Academia Was Built on White Theft

Academia Was Built on White Theft

Last week, a white professor at George Washington University outed herself in a years-long charade in which she told people she was Black and built an academic career around this lie. Jessica Krug, who is from a white Jewish family in the Kansas City suburbs, affected an accent and an evolving set of backstories, eventually landing on a version in which she self-presented as an Afro-Latina from the Bronx.Krug’s colleagues at George Washington privately questioned her claims and recently began to raise the alarm with administrators, which is likely why she came clean. Or as writer and RaceBaitr editor in chief Hari Ziyad put it, “She didn’t do it out of benevolence. She did it because she had been found out.”In this absurd public disgrace, Krug joins other white people who have made false claims to nonwhite identities in some combination of career predation, white entitlement, and a perhaps unknowable X factor of what-the-fuck: Rachel Dolezal, who maybe needs no introduction at this point, but also lesser-knowns like the former Vanderbilt neurology professor who created an online persona of a Hopi professor and then killed it off during the pandemic. But these are obvious fringe cases—entertaining upon implosion for the general public and quietly devastating to the web of people they drew into the lie and harmed in the process. The more common version of white theft in academia is way less tabloid sensational. The entire American university system was built on white theft made mundane through the passage of time. The casual mention of schools acting as assimilation academies on a campus tour. The somber press release, all too often made by white administrators, contextualizing past university leaders and the names on campus buildings as slave owners and segregationists. A ceremonial shield gathering dust in a lab thousands of miles away from its creator’s ancestors. It’s a history that bleeds into the present, the echoes of which can be heard every time the academy shows its true colors.The modern American university system is a tool, not a product, of colonization. The University of North Carolina, the oldest public college in the nation, was, much like many universities in the South, built with the labor of enslaved Black people. So, too, were prestigious Ivy League institutions, like Brown, while presidents at Princeton and Columbia and countless others owned slaves through the Civil War. As Massachusetts Institution of Technology history professor Craig Steven Wilder wrote in his 2013 book on the subject, “The academy never stood apart from American slavery. In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.” To stave off those who felt self-conscious about their complicity in such a violent system, white academics molded their fields of study to fortify their claims of superiority. Entire fields of racist pseudoscience were designed in the nineteenth century to back up the claim that Black minds were inferior and to deny Black people true personhood, to act as a rebuke to the growing abolitionist movement. The academy did not stop at dismissing living Black bodies and minds, though. It also sought to retrieve every physical ounce of these varied and unique cultures and communities, for the sake of proprietary knowledge and profit. This is how both modern museums and land-grant universities came to be. Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the Morrill Act, not so dissimilar from Harvard’s Indian College, was a money-making affair, with the stated desire of “turning land taken from tribal nations into seed money for higher education,” as High Country News wrote earlier this year. When the dust settled, 11 million acres had been, often violently and illegally, wrested from Indigenous nations and placed under the management of university endowment funds. To date, the land transfer has netted these endowments at least a half-billion dollars.As the land was distributed, the universities sought to take also what accompanied these spaces, namely the remains and cultural items that the displaced Indigenous peoples had stewarded and protected until this stage of colonization. Under the guise of fields such as archaeology or anthropology, white professors at these schools scoured Indian Country, digging up remains that had been respectfully buried for thousands of years. As explained in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory in an article on the shifting ethics of reburial and repatriation, by the middle of the nineteenth century, “the majority of Euro-Americans thought Native Americans incapable of becoming civilized.” And in helping convince the public of this, white academics granted themselves permission to disturb these sites in the name of preserving what would, they told themselves, surely be otherwise lost. By the time the institutionalized grave-robbing was complete—federal law giving tribal nations legal power to block such disturbances was not passed until 1990, and even now there are loopholes that need closing—colleges like the University of Michigan and Florida Atlantic University had stolen and stored away thousands of Native remains and countless more artifacts, many of which ended up behind glass display cases at museums.Much like Krug, these institutions did not proactively change their ways or admit their wrongdoings. Their student bodies were forcibly integrated. Beginning the process of overturning centuries of white-favored racist hiring practices required lawsuits, not a sudden change of heart. Only recently—as in the past three decades—have universities taken a critical look in the mirror. And even then, more often than not, it is the people still impacted by these historical actions, like the descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold at auction at Georgetown University in 1838, who are taking the first step and forcing the universities into action. When left to their own devices, university trustee boards have proven themselves more than happy to leave the past in the past. Where policies to facilitate the return of Native land should be instead sit useless and performative land acknowledgments. Where restitution for the descendants of those who built the universities should be are instead pedestals for Confederate monuments that the student body—not the university—tore down.While distinct, the American university system’s legacies of enslavement and violent colonization reveal a common thread: a history of violent white theft. Universities have long acted as sanctuaries for white academics who want to take on the voyeuristic endeavor of professing to be an expert on a group of people to which they do not belong. It turns the window shopper into the salesperson; the gate-builder into the gatekeeper. Trying to grasp why Krug, Dolezal, and McLaughlin did what they did is almost beside the point. Instead, it is time to start asking why people of this ilk all seek validation and cover through the academy—and why the academy always provides it.
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