Notes on: Gutkin,L. (2023). The Review: 'A Black Prof Court in Anti-– Racist Hell'. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Dave Harris

This is a review of a recent essay by a political theorist, Vincent Lloyd, describing his ordeal teaching a class hosted by the Telluride Association, apparently a non-profit organisation devoted to transformative education with some impressive alumni. They offered a summer school devoted to in this case critical black studies and anti-oppressive studies.

The previous summer school had been constructive, but in 2022 there were 'mandatory antiracism workshops' in the evening under the influence of a 'college-aged workshop leader' called Keisha. The students turned on each other and on Lloyd and that ended in open revolt condemning antiblack violence and harm. Lloyd was accused of 'countless micro-aggressions, including through my body language'. Telluride refused to intervene and so Lloyd cancelled the seminar.

Overall he found that antiracism turned into a cult featuring sleep deprivation, the severance of ties to the outside world, and emphasis on cult -related feeling and emotional battering. Lloyd is a scholar of religion. There are other cults distinguishing them from religions, but all seem to exploit 'three rhetorical features: "us vs them" statements, "loaded words," and "thought – terminating clichés"' such as you are either with us or against us, loaded words referring to family values, or thought-terminating clichés neutralising scepticism often in the form of banal folk wisdom.

Antiracism often follows Kendi's formula that the opposite of racist is antiracist. Students certainly used 'rituals of approval and disapproval from their antiracist workshops into his seminar'. A dogmatic assertion would be greeted with snapping fingers [the equivalent of applause]. There was lots of loaded language. Attempts to gain control back from Keisha led to speeches about bullying black women. There were slogans of the crudest sort inviting repetition.

[Lloyd's own account follows]

12 high school students aged 17 had been chosen by the Telluride Association after a rigourous application process. All had some special ability, some from overseas. They were initially bubbly and serious, but had rapidly become cold.

He was accused of countless micro-aggressions. Students read from prepared statements about how the seminar 'perpetuated antiblack violence in its content and form', how students didn't feel safe. He had lots of experience as a black professor and had published on the topic, mostly on jurisprudence.

Telluride is prestigious enough and has run some interesting programs in the past. His previous experience had also been constructive and have provided him with probing questions. The George Floyd protests seem to have prompted an examination of racism and a redesign of the seminars to offer only critical Black Studies and Anti-Oppressive Studies. Telluride had always had a liberal stance on race and difference and underrepresented students but now it seem to have imploded and centred on  Blackness.

Previously the students had mixed together even though they lived in different locations, but this time students lived and learned separately and created 'a fully "black space"'. There were workshops instead of afternoons and evenings spent 'having fun and doing homework. These workshops were described by some students as 'emotionally draining, forcing the high school students to confront tough issues and to be challenged in ways they had never been challenged before'. They were organised by two college age students. They involved 'crudely conveying certain dogmatic assertions, no matter what topic these workshops were ostensibly about'. These included

Experiencing hardship conveys authority
There is no hierarchy of oppressions – except for antiblack oppression which is in a class of its own
Trust black women
Prison is never the answer
Black people need Black space
Allyship is usually performative
All nonblack people and many Black people are guilty of anti-blackness
There is no way out of anti-blackness.

The seminar form was seen to contradict the workshop. His form of seminar encourages 'essential friction for conversation' guide for discussion, assuming different sorts of knowledge among students, differing insights, guided by 'carefully curated texts'. It takes time. People get things wrong and do not fully succeed. By contrast, 'the antiracist workshop run by college-age students is a sugar rush'. 'All the hashtags are… Condensed… And delivered from a place of authority'. Student response is an echo.

In seminars students with snap fingers to support any repetition of antiracist dogma, and denounce any attempt to sophisticated discussion or see both sides. Eventually two Asian-American students were expelled by Keisha, and this had an effect in effectively silencing two white students and meaning that most interventions were from three black students. All queer students were silent.

There is an emphasis on naming harms which apparently comes from the 'prison abolition movement' which focuses on the harms and how they might be put right. There might be 'few sites' for relatively privileged students to try this framework, but the seminar became one such. One example is the discovery by an Asian student that 60% of those incarcerated are white, which black students said harmed them — 'objective facts as a tool of white supremacy' and they were harmed by 'hearing prison statistics that were not about blacks'. This was one of the Asian students that was expelled. The same goes for a week focused on violence inflicted on Native Americans — insufficient focus on anti-blackness which needed to be addressed immediately not postponed for the other four weeks.

He now thinks of antiracism as a perversion of religion, a cult. It features sleep deprivation, cutting of ties to the outside world, the collapse of time with everything related to feeling made urgent, emotional battering. Dogmatic beliefs are easier to accept. Outsiders become a threat. The participants spend nearly almost every hour together. He was the only outsider and he was marked as a threat.

They even had a charismatic leader, Keisha. She was a graduate, mentored by a TV celeb Black intellectual, with a background in poverty and racial violence and experience in teaching in prisons. She was nominated as a teaching assistant although she did not cooperate. She found one of the central texts insufficiently radical and going around lectures on alternatives — she was not willing to let learning unfold  'over time'. She was evasive with meetings with him. She was ready to intervene if a student was harmed — she 'rushed in' during a seminar break to say that the use of the word 'Negro' had caused a student harm.

During the actual week on anti-blackness, Keisha wanted to argue that that was qualitatively worse than any other kind of oppression, so it should be the climax of the course. She thwarted his attempts to rebuild relations with students informally and insisted that he should offer a lecture instead offering context and covering the main point. He tried to reassert the value of the seminar format, but Keisha saw this as ignoring the demands of black women and making the space unsafe. She called off the lunch he had prepared.

He reported his concerns to Telluride. Students were 'too exhausted' to attend on Monday and no one turned up on Tuesday. Then Keisha entered and finally nine remaining students each with a prepared paragraph which contained allegations of harm — he had used racist language and misgendered somebody, confused the names of two black students, showed harmful body language, had not corrected harmful facts, invited them to think about both sides of the argument 'when only one side was correct'. They could only proceed without harm if he abandoned seminars and replaced them with lectures about anti-blackness, correcting anyone who questioned orthodoxy. Keisha was seen as the only source of  correct perspectives, even by a white girl.

Keisha however 'isn't the author of the play'. Antiracism and its limits leads to abuse and pathological relationships. The paradoxes make this clear: transformative justice leads to the expulsion of dissenters, the search for practical actions lead to despair that the world can never change, personal freedom needs to the idea that indoctrination is the only answer. Students come to see that they need guidance even to ask questions and cannot learn for themselves. For Keisha, shy and disengaged students were alienated by the issues raised in the seminar, but for him, the problem was that seminars were seen as something 'you enter when you feel like it, staying as long as your beliefs go unquestioned, and leave when you become uncomfortable'.

He decided to raise the issues with Telluride leadership, and found similar divisions with the organisation between zealots and others wanting to continue seminars in the traditional style. They did not feel comfortable to intervene. They suggested that he should suspend the seminars and offer meetings where he would be a guest speaker. He made this offer and never heard back. No one indicated a desire to invite him. He does not know what happened for the rest of the course. The three who had left did want to carry on with the readings and to write papers and to meet virtually so they had 'a seminar in exile' and read 'the classics of black thought'.