The Racial Genealogy of Excellence
NOT UNTIL THE YEARS AFTER WORLD WAR II would “yes” become a word attached to minority difference. Prior to that minorities would be most familiar with “no” and its many lacerations. In the decade of the sixties, however, new technologies would arise for saying “yes.” One of the earliest installments in this dubious repertoire of affirmations was the category “Excellence.” Somewhere amid the struggle over rights and inclusion, excellence emerged as a discourse that would try to reconcile the disqualifications of liberal democracy with the pressures of antiracism. Yet a long history of suspicion has existed in certain quarters—vernacular and erudite—of the politics of affirmations. Indeed, African American folklore tells us that another affirmation—the phrase “uh hunh”—was a term the devil made up. Given this, it should come as no surprise that the category “excellence” would incur many people’s distrust as well. In this critical suspicion of excellence and the strategic formations that it presumed, the open admissions movement at City College would gain momentum.
One October morning in 1969, two hundred or so African American and Puerto Rican students would lock the South Campus gates of City College and threaten to keep them so unless the college admitted more minority students. The gates stayed closed for two weeks before the administration agreed to the students’ demands, a move that would permit thousands of blacks, Puerto Ricans, and poor whites to enroll as undergraduates. The students would have a list of five demands—to build a “[separate] school of Black and Puerto Rican Studies”; to establish “a separate orientation program for Black and Puerto Rican freshman [sic],” one that would help them address “conflicting pressures arising from college and their communities”; to give disadvantaged students “a decision-making role in faculty selection, promotion, and firing”; to install new admissions practices that would mandate that student diversity reflect the diversity within Harlem; and to require “Black and Puerto Rican history and the Spanish language for all education majors.”1
For those two weeks, a kind of critical utopia was created—Puerto Rican parents would bring “pots of rice and beans and pork and pasteles” and hold the gates so that the police would not come in. The students held a free breakfast program and day care for the children in the neighborhood, and political education classes would be held while the official curriculum was shut down.2
The board of education would respond by agreeing to establish an open admissions policy that would guarantee that every high-school graduate in New York who wished to matriculate could do so in one of the CUNY colleges. The college would be transformed from a predominantly white institution to one made up of a majority of black and brown students. Twenty years after the open admissions movement at City College, the City University of New York would graduate the largest number of black and Latino students with master’s degrees, far outshining its larger sibling institution, the State University of New York. For some, open admissions would be a corruption of academic standards, and for others it would represent the democratization of higher education.
In 1967 the open admissions movement came to a young professor’s attention. She had been asked to fill in and teach Freshmen Comp for a friend who needed some time to write. So, the day after her friend’s request and long before she would become a renowned activist and writer, June Jordan would become a faculty member at City College. Her colleagues—Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian, Addison Gayle Jr., David Henderson, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Mina Shaughnessy—would go on to become luminaries in their own right. There at City College she would join these same colleagues and many of the young people of that institution in a struggle to make the college open to all who wished to enter. Teacher and student alike would move into history, hoping that there would be an end to days that were drylongso.
By way of history, City College was founded in 1847 as the Free Academy. Its former name was both odd and appropriate in that it gave thousands of working-class native-born and immigrant whites access to a college education, making sure that they—at least—would not be held back from freedom. This whitewashed freedom congealed so that by the 1960s, more than a hundred years after its founding, City College and its sister campuses remained predominantly white,3 a history that would inspire African American and Puerto Rican students to shut down seventeen buildings and demand that the student body reflect the black and brown makeup of Harlem.
Its biographical details notwithstanding, the open admissions movement is significant for what it says about an emergent form of power and the critical formations that were mobilizing against it. In fact, a 1969 essay that Jordan wrote about the open admissions struggle helps to elaborate this book’s account of the forms of power that arose in the moment of the social movements. Turning her attention to the historic racial formations that set the stage for the birth of the American academy and U.S. society, Jordan’s essay “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person” is an artifact that begs us to interrogate the histories of racial domination that make up the underside of excellence. Pointing to how those seemingly abstract discourses of “standards” and “excellence” were part of the racialized genealogies of colonialism, slavery, and neocolonialism, she demonstrates the ways in which the open admissions struggle marked and contested the administrative maneuvers and discourses that simultaneously solicited and excluded people of color.
Moreover, as “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person” disinters this genealogy of necropolitics and its evolutions around power/knowledge, the essay ascribes the academy with a historical significance that—contrary to certain versions of postmarxism—cannot be reduced to universalizing narratives about capitalist economic formations. At odds with the ways in which those narratives invalidate cultural interventions, the essay and the open admissions struggle demonstrate how the intersections of race and bureaucracy are illuminated and critiqued through minority cultural production.
More pointedly, that movement’s cultural production is part of an under-theorized archive, one that has much to teach us about how hegemonic power responded to minority demands and used the category “excellence” to reshape institutional engagements with minoritized subjects and knowledges. As a cultural and archival artifact, Jordan’s essay illuminates the deep genealogical layers within the category “excellence,” layers that go much further back than recent theorizations of the category suggest, strata accumulated by histories of racial conflict, sediments grounded in the very definition of the human. Through Jordan’s essay we can see how the academy becomes a historical icon that projects a complex array of discourses around race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality. In doing so, the essay challenges the Western academy’s history of disavowing colonialism and slavery as part of its institutional biography.
Inasmuch as the essay is part of an undertheorized archive, it suggests how we have yet to grapple with the implications of a mode of power that intertwines race and bureaucracy and how that mode reaches into conservative and progressive realms alike. The absence of this archive in the analysis of the contemporary university and the forms of power that occasion it beg us to consider whether we too often proceed as if we can critique institutional formations while neglecting cultural and archival ones, not realizing that they may provide the very links we need to understand how modes of difference shape institutional life and practice. A metacritical analysis of this sort demands that all of these observations be deployed at once. In the context of the open admissions struggle, for instance, “excellence” became the rubric for producing overlapping discourses about African Americans and Puerto Ricans, making City College the site whereby subjects differentiated by diverse histories of migration and racialization would engage one another. Such historic encounters—there and elsewhere—would make the American academy the place for contending with diversities produced out of the racialized contradictions of American liberal democracy and U.S. imperialism.
The Deracination of “Excellence”
Given contemporary conversations about the category “excellence”—ones that “tie the University to a…net of bureaucratic institutions” in the 1990s—”Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person” is a curious artifact indeed.4 Written during the open admissions takeover, the essay situates the discourse of excellence much earlier than the end of the twentieth century, reading that discourse as part of a racial formation composed of a student movement, a university bureaucracy, and histories of racial domination. In her discussion of faculty and “Third World students who wanted to inaugurate an Open Admissions policy,” for instance, Jordan argues that those opposed to open admissions believed that the policy “would catapult the university into a trough of mediocrity”5 and “preclude excellence: excellence of standards and of achievement.”6 If a concept like excellence was powerful enough to mobilize an opposition, why have contemporary discussions occluded that essay, the open admissions movement, and this story of excellence?
