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.