-studies course, or students’ general discomfort when asked to think about race, class, or gender in ways they’ve never encountered before. “I have these students who are mad that they are being asked to think through a different paradigm,” Cox said. “They are especially angry because they can point to the symbolism of a black president.”
A deep anti-intellectualism runs through critics’ posts on Robinson. For example, one post takes issue with a word she used in a tweet about the Confederate flag. It reads in part:
The $20-dollar word “heteropatriarchal” used by the fourth- or fifth-tier public school professor means a combination of male and heterosexual power “essentially describing the severe sex and gender bias prevalent among the elite ruling classes of nation-states,” according to the Collins English Dictionary. However, this fancypants definition is currently “pending investigation.”
The implication here is that Robinson has no business using a big word that readers of the Daily Caller may need to have defined for them. It also points to an argument that signers of the letter make—that scholars who are merely having honest, rigorous conversations about how identity and power work in the United States are the ones coming under attack. “When people name things as they are, they become targets,” Cox said. “We can’t dumb stuff down or misname it or sanitize it or make it sound good so people don’t get offended.”
No, Robinson was not fired from her position—despite her critics’ best efforts. Still, the University of Memphis’s decision to tweet that it was no longer her employer shows a reluctance to defend the very behaviors—crossover appeal, socially engaged scholarship, success as a public intellectual—that an institution might brag about under different circumstances. Zandria Robinson is any indication, there’s a thin line between prestige and infamy in the eyes of the academy.
I asked Shana Redmond of USC what advice she would give to a young black woman PhD just starting her career, given these cases of scholars’ speech in public spaces being used against them. “They have to find that unique balance of not losing who they are while still doing the work that will get them where they want to be,” she said. “I would never advise anyone to make themselves small in order to fit into this industry.”