Part of the answer to that question lies in the framework that has been established for talking about the category. To begin with, Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins has—more than any other book—shaped how we conceptualize discourses of excellence in and outside the contemporary Western university. Published in 1996, the book argues that excellence is the “watchword of the University” and has become its “unifying principle.”7 Readings maintains that “excellence” has become the academy’s keyword because of the ways in which multinational corporations disseminate “excellence” as a standard for all practices within the university—from the management of parking services to the significance of scholarship. “As an integrating principle,” he states, “excellence has the singular advantage of being entirely meaningless, or to put it more precisely, non-referential” (22). For Readings, “excellence” can thus be applied anywhere and to anything. Its power comes not from the content that it bears but from the wide application that its lack of content affords. Excellence, he says, “functions to allow the University to understand itself solely in terms of the structure of corporate administration” (29). Hence, “excellence” is not only an ideal shared by the contemporary university and present-day corporate capital; it is the principle that defines their relation to one another.
As a principle of relation, though, Readings’s use of excellence presumes that the academy is the simple reflection of capitalist economic formations: “[the university] is not just like a corporation. It is a corporation” (22). He states later that “Excellence serves nothing other than itself, another corporation in a world of transnationally exchanged capital” (43). As the reflection of capital, the university assumes the role that art suffered in base-superstructure arguments. Discussing that role, Raymond Williams argues in Marxism and Literature, “The usual consequence of the base-superstructure formula, with its specialized and limited interpretations of productive forces and the process of determination, is a description—even at times a theory—of art and thought as ‘reflection.’”8
While “the metaphor of reflection has a long history in the analysis of art and ideas,”9 it was dismantled years later by one poststructuralist and postmarxist critique after the other. Curiously enough, reflection attains a new viability and elaboration through Readings, not through a discussion of art but through the image of that institution where artistic and intellectual practices are so often produced—the university. The metaphor of reflection enables marxism to commit itself once again to forms of universality and abstraction that ultimately marginalize the autonomy and significance of minority difference and culture. As the category “excellence” promotes the idea that the university is the unrefuted picture of capital, this formulation fosters the notion that modes of difference that arise from interdisciplinary studies around race, gender, sexuality, and disability are simple mirages compared to the real phenomena of capitalist economic formations.
We can in fact see this notion at work in Readings’s arguments about racism. He states that “racism is no longer primarily a matter of representation; it is a complex economic issue as well as a straightforward political one.”10 Suggesting that struggles against and analyses of racial exclusion were, once upon a time, unadulterated “matters of representation,” Readings goes on to imply that—in the moment of global capital’s looming significance—racism has revealed itself to be primarily the stuff of economics and politics. In such an understanding of “excellence,” culture and difference become once again the symptoms of political and economic processes.
Indeed, by arguing that the university and the cultural representations thereof reflect capitalist economic formations, Readings resuscitates the reductive shortcomings of marxism. Again addressing this shortcoming through the figure of art, Williams argued that understanding material processes as simple matters of reflection only worked to suppress the “social and material character of artistic activity.”11 Similarly, by arguing that the university is simply the corporation’s reflection, Readings suppresses the social and material character of cultural formations, and by relegating cultural difference to a position of insignificance and obsolescence, he underestimates the possibilities that minority culture holds both for the consolidation and for the disruption of political economy. If the academy and things academic are indeed like art, then they are not only imprinted by society; they cast their silhouettes on the social world as well. More important, if the conversation around excellence is shaped by a theorization that regards minority difference and culture as marginal, then there is little wonder that the racial itinerary of excellence and its critique in the open admissions movement would be consigned to the dustbin of history.
As an archival element, “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person” suggests that the discourse of excellence actually arose in the racially turbulent period of the 1960s, during the postwar expansion of American higher education, the diversification of American student-body populations, and the student agitation that propelled it. Indeed, John W. Gardner’s 1961 text Excellence was the book that popularized that category as a standard not only for education but for U.S. social practice as well. Gardner was an academic who at various points was on the faculty at Mount Holyoke, Connecticut College, and Stanford. He was also a public servant, having served on President John F. Kennedy’s task force on education and as President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of health, education, and welfare.
In 1961, after serving on Kennedy’s task force, he published the book Exellence. In it, he argued: “Our society cannot achieve greatness unless individuals at many levels of ability accept the need for high standards of performance and strive to achieve those standards within the limits possible for them.”12 With that book, Gardner was attempting to establish excellence—in Foucault’s terms—as a mode of governmentality, one in which those who wished to “govern the state well must first learn to govern [themselves].”13 As Gardner argued, “We want the highest conceivable excellence, of course, in the activities crucial to our effectiveness and creativity as a society; but that isn’t enough.” Emphasizing the need for a pervasive distribution of that standard, he went on to state, “We must foster a conception of excellence that may be applied to every degree of ability and to every socially acceptable activity…The tone and fiber of our society depend upon a pervasive, almost universal striving for good performance.”14
For Gardner, excellence would be a mode of agency for every individual, but one calibrated according to the particular abilities of that individual. Understood as such, excellence presumed not just a diversity of abilities but an inequality among abilities, a presumption that arose in the context of social agitation. Gardner, as communication studies scholar Laurie Ouellette notes, “was the first to concede that those who actually achieve excellence will be few at best.” Discussing his belief in the hierarchy of abilities and his insistence on equality of opportunity, Ouellette goes on to say, “[The] meritocracy he envisioned was a competitive business…[The] Great Society would still be a pyramid with a limited number of spaces at the top.”15 And as Wilson Smith and Thomas Bender note about Gardner’s text, “The major theme of educational excellence in the post-Sputnik years was increasingly posited in a sometimes tense relation to egalitarian social pressures of the 1960s.”16 Within the discourse of excellence, deliberating on ability was a way of promoting national distinction while anxiously negotiating with increasingly visible and insurgent minority populations.
As the category that emerged within the context of powerful social pressures to diversify student-body populations, excellence would also become a principle for engaging the demands of minoritized constituencies. In the civil rights era, the question of minority difference and American democracy was posed in every sphere of American society and presented as a problem that might inhibit distinction and greatness. In fact, Gardner’s text led official responses to that question, becoming “the most widely read delineation of this cultural problem in the American democracy.”17 Indeed, Gardner saw the principle of excellence as the medium between two extremes. “People calling most noisily for quality in education” characterized one extreme, and “fanatics who believe that the chief goal for higher education should be to get as many youngsters as possible—regardless of ability into college classrooms” represented the other.18 Gardner theorized excellence as the principle that would mediate this contention between racialized understandings of “quality education” and what in the language of City College was called “open admissions.” In sum, excellence arose out of the interface between academy and federal government, an interface that was motivated by minority difference, and Gardner’s book would launch excellence as a standard for state and civil society, promoting it as a principle that would help to determine the character of social and subject formations alike, fostering it as a technology of power that would target both institutional and personal horizons.
Another text arose out of the historic intersection between academy and federal government and within the “egalitarian social pressures of the 1960s.” Shortly after the publication of Excellence, the former chancellor of UC Berkeley and former president of the University of California Clark Kerr published his 1963 text The Uses of the University. Similar to Gardner, Kerr would write, “’How to preserve a margin of excellence’ in an increasingly egalitarian society has become a most intense issue.”19 At the same time, Kerr argued that the American university was attaining unprecedented significance because “[we] are just now perceiving that the university’s invisible product, knowledge, may be the most powerful single element in our culture, affecting the rise and fall of professions and even of social classes, of regions and even of nations” (xiv; emphasis added).
