Editor’s Note: Anthea Butler is an associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of “Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World” (University of North Carolina Press). Follow her on Twitter: @antheabutler. Kevin Gannon serves as Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) and Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. He is the author of Radical Hope: A Manifesto (West Virginia University Press). The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
It is a misconception to think that Universities are not engaged in the world around them. Much of the time, they are shaping the cities and towns that they are in, for good and for ill. The truth of the matter is, our colleges and universities also suffer from the problems of racism, policing and violence. We are not immune from the issues that are going on in the nation. Many of our students were engaged in protests this summer or have experienced racism on and off campus.
Whether we like it or not, the issues of the summer spill into the fall, and at the beginning of our semester, now is a good time to reflect and interrogate what has been happening in our nation, and the ways in which historical issues of race, racism and policing in America have bought us to a precipice today.
When the NBA players went on a strike (some have categorized it as a boycott), following the lead of the WNBA players who have been staunch relentless advocates for racial and social justice, we started working together on Scholar Strike. One of us took to Twitter and made a fateful tweet, sharing the willingness to strike for racial justice.
That was the beginning of Scholar Strike – a movement designed to bring recognition to the mounting numbers of deaths of African Americans and others by excessive use of violence and force by police. Scholar Strike is a two-day action on September 8-9 where professors, staff, students and even administrators will step away from their regular duties and classes to engage in teach-ins about racial injustice in America, policing, and racism in America. Colleges and universities in Canada will be holding their own Scholar Strike Canada on September 9-10.
Protests in various cities over the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, among others, and the shooting of Jacob Blake are all too familiar reminders not only of the summers we have had since 2014, starting with the shooting of Michael Brown, but the long summers of the Civil Rights movement, and especially 1968. As scholars and educators, we are acutely aware that this is a moment in American life when race, racism, policing, and violence are on the news every evening. Add in the pandemic, and the urgency of where we are multiplies.
A Scholar Strike isn’t as simple as it sounds. Some of us are in collective bargaining agreements that preclude an actual strike, and 73% of faculty positions, according to the American Association of University Professors, are not on the tenure track.
Those in secure positions work on campuses where fiscal crises and a pandemic make all of our employment status uncertain, tenured or not. We are indeed labor, as are the professional athletes who went on strike two weeks ago. As American history shows, there are times where the most powerful way that workers can force an issue or work for change is to withhold what others see as their most important feature: their labor.
Professors who are not able to strike will be doing other actions with their students to help people, and the public, learn about racism, social justice, policing, and the kinds of racial injustices that have happened against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in America. Those of us who can strike, however, will be engaged with both teach-ins online and on social media platforms, bringing attention to the issues of race, racism, and policing in America. While we do not have a set of demands, our first and foremost goal is to call for a halt to the escalation of police violence and shootings of African Americans, and a call for racial justice and equity.
Taking a page from the teach-ins of the 1960s, when scholars would speak up on concerns over the Vietnam War and civil rights, we are doing a social media teach-in via YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Students and the public will be able to choose from a host of videos throughout the two days to learn about racism, policing, social justice, and inequity.
For those of us who teach in ethnic studies, we deal with these matters in our scholarship. For other colleagues who are sympathetic and concerned about where our nation is headed, Scholar Strike is a way to show solidarity, by suspending our normal days to be public facing and engaged.
Steven Gavazzi wrote in Forbes Magazine that “the Scholar Strike forming on Social Media may be an omen of things to come.” We certainly hope so. Our academic careers have been focused on teaching about race, history and social justice. Scholar Strike is just an extension of the work that we do every day in the classroom, and now, we share that work and advocacy with you in the service of protesting the killings of African American men and women because of excessive use of force by police.
Be careful of what you tweet. Sometimes, you start a movement without even realizing it.