For Kerr, the intensity of the issue lay in the fact that the university’s status as the manufacturer of this “invisible product” was not entirely synchronized with its position as the incubator of social change and minority liberation. The state’s new racial project was occasioned by what Kerr dubbed the “two great new forces of the 1960’s,” that is, “the federal government and protesting students” (99). During that period, the federal government became the main granting agency of American research universities. Moreover, its financial technologies became the strategies for a new and more affirmative racial project and mode of power. As Kerr states, “The federal government emphasized science and research, equality of opportunity, impartiality of treatment among the races, and the innovative role of the federal agency” (ibid.). The state, because of student protests, was both changing its racial character and evolving a new relationship with American research universities, one that was attempting to make the goals of research standards and excellence consistent with demands for a more integrated society. Said another way, federal grants would become the first genre of funding technologies used to reconcile the commodification of knowledge with the assertions of diversity. That reconciliation would call for both research innovation and “equality of opportunity.” The American university would, therefore, help to innovate a new horizon of interpellation, one that would socialize the state’s financial resources according to a new racial project around equality and antidiscrimination, making the law and funding the dominant purview of antiracist resolution. With the publications of Excellence and The Uses of the University, the American academy was fast becoming the hub of a knowledge-based economy, the center of discussions around minority difference and democracy, and the laboratory that might integrate those two institutional identities.
This was not the first time in which the state used the American academy to foster the state’s racial project. Indeed, we can see the academy functioning as a facilitator of the state’s racial vision in the nineteenth century. For instance, with the emergence of the land-grant movement in the 1840s, the American academy was used to uplift poor and working-class whites for the good of an industrializing agricultural economy. About the land-grant movement and the eventual passage of the Land Grant College Act, formerly known as the Morrill Act of 1862, Kerr wrote: “The land grant movement brought schools of agriculture and engineering…, of home economics and business administration” (12). As it widened the academic horizon to the professions, the land-grant movement opened professional terrains to “the children of [white] farmers and workers, as well as of the middle and upper classes” (ibid.). The land-grant movement also “introduced agricultural experiment stations and service bureaus” (ibid.). The historian Allen Nevins voiced what has become the established sentiment about the Morrill Act of 1862: “The law annexed wide neglected areas to the domain of instruction. Widening the gates of opportunity, it made democracy freer, more adaptable and more kinetic” (ibid.). Yet freedom, adaptability, and kinesis would be arrogated to whites and withheld from blacks and Native Americans, demonstrating the racialized foundations of academy’s partnership with state and economy. More pointedly, the land-grant movement elaborated the state’s racialized contradictions between freedom for some and unfreedom for others and assisted in the development of a white professional class necessary for a changing economy.
Architects of the Morrill Act of 1862 designated the professions as the disciplinary curriculum appropriate for industrialization and its potential benefit for the social and economic advancement of white working-class youth and families. The professional (i.e., white subject) who would become the academic ideal of that act would thus be the fully industrialized alternative to the unlettered slave who hailed from a plantation-based economy. In contrast to the disgraceful diversity produced by slavery, the land-grant movement would usher in a more respectable class diversity organized around the professional expansion of white working-class families and households. As Christopher Newfield notes, the Morrill Act “gave a new and lasting momentum to the idea of college education for a growing middle class,” occasioning the founding of the University of Illinois (1867), the University of California (1868), and Cornell University (1865).20 The development of the professions was thus part of a larger racial project designed to uplift white working-class families as the new symbols of professional endowment for a new industrializing democracy.
It was obvious that the Morrill Act of 1862 would not cover all the costs of building new institutions. It was also apparent that Southern states were not going to cooperate with the federal government’s efforts to establish land-grant institutions for African Americans under the Morrill Act of 1862. So, in 1890, Congress passed a second Morrill Act as a way to coerce Southern states into either admitting African Americans to predominantly white institutions or building separate institutions for African Americans altogether. Congress did so by stipulating that the use of federal funds would have these conditions tied to them. Out of the Morrill Act of 1890, sixteen African American institutions were established throughout the South.21 We might think of the second Morrill Act as an attempt to resolve the tension between racial hierarchy and democracy in ways that were consistent with the state’s new racial project—segregation. The act helped to produce a “separate but equal” doctrine at the level of higher education, making college campuses simultaneously the incubators for racial and class cleavages.
In many ways the rise of the land-grant institutions and the institutionalization of teaching, research, and professional training are the beginning of the American academy’s project of “excellence.” As such, the Morrill Acts sought to professionalize white and minoritized subjects so that they conformed to the ideal of professional, scientific, and humanistic service to the nation and so that they embodied national principles of uplift and respectability. The academy would become the place to model and inspire uplift within a larger context of social disfranchisement. The Morrill Acts, particularly the 1890 one, would help designate the American university as the location to resolve national contradictions over the inclusion and exclusion of minoritized subjects. A discourse of excellence, whether implicit, as in the periods of the Civil War or Reconstruction periods, or explicit, as in the days of civil rights, has always been a means of producing a partnership between state, capital, and academy, a partnership that took as a principal task that of negotiating the racial diversity within the United States. As a way of engaging diversity, excellence would ingratiate minorities by making ability not only a standard of incorporation but a mode of surveillance, exclusion, and measurement, one that Jordan would decry—along with other ideals such as “efficiency” and “competence”—as a “deadly, neutral” word.
Excellence and the Alienation of the People
One of the ways Jordan summarized the “deadly” and “neutral” aspect of excellence was by demonstrating how it rendered black and Puerto Rican students as the antithesis of standards and achievement. In doing so, she pointed to the constant tension between a discourse of excellence and the figure of the people, a tension that persisted even as excellence was erected to reconcile the goal of state distinction with the demands of minority communities. We can locate the history of this tension again within The Conflict of the Faculties.
In that text, Kant touched on the function of the people in the discourses of state and academy. Claiming the academy as a site for best articulating how to represent the people and provide for its welfare, he wrote: “Now the faculties engage in public conflict in order to influence the people, and each can acquire this influence only by convincing the people that it knows best how to promote their welfare.”22 The lower and higher faculties, according to Kant, cannot promote the people’s welfare without regulating them. The people do not understand their welfare in terms of freedom “but as [the realization] of their natural ends and so as these three things: being happy after death, having their possessions guaranteed by public laws during their life in society, and finally, looking forward to the physical enjoyment of life itself (that is, health and a long life)” (49). The lower faculty can help the people realize these goals only through the mutually constitutive principles of freedom, reason, and self-regulation or, as he put it, “[living] righteously, committing no injustice, and by being moderate in [their] pleasures and patient in [their] illnesses” (ibid.).
But, according to Kant, the people are not naturally inclined toward this kind of freedom and “self-exertion” (ibid.). They are more apt to follow the less demanding requirements of the higher faculties:
For the people naturally adhere most to doctrines which demand the least self-exertion and the least use of their own reason, and which can best accommodate their duties to their inclinations—in theology, for example, the doctrine that they can be saved merely by an implicit faith, without having to examine (or even really know) what they are supposed to believe, or that their performance of certain prescribed rites will itself wash away their transgressions; or in law, the doctrine that compliance with the letter of the law exempts them from examining the legislator’s intentions. (51)
For Kant, the people were naturally given to superficial, rote, and egocentric practices that leave them only mildly desirous of introspection and collective aspirations. Inasmuch as theology, medicine, and law recommend certain prescribed rites without requiring reflection, the higher faculty encourages the people away from reason. The higher faculty, therefore, can never be the basis of state law. Instead of basing its practices on the higher faculties, Kant argued that the government must legislate according to the ideals of the lower faculty, which were also the principles of regulation—rationality and freedom—principles that would provide the best ways to manage a people held in suspicion.
Through Kant’s theorizations, the Western academy became the site that theorized the university as representative government’s counsel about matters of rationality and the people’s propensity for it. Under his theory, the people represented the pivot on which the lower faculty was distinguished from the higher faculty. While insulated from the vulgarities of the people, that portion of the academy most intimate with government—the lower faculty—was integral to the maneuvers of state regulation. The people thus helped to constitute the collaboration between state and lower faculty—as the population to be managed by the state, as the constituency to be constructed as irrational and egoistic. In this way, the people become the biopolitical lever on which the philosophy faculty could declare its identity in relation to the state as well as clarify the state’s relationship to the people. In effect, Kant said to the king, “the state should give the philosophy faculty power because they can best alienate the people from their inclinations and desires, and upon this alienation the state can better represent them.”
In the moment of the student struggles, the American academy would assume the role of the philosophy faculty and help government reconsider both the state’s and the university’s relationship to the people. As the embodiment of the lower faculty, the American academy would thus assist in rearticulating the people’s capacity for rationality and freedom. In the moment of minority inclusion, the academy would become the laboratory within which those ideals might be extended to the people historically figured as their antitheses. Contradictorily, the academy would also become the place for refining the reasons for regulation and exclusion. As Kant made alienation and regulation the condition for representing the people, Jordan’s essay points to how the entrance of people of color into the academy—as the possible subjects of excellence—would be based on disciplining the historical and cultural differences that constituted the people’s lives.
While the student protests of the 1960s and the essay itself shed light on the racial and class exclusivity of the category “excellence,” “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person” also interrogated excellence as an ideal of resolution and absorption, an ideal that held out the certainty of both discipline and exclusion. As such, the essay wonders out loud about the standards for inviting minoritized subjects into hegemonic domains and practices. More pointedly, it indicates the various strategies by which the American nationstate and the American academy have attempted to absorb and archive populations minoritized by the United States’ racial and imperial projects. In doing so, Jordan implies that the presumably benevolent integration of minoritized subjects is dialectically connected to the violent absorption and extermination of nonwhite populations. In contrast to Readings, Jordan periodizes excellence within a moment of national and international conflict around the subject of race, and unlike Gardner, she does not construct excellence as the benign resolution to minority difference and agitation. For her, “excellence” fundamentally antagonizes democratic understandings of “the people,” constructing them as the antithesis of that category’s principles. In terms of the open admissions movement and the people of Harlem, that antagonism would be directed toward African Americans and Puerto Ricans.
As a contradictory formation—one not only built around exclusion—excellence also promises to resolve minority assertions of autonomy and advancement, resolving them toward the needs of state, business, and canonical knowledge. Pointing to such a resolution, Floyd McKissick argued in a 1968 essay titled “Black Business Development with Social Commitment to Black Communities”: “It is my belief that the development of Black Economic Power offers White America its last chance to save the Republic. If we are to exist together, it will be as equals. Equality depends on black control of its own institutions.”23 As McKissick indicates, the discourse of excellence—seen here in the thesis about “Black Economic Power”—was steadily becoming the language of political, educational, and economic integration, a language that would bring the institutions of American society into a new relation over the management of minority difference. For McKissick, that management would depend on white capital and black labor, a dependence that he argues would somehow yield black self-determination: “Much of the capital for our undertakings will be forthcoming from white financial institutions and business corporations. The success of our endeavors is dependent, however, on the effort and toil of Black People.”24
Hence, we might read Jordan’s essay for the ways in which it traces not only the exclusion but also the incorporation of new forms of minority difference. For instance, Jordan elaborates her understanding of excellence by identifying how that discourse is rooted not only in academic parlance but also in the genealogies of slavery and colonialism and within the discourse of the liberal individual, that supreme figure of integration and incorporation into democratic and capitalist societies:
We know the individuality that isolates the man from other men, the either/or, the lonely-one that leads the flesh to clothing, jewelry, and land, the solitude of sight that separates the people from the people, flesh from flesh, that jams material between the spirit and the spirit. We have suffered witness to these pitiful, and murdering, masquerade extensions of the self.25
In this passage, Jordan presents a picture of African Americans and Puerto Ricans as witnesses to the horrors and deformations of Western progress. As she figures those terrors through the emergence of the liberal self, she frustrates the assumption that the Western individual is the benevolent horizon of achievement and agency. Through the emergence of the liberal individual, she counters, foreign lands and subjects were incorporated into the Western nation-state—as possessions, as bounties, and as colonial and enslaved laborers. Making possessions, taking bounty, and stealing land would become the liberal individual’s blueprint for adventure, an adventure that would take on new itineraries as excellence solicited minority difference, inserting the elements of individualism into minoritized subjectivities. In a time of economic expansion, civil rights gains, and national independence, the intermingling of individualism and minority difference would yield unprecedented possibilities for mobility and institutional advancement. For Jordan, this intermingling—even with the chance for uplift—is part of excellence’s disfiguring imperative.
At the heart of the aforementioned passage is a tale about modernity’s systems of calculation, systems that are responsible for the enfranchisement of the Western individual and the dehumanization of all else. As Jordan says, “There seldom has been a more efficient system for profiteering, through human debasement, than the plantations, of a while ago.”26 Here she turns our attention to how the slave trade was a key moment in reconciling progress with degradation. In Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, Stephanie Smallwood discusses the ways the slave trade provided not only a new economic moment for modern Western nation-states but a new regime of calculation by which to measure and utilize human life. Discussing slavery as a revolution in market systems of classification, she argues: “[The] economic exchange had to transform independent beings into human commodities whose most ‘socially relevant feature’ was their ‘exchangeability.’”27 Locating the beginnings of that revolution on the shores of the Gold Coast of West Africa, she goes on to say, “The shore was the stage for a range of activities and practices designed to promote the pretense that human beings could convincingly play the part of their antithesis—bodies animated only by others’ calculated investment in their physical capacities.”28
As slavery was the context for measuring human capacity, slavery became an early component of capital’s “scientific” innovations. Because of its innovative role, we might also situate slavery alongside the human sciences, which, in the language of Foucault, placed man at the foundation of all knowledge about life, labor, and language. In similar fashion, Small-wood points to how slavery placed Africans at the center of calculations about how far a life could be stretched and tried for the necessities of capitalist economic formations. As a result, life would become a factor in capital’s equations, and the marketing of Africans into commodities would unleash a profound epistemic revolution in which slavery’s computations would be the prototype to Marx’s free laborer.
In the post-World War II moment, student movements and notions of excellence that were friendly to diversity promised to end all of that. As the shore was the stage on which capital could calculate human life for the debasing rigors of the market, the campus yard became the setting on which those historic calculations could be contested and then restaged. On this terrain, minoritized subjects would be evaluated in terms of their fitness for standards of excellence and merit, and the American campus would be the site for a range of activities and practices assembled to advance the idea that minorities would no longer have to play the part of their antithesis, that they would go from being history’s humiliations to becoming its most renowned and uplifted achievements. No longer would they be “bodies animated only by others’ calculated investment in their physical capacities.” They would become minds energized by institutional measurements of their intellectual attributes. With the emergence of excellence, minoritized life would be subjected to presumably more affirming judgments, assessments that might allow that life to break free from its days of debasement. “Excellence” signaled that long-awaited morning about which liberals and radicals dreamed—when the past could finally be sloughed off and the day would totally begin anew.
Yet, while “excellence” may have promised to install a new tomorrow, that ideal could not help but betray its kinship to prior and emerging regimes of calculation and alienation. As Jordan indicates, one of the ways in which the category did so was through its “endorsement” of that moment’s devastations. In an apparent reference to the Vietnam War, she notes, “Today, the whole world sits, as quietly scared as it can sit, afraid that, tomorrow, America may direct its efficiency and competence toward another forest for defoliation, or clean-cut laser-beam extermination.”29
Efficiency, competence, and excellence were very much the aspirations of the Vietnam era. The political theorist Eqbal Ahmad turns our attention, for example, to how those aspirations played a part in the United States’ counterinsurgency strategies in the Vietnam War. While the conventional counterinsurgent strategy favored by senior military officers was characterized by “aerial bombardment,” “invasion of enemy sanctuaries,” and baiting “the enemy [into] a concentrated attack,” the “chief exponents” and “most sophisticated programmers” of conventional counterinsurgent maneuvers were the liberal reformers, theorists of “impeccable credentials,” typically from the United States and France, professionals who couched their counterinsurgent doctrines in terms of “[freedom], progress, development, democracy, reforms, participation, and self-determination.”30 The democratic tone of counterinsurgency belied the fact that its goals were oftentimes achieved in the most punitive ways. For instance, on May 16, 1968, American soldiers entered the My Lai village on a “search-and-destroy” mission and slaughtered “three hundred unarmed civilians—including women, children, and old people.”31 Shortly thereafter, General William Westmoreland would congratulate the servicemen for their efficiency and competence, because the soldiers had not only met but exceeded their body count of 129.32
As a matter of violent incorporation, the Vietnam War “reflected the general desire to incorporate the extractive economies of Asia into the [United States’] industrial core” and provided “the means for the U.S. to perform its technological modernity and military force in relation to the Asiatic world.”33 The war in Vietnam suggested that individual excellence was needed not only in academy and government but in military operations as well. Such was the wide and universal application of this ideal, which helped to constellate the diverse arrangements of academy, state, and capital over the simultaneous legal enfranchisement and affirmation of U.S. minorities. This was the arrangement presumed in Jordan’s use of that taken-for-granted, presumably insular, supposedly abstract institution known as the American university. Through Jordan we see the ways in which the American academy was a heteroglot institution, bearing the traces of various historical formations. Imprinted by these histories, the category “excellence”—like “black capitalism” in the preceding chapter—is haunted by the unacknowledged and matted itineraries of race and administration, a haunting that would bring the shores of West Africa and the villages of Vietnam to the halls of academe.
Excellence and the Othering of African Americans and Puerto Ricans
In addition to being branded by transatlantic slavery and the Vietnam War, the category excellence also, for Jordan, presumes national and international migrations and the discourses that helped to constitute them. In the context of City College and the open admissions movement, the regulation of African Americans and Puerto Ricans by state and academy was yet another prehistory to the drama of excellence. Indeed, the background for the open admissions movement and the discursive context for African Americans and Puerto Ricans in New York was the pathologization of those groups by government, sociology, and the media, a pathologization that involved manipulating constitutive discourses of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Both African Americans and Puerto Ricans were figured as non-heteronormative constituencies during and after their periods of migration. In the case of African Americans, conservative, liberal, and radical authorities constructed them as tangled up in matriarchal pathologies that led to crime, poverty, emasculation, homosexuality, and unwed births. Puerto Ricans were pathologized in similar ways as people characterized by loose morals, prostitution, and excessive reproduction.
While Jordan specifically focused on the circumstances of black studies and African American students, it was part of a larger rebuttal to the social construction of both African American and Puerto Rican communities. For example, during the 1960s, Puerto Rican artists and activists were also challenging the pathologization of Puerto Rican communities. Groups such as the International Ladies Garment Workers, the Young Lords Party, the Young Lords’ Women’s Caucus, the Welfare Rights Organization, and the Nuyorican Poets argued that Puerto Rican disfranchisement could not be explained in terms of a dysfunctional sexual and familial culture but was the outcome of international labor exploitation.34 These pathologizing discourses would inspire the contradictory articulations of excellence—as an edict against diversity and as a developmental resolution to minority dysfunctions.
As Laura Briggs argues in Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico, in the immediate post-World War II environment, Puerto Rican migration, along with its African American counterpart from the South, “was thoroughly rendered a problem.” In similar fashion to African American migration, Puerto Rican migration became a specific sociological problem with wide policy implications. Indeed, 1947 saw a media explosion around Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, with stories of “children abandoned in the airport, disease, substandard housing, rising crime levels” and overreproduction. Pundits believed that this presumed dysfunction would lead to a future of poverty and crime in Puerto Rican communities.
Oftentimes, accounts of Puerto Rican cultural pathologies contradicted other reports of Puerto Rican investment in respectability and hard work. Despite the contradictions to Puerto Rican sexual, familial, and social degeneracy, political and academic authorities pursued this thesis as if it had no inconsistencies. Hence, media accounts about Puerto Ricans created hysteria on the mainland and in Puerto Rico. So, in 1947, the governor of Puerto Rico commissioned Columbia University sociologists to study the Puerto Rican migration problem. As Laura Briggs observes, “the uproar in the newspapers died down, and a cottage industry for social scientists in and around New York was born” (168).
It was not until the 1960s, however, that Puerto Ricans became a fully developed social-scientific problem. Sociologists, in particular, rooted “the problem” in a culture-of-poverty framework that emphasized overpopulation in Puerto Rico and the threat that it posed for the mainland United States. Narratives about the “deviant sexuality of poor, usually non-white women” were a key component in that discourse and its effects in public policy and public hysteria (170). As Briggs notes, “The story that ‘backwardness’ and ‘poverty’ were caused by women’s sexuality and reproduction followed Puerto Rican migrants to the mainland, producing a literature about the ‘chaotic families’ of Puerto Ricans in New York” (ibid.). Here Briggs underlines the specific role that gender and sexuality played in the racialization of Puerto Rican migration as socially pathological. Similar to the pathologization of African Americans, the social-scientific construction of Puerto Ricans as pathological helped to produce the relevance of social science beyond the academy. For instance, in a discussion of anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s deployment of the culture-of-poverty thesis in his 1965 text La Vida, Briggs writes: “The work of Lewis in La Vida marked Puerto Rican Families as considerably worse than those portrayed in his earlier work in Mexico, and it joined with the sociology of African Americans’ disorganized families to produce a particularly powerful synthesis” (ibid.). Similar to Kant’s philosophy faculty, American social science was outlining the specifics of the irrationality of “the people”—in this case, the gender and sexual irrationality of African Americans and Puerto Ricans. This discourse of irrationality would help shape public policy.
This discursive context is key to understanding the opposition to open admissions and the function of excellence. When Jordan wrote, for instance, “Those opposed to Open Admissions argued, in effect, that the people, as in a democratic state, preclude excellence: excellence of standards and of achievement,”35 she was in fact obliquely referencing the social construction of African Americans and Puerto Ricans as culturally pathological subjects unfit for civic participation and educational advancement, a construction assisted by members of the academy, government, and media. Such a construction—with its talk of wild reproduction, sexual degeneracy, and social disorganization—made it next to impossible to imagine Puerto Ricans and African Americans as part of an institution built around rationality, excellence, and standards. The open admissions struggle, like its peer student movements across the country, represented a hegemonic fight over the dominant meanings of minoritized communities and the exclusionary parameters of excellence.
In the following passage, Jordan interrogates the antinomy between university curricula as a measurement of excellence and the communities of color that sat outside the gates of City College:
Black Studies. White Studies: Revised. What is the curriculum, what are the standards that only human life threatens to defile and “lower”? Is the curriculum kin to the monstrous metaphor of justice, seated, under blindfold, in an attitude and substance of absolute stone? Life appealing to live, and to be, and to know a community that will protect the living simply because we are alive: This is the menace to university curriculum and standards. This is the possibility of survival we must all embrace: the possibility of life, as has been said, by whatever means necessary.36
Jordan rejects both the notion of an abstract law and the idea of an abstract university curriculum, particularly eschewing how abstract articulations of law and curricula tend to turn away from the material differences of race and class that constitute the lives of African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Her use of “life” is thus a rebuttal to that abstraction and tries to capture the salient differences of Puerto Rican and African American communities.
Noting the material contexts for open admissions, Jordan poses a series of questions:
Will the City College of New York resort to importation of students from Iowa and Maine? The children of the city are Black and Puerto Rican; they are the children of suffering and impotence; they are the children coerced into lower grade education that alienates upward of 65 percent of them so that the majority of this majority disappears into varieties of ruin.37
For her, the viability of City College—as a potential site of transformative learning and social change—depends on its imaginative engagement with African American and Puerto Rican communities. Inasmuch as excellence excluded these communities, it enabled the varieties of racialized ruin that troubled their already precarious circumstances. For Jordan, universities are accountable to the minoritized young that constitute the neighborhoods, towns, and cities in which those institutions reside, accountable in such a way that critical agents within universities have to develop strategies to imagine those young people as constitutive parts of the academy, not as objects of exclusion or investigation but as vital components of their intellectual functions.
In this way, the question of admissions becomes not only a demographic matter relating to a university population but an epistemological proceeding necessitating the reorganization of knowledge. The simultaneity of that demographic and epistemological intervention is captured in the fourth demand. About it, Jordan writes:
Black and Puerto Rican students at the City College, nevertheless, insist upon the fourth demand; they insist upon community. Serving the positive implications of Black Studies (Life Studies), students everywhere must insist on new college admissions policies that will guide and accelerate necessary, radical change at all levels of education.38
Jordan’s use of community addresses blacks and Puerto Ricans as part of a dynamic and edifying material base that makes up Harlem and New York. As such, her use of community works against the university’s claims to abstraction in matters of admission and curriculum. In this way, Jordan deploys community for the purposes of negation, to define the university in terms of the very elements and possibilities that it repels.39 She suggests that the fourth demand attempted to make “community” part of a critical and negative philosophical tradition—one that used African American and Puerto Rican communities to not only mark what the administration and disciplinarity were excluding but to provoke new possibilities for university life and practice. Under such a reading, minority communities become epistemological catalysts for creative alternatives to positivist notions of university life, notions that said the way things are defines the only way that they can be.
To fully appreciate the interventions that Jordan’s essay was attempting to make, we must locate the essay within a wider array of cultural production from the open admissions movement that would—like the essay—address the racial projects taking place at City College and, in the name of “excellence,” projects made up of racial discourses about black and Puerto Rican cultural pathology. By looking at the flyers and posters produced—sometimes ad hoc—we can see how the artistic work of that movement pondered the material conditions of City College itself. For instance, a flyer for a protest titled “STRIKE!” illustrates how the movement theorized the materiality of local discourses about race and bureaucracy.
We might think of the flyer’s use of imagery and text as an example of what cultural theorist W. J. T. Mitchell argues is the core of representation: “[The] interaction of pictures and texts is constitutive of representation as such: all media are mixed media, and all representations are heterogeneous.”40 We can see the interaction of the visual and the textual in the flyer. Visually and textually minimalist, the word STRIKE! is in all capital letters with an exclamation point. The sparseness of the rhetoric and the imagery—oversized but thin letters—suggests that the reason and nature of the strike are simple and straightforward. Particularly compelling is the way in which the flyer links budget cuts to racism. In doing so, it points to the fact that university bureaucracies are not the abstract and universal formations often presumed in social theory but entities constituted out of particularities found in their immediate locales. In the specific case of City College, the flyer suggests that the particularities of Puerto Rican and African American racializations frame university practice. The iconology of the flyer suggests the obviousness of links between bureaucracy and race, for instance, because of the racial subjects who exist at the conceptual heart of the open admissions struggle—African American and Puerto Rican students. Race’s relationship to bureaucracy, the flyer suggests, is foundational rather than auxiliary to the university.
Emphasizing the situation of black and Puerto Rican students, the iconography also points to the multiple historical and social formations at work in the open admissions struggle and in Harlem. For instance, in a poster titled “UNITE!,” we can see how the image gets at the heterogeneous makeup of the College and of Harlem by evoking symbols that would resonate with African Americans and Puerto Ricans.
The image is of two men—one Puerto Rican and one African American, both looking at each other with their fists extended outward. In their opposite hands, each figure holds a book. The fists are drawn as if they are rocks or boulders, the arms as if they are long and extensive columns. Both of these suggest that the constituencies that the men are supposed to represent are powerful and endowed, repeating a convention of much of the writing and visual art of the student movements, framing power and endowment in masculinist terms. At the same time, the image provides a compelling rebuttal to claims that the student struggles were extraneous to the administrative and institutional maneuvers of the American academy. Indeed, positioning the books to the side and rear of the fists suggests that whatever force the fists represent is in fact to make way for the life of the mind against university forces that threaten that life.
The figures also lean in toward each other as if they are in conversation; they are drawn as if they are two triangles that at times unite as a single power. Here the image again suggests that African Americans and Puerto Ricans are powerful formations that, when united, can challenge an institutional structure as formidable as the American academy. The likely union of the two forces is both demanded and predicted through the word UNITE!, the letters of which are drawn as monoliths themselves. The figures are framed by two rectangles. For the Puerto Rican figure, the rectangle is shaded black with a swipe of white. For the black figure, the rectangle is shaded white with a swipe of black. One way in which we might read that is, of course, that the Puerto Rican is placed in the black rectangle to indicate Puerto Rican immersion in a predominantly and identifiably African American Harlem. The African American is placed in a “white” rectangle to indicate African American immersion in a Harlem that is also Puerto Rican. The “white” might also refer to the racialization of Puerto Ricans as nonwhite but as officially “white” according to the U.S. census. The white and black blotches are there to frustrate the notion that Harlem is monocultural or homogeneous, reminding the Puerto Rican community of Harlem’s African American elements, and prompting the African Americans to acknowledge the Nuyoricans.
Although the flyers may seem like minor texts compared to theoretical monographs, they contest the notion that the student protests were not interested in interrogating the administrative and institutional maneuvers of the academy. Indeed, the diverse array of cultural forms deployed by the student movements question the presumption that there are major and minor forms when it comes to hegemonic struggle. The iconography serves as a counterarchive to theorizations of minority difference as insignificant to the theorization of the academy. The iconography recalls the ways in which the open admissions movement was identifying the intersections of race and bureaucracy and using cultural forms such as flyers and posters to illuminate that intersection. Culture, contrary to Readings, was not an example of representation’s alienation from considerations of political economy but an example of culture’s concern over the material practices of bureaucracy. In a discussion about why he chooses not to focus on the movements over race, gender, and sexuality in The University in Ruins, Readings argues that “the lesbian and gay, African American and feminist movements are different in that neither their genesis nor their goals are essentially linked to the University.”41 For Readings, understanding the contemporary university means producing a historiographic narrative about how subjugated modes of difference are inappropriate frameworks from which to understand post–civil rights academic, political, and economic formations. The ephemera and iconography of the open admissions movement rebut this argument and point to how political, economic, and administrative matters were part of the campus’s racial project and the student movement’s critique, emphasizing what political scientist and ethnic studies scholar Pedro Caban refers to as an awareness of the university as a “repository of political and academic power,”42 an awareness that was constitutive of the activism that led to black, Chicano, and Puerto Rican studies.
The Contradictions of the Five Demands
Yet we cannot simply understand the open admissions movement as a rebellion against institutional forces; we have to engage it as a desire for institutionality as well. We can see both elements at work in the Five Demands. For instance, the first demand for a separate school of black and Puerto Rican studies represented the activists’ interest in curricular stability. As the authors put it, “We prefer a school because we think that it is best that a program in Black and Puerto Rican studies have the greatest degree of autonomy and the most lattitude [sic] with which to experiment.” Touching on the possibilities for autonomy and latitude, the first demand reads, “We believe that vigorous innovation in a school, able to confer degrees and to gargain [sic] for its budget, would rub off on the other schools of the college and the total educational ambiance enhanced.”43 The first demand thus represented—to a large degree—a faith in the idea that the school as an institutional form was the horizon of innovation and self-governance, a faith not altogether different from the Morrill Act’s presumption that establishing schools would move American education toward unprecedented breakthroughs.
While separate, the school would not be separatist. Indeed, contrary to popular belief about the inherently separatist nature of various student struggles, the advocates for open admissions actually did not press for the school to be a separatist venue only for African American and Puerto Rican students. Clarifying this point, they wrote, “We are opposed to a segregated school; the school we envision would be open to students with an interest in…the subject. We would expect such a school to be controlled by its faculty and students.” The authors concluded this demand by arguing that forms such as a program or department would be “confined…even harassed…by its lack of autonomy that its activities will be diluted, its potential denied.”44 The school as an institutional form was thus meant to be both an acknowledgment of administrative vulnerability when it came to minoritized students and knowledges and an investment in administrative accomplishment and fortification on behalf of minoritized students and epistemes.
As a form that suggested self-determination, we can locate the first demand’s stipulation of a school for black and Puerto Rican studies within the larger anticolonial movements of the time. We might read the demand as analogous to the efforts of national liberal struggles to capture not only state offices but the state form itself. In such a context the takeover of administration buildings and the erection of schools and departments were modeled on the grand adventures of state capture by national liberation movements. In such a context, identifying with dominant institutional forms and attempting to maneuver them would become the modus operandi for many minoritized subjects.
As a phenomenon inspired by national liberation struggles, the open admissions movement—like its counterparts in other parts of the country—would inherit the contradictions of those struggles. Indeed, the five demands symbolize contradictions at the heart of many of the U.S. student movements. For example, while the fourth demand emphasized the dynamism of minority communities and the critical pressures that minority admittees could put on institutions, that emphasis could only exist in tension with an investment in administration as a horizon of dynamism and experimentation. While administration has proved itself to be capable of experimentation, institutionalization in the form of schools and departments, historically, has not helped to rearrange knowledge but to reconsolidate it. Discussing the anatomy of this reconsolidation, the sociological theorist Zygmunt Bauman has rightly argued that discursive practices achieve institutional identity by setting boundaries on the meaning and analysis of their objects, boundaries that stipulate which language may be mobilized to interpret an object and who has the right to deploy it.45 Whether in the form of a school, a department, a text, or a curriculum, institutionalization eventually means conferring the right to speak about a given object and determining the contours for speaking about that object.
In addition to establishing the community of speakers and the laws of enunciation, institutionalization tries to construct its discursive object as factual and objective. Discourses often map boundaries as a way to attribute coherence and legibility to their objects.46 Institutionalizing a discourse—even a critical one—in the form of departments, programs, and schools runs its errand in the name of coherence and legibility, putting the reorganizing energies suggested by the admission of minoritized subjects at odds with the institutional imperatives for stability and transparency implied by bureaucracy. Hence, the open admissions movement—like many other students movements—was founded on a contradiction: the dynamism of minority communities, on the one hand, and the desire for institutional forms that would ultimately restrict and arrest that dynamism, on the other. This contradiction would begin a new point of departure for minoritized life in the late twentieth century.
As a matter of fact, the post–civil rights years represent moments in which bureaucratic institutionalizations would be handed out to people worn out from waiting. In the moment of exclusions and student struggles, mechanisms of power would expand the borders of excellence and take some of the people in. In 1961, President Kennedy would issue Executive Order 10925, establishing the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, charging that committee “to realize national policy of nondiscrimination in the executive branch of government” and mandating government contractors to “take affirmative action” by employing and managing “without regard to their [applicants’ or employees’] race, creed, color or national origin.”47 In 1965, Lyndon Johnson would issue another executive order—numbered 11246—which required government contractors to comply with nondiscriminatory policies in hiring and promotion or be subject to sanctions. Affirmative-action measures would be a way for campuses across the country to reconcile the ideal of excellence with the demands of democratic change.
In the context of the American academy, one way of practicing affirmative action and reconciling excellence with democratic change was by making race “a factor” among others, such as test scores, grade point averages, recommendation letters, and so on. Yet, turning race into a factor would not circumvent power so much as confirm it. In truth, turning race into a fixed and stable entity would strip the category of the very dynamism that the student movements helped to reveal. Discussing the idea of race as a “factor” in affirmative-action considerations, Judith Butler concludes: “Even if we understand such categories to be one among many that enter into the constitution of a student’s profile, the language of the factor still presumes that minority status might be contained and represented in a quantifiable form.”48 Although affirmative action and excellence signaled new times and new possibilities for minority participation, they would at the same time be moments that ensured minority representation and regulation. Butler notes that even as the language of “one factor among many” suggests an appreciation for the partial significance of a student’s racial background, that “language nevertheless performs a totalization of the status, suggesting its containment and representability as a statistical unit or discrete attribute.”49 By “factoring” race, what the antiracist movements demonstrated as the protean and dynamic character of racial meaning would be turned into the fixed and discrete unit of academic calculation. In other words, what was publicly shown to be a category of considerable innovation and experimentation was turned into a stable and totalizing factor in the name of integration.
As quantification became the standard by which to incorporate racialized subjects, race would be read ironically as an abstraction divorced from historical contexts. As Butler writes, quantifying minorities “not only abstracts from the qualitative considerations of background, history, environment, opportunity, and cultural forms of expression and ideals,” it also arrests and destroys the historicity of minoritized subjects by throwing the category “minority” into an “ahistorical vacuum” and “subjecting it to a logic of calculability.” Quantifying minority categories negates their potential as “points of departure for interpretation” and as “ways of locating accomplishments culturally,” rendering those categories instead into ontological certainties that assert, “this is what this person is.”50 This ontological move was actually a way to discipline the historic maneuvers of the antiracist movements. If those movements partly emphasized race as a mode of becoming, then discourses that quantified race, in effect, attempted to arrest its potential for transformation and rearticulation. If quantification “[destroys] the very referent it seeks to represent,”51 quantification annihilates not only the applicant but the social movements that made the applicant possible in the first place.
By naming the ways in which race is fixed in discrete units, Butler’s arguments about the quantification of minorities reveal how the university institutionalizes essentialist discourses of race, gender, class, and sexuality, reading them as discrete and calculable units rather than points of departure for locating subjects historically and culturally. We have been led to believe that essentialist discourses arise primarily as an effect of the student movements themselves, but Butler’s arguments compel us to interrogate the ways in which those discourses arise as part of bureaucratic protocols and metrics. The contradictory articulation of the student movements meant that those elements that arrested the dynamism of minority difference invoked institutional hegemony rather than repelling it, inviting academic institutions to fix otherwise dynamic notions of racial difference. Fixed and stable notions of race might thus be understood not simply as epistemological constructions but as administrative procedures as well.
Applying bureaucratic metrics and protocols in matters of diversity predates affirmative action. Indeed, as Christopher Newfield explains, quantification in the American university system has historically operated as a way to deal with presumably incongruous and heterogeneous agencies. After the passage of the first Morrill Act and the establishment of big research universities composed of the humanities, the sciences, and the professions, administrators confronted the problem of how to evaluate their progress across those differences. Quantification became the answer to that question. As Newfield suggests, quantitative measures were used to contrive common denominators among fields with different and often opposing “internal assumptions, methods, goals, and standards.” These measures “could be applied to any area. Better yet, they were already central to American understandings of social progress—territory controlled, size of population, level of national income, and so on.”52
Quantitative measures were a means of dealing with “the problem” of disciplinary heterogeneity, the dilemma of how to evaluate diverse elements using a singular standard. Those measures also signified an institutional belief and commitment to ideologies of progress and their universal application—on territories, populations, and national income. By turning race into a factor, minorities would become part of quantification’s jurisdiction and its evaluation of progress. Race and eventually other modes of difference would become abstractions, just as territories, populations, and income had been one hundred years earlier.
Yet, even while the academy was becoming the way station for minority difference, the student movements made the university a site of conflict and possibility like never before. As Jordan observes:
We have spent our generations in a scream that wasted in a golden ear. Giant, demon, clown, angel, bastard, bitch, and nevertheless, a family longing, we have made it to the gates: Our hearts hungry on the rocks around the countryside, our hopes the same: our hopes, unsatisfied. Now we have the choice, and we must make that choice our own. We are at the gates.
Who are we?
There has been no choice until now. Until the university, there is no choice.53
While evoking dehumanizing discourses that fashioned racialized minorities as the antithesis of rationality, Jordan ends with the academy’s fragile possibilities. We might think of that fragility as emanating from the contradictory relationship that racialized minorities have had to the academy. Whether through the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the civil rights and antiracist movements of the 1960s, the University of California Regents v. Bakke in 1978, the passage of Resolution SP-1 by the University of California Board of Regents in 1995—a move to prohibit the use of race in college admissions in California—or Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, academic formations have always shaped and been shaped by the contours of racial projects within and outside educational contexts. Indeed, for Jordan, the inevitability of the university has everything to do with the fact that higher education in the United States has developed and been developed by minority existence and well-being.54
While the academy promises a range of conflicts—”screams in a golden ear”—that institution is also the site where critical formations might emerge, particularly ones that study and challenge the university’s relationship to racial formations and other modes of difference. Seeing that as precisely the task of black studies, Jordan says: “We request Black teachers for Black Studies. It is not that we believe only Black people can understand the Black experience. It is, rather, that we acknowledge the difference between reality and criticism as the difference between the Host and the Parasite.”55 We might read her distinction between host and parasite as designating black critical formations within the academy as the alternative life within that institution, a life intent on using the academy for other forms of learning and subjectivization that the institution never intended. Like a parasite, black studies would produce critical formations in numbers that the host would never imagine or suspect. Black studies, in this sense, would exploit the academy for sustenance, residency, and dispersal, imagining ways to be more in the academy than of it.
Sustenance, residency, and dispersal eventually mean not an absolute eschewal of institutionalization but a desire for alternative institutionalities. We might think of alternative institutionalities as analogous to what Frankfurt School theorists theorized as the contradictory possibilities of reason. As Marcuse wrote, “Reason…was instrumental in creating the world we live in. It was also instrumental in sustaining injustice, toil, and suffering. But Reason, and Reason alone, contains its own corrective.”56 As Jordan argued that the university is inevitable, she was in fact converging with that understanding of reason outlined by Marcuse and others: the academy as both the object of critique and an instrument of alternatives.57
As reason is a site of contradiction that is responsible for both disfranchisements and their undoing, so we might think of institutions as sites of contradiction and negation. Just as producing alternatives to reason does not entail renouncing reason but involves using reason for the purposes of negation, we might infer that crafting alternative forms of institutional practice and belonging does not mean abdicating institutional life but working to negate hegemonic forms of institutional reason. Negating those forms means demonstrating how institutional contradictions might themselves suggest political and institutional alternatives. For Jordan and for the fourth demand, the possibility for such negations resided in new admissions practices that would admit subjects who could potentially negate the simultaneously demographic and epistemic hegemonies of the college itself.
Community, the essay implies, is a spirited material formation that calls for the reorganization of knowledge practices. As Butler argues, granting “concrete cultural meaning to the ideals of democracy,” offering “the university as a public site of cultural exchange,” compelling the academy and its constituencies to “[accept] the challenge to revise the traditional assumptions about how knowledge is circulated, produced, and received when it is practiced by communities no longer formed through discriminatory practice”58—these are the ingredients of an alternative engagement with institutionality. In this context, communities outside the campus yard are anything but reified and removed from academic concerns, but are the material catalysts to epistemic shifts and transformations.
Thus, Jordan designates black studies as “life studies” not out of a sentimental regard for African American life, but out of a sense that minoritized communities are forces of negation that compel the imagination to exceed the given state of institutional affairs. As “life studies,” black studies, for Jordan, is committed to all possibilities of life and not simply the possibility of black lives. In the context of Harlem, it meant a commitment to black and Puerto Rican life as the material for a “critical logic” that “reveals modes and contents of thought which transcend the codified pattern of use and validation.”59 Emergent interdisciplinary fields like black studies were thus meant to dream horizons that might exceed the prescriptions and violations of institutional excellence as well as the boundedness of categories. In the next chapter, we will see how, contrary to notions that divide “the academy” from “the community,” institutional discourses of power/knowledge would find their footing in local terrains.