Opinion: What’s happening in Texas is an assault on American democracy

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

For nearly a decade, I have been honored to be a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. As a scholar whose research and teaching hinge on histories of racism and activism, this April was an exceptionally harsh one for me — and for all of Longhorn Nation. A month that began with the gutting of resources devoted to our students has ended with shocking scenes of crackdowns by law enforcement in our midst. I have been left heartbroken. This spring, our motto, “What Starts Here Changes the World,” has taken on a bitterly ironic meaning.

Peniel E. Joseph - Kelvin Ma/Tufts University
Peniel E. Joseph - Kelvin Ma/Tufts University

On April 2, the university’s president, Jay Hartzell, delivered a devastating blow via email, announcing the firings and demotions of nearly 60 individuals, all victims of the university’s newly enforced compliance in the wake of Senate Bill 17, which prohibited DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) initiatives in all parts of campus except research and teaching.

Hartzell, in a letter, said, “associate deans who were formally focused on DEI will return to their full-time teaching positions,” while the “positions that provided support for those associate and assistant deans and a small number of staff roles across campus that were formerly focused on DEI will no longer be funded.” These people are not just numbers. They were members of our community. The shortsightedness of this decision led over 500 professors, including me, to sign a letter of no confidence with respect to the president.

What made the firings especially hurtful is this university’s long history of racial exclusion, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and discrimination against students of color. The “40 Acres,” which constitutes the original size of land set aside for the university, is also shorthand for the pride that Longhorn Nation takes in the campus as both a real and imagined community. A significant part of that community’s history includes racial discrimination that required the courageous activism and organizing of students and community members to break down ancient barriers. The social integration of Black people and people of color at the university has been paralleled by the growth of Black, Women and Gender and Mexican-American Studies as globally recognized academic disciplines and departments.

To see these programs arise and grow, and to know that this flagship university has acknowledged marginalized communities only to then shut down programs that offer them a critical lifeline during their time here is profoundly disturbing to witness. Countless numbers of students have expressed to me their fear, anxiety, disappointment and depression. My colleagues and I have commiserated about the devolution of racial justice in Texas and nationally over the past four years. And an even larger number of “allies” have disappeared from view, which, although expected in many ways, is disappointing.

What makes the present so dispiriting is the reckless manner in which the goodwill of the recent past has been squandered.

George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, sparked a nationwide movement that forced institutional reckoning with America’s long history of racial subjugation.

I watched this history unfold while simultaneously participating in it, writing for CNN, conducting numerous interviews and delivering keynote speeches that doubled as sermons, evangelizing my hopes for building a Beloved Community out of the ashes of our centuries-long agony of racial discontent, political division and police violence.

For a time, it appeared that things were, in fact, changing, with corporate America embracing the Black Lives Matter movement and the cause of racial justice in ways that enhanced opportunities, recognition and dignity for employees of color.

Meanwhile, universities expanded their DEI programs to create a welcoming environment for historically marginalized and underrepresented students but also to correct moral failings that included histories of racial segregation.

On this score, the University of Texas at Austin — still affectionately referred to as the “40 Acres” — has considerable work to do. Founded in 1883 as a racially segregated university of “the first class,” the university did not open its doors to a single Black student until 1950, when Heman Sweatt (the Sweatt Center for Black Males was forced to drop any mention of race as part of the SB 17 compliance) began but did not finish law school.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators face off with Texas DPS officers on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. - Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators face off with Texas DPS officers on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. - Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg/Getty Images

When racial integration arrived in the 1950s on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, the earliest Black Longhorns — known as the “precursors” — found an inhospitable racial climate where they were not allowed to live on campus dorms joining fraternities and sororities and faced general disrespect.

Flash forward to 2024. At the very moment the university announced the creation of a new School of Civic Education to bolster viewpoint diversity that favors conservatives, it fired dozens of staff connected to DEI, the favorite target of the far-right.

As a vocal scholar-activist whose work continues to revolve around histories of race, democracy, and power in the United States and globally, I have watched, with growing alarm and sadness, the impact anti-DEI legislation has had on my students, colleagues and staff. The waves of political backlash unfolding around the nation also extend beyond DEI and indeed, beyond the walls of the university to include protests against the horrors in Gaza. This moment has turned universities such as Columbia in New York and Emory in Atlanta — among many others — into roiling battlegrounds that echo the clashes between anti-war and Black Power advocates and law enforcement on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s.

Students march with anti-war placards on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, California, 1969. - Archive Photos/Getty Images
Students march with anti-war placards on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, California, 1969. - Archive Photos/Getty Images

But UT is different from a number of these other schools. What makes us unique is our public mission to leverage higher education in a way that positively and life-alteringly impacts the city of Austin, the state of Texas and the nation. Before the shuttering of the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE), we had the largest such initiative in the nation, the jewel in the crown of efforts to offer a world-class education to students of all backgrounds.

The violence on campus against student protesters and the anti-DEI legislation are both parts of a larger suppression of speech and expression. They are aspects of a political environment that have also given rise to attacks on voting and reproductive rights, marked by book bans and threats of retaliation against college students with unpopular opinions.

I abhor the very real instances of antisemitism that have flared across college campuses in the wake of the October 7 massacre and pray for the safe return of hostages. I also denounce the very real instances of anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim and anti-Black sentiment that have occurred in that time.

Unfortunately, our leaders have widened political and ideological divides instead of building bridges toward healing on campus. The far-right has used fear, name-calling and outright lies to suppress freedom of speech and expression on college campuses, the latest salvo in a concerted, and thus far successful, effort to erode public trust in longstanding institutions.

For those of us committed to building a vibrant, multiracial democracy in the heart of the largest state in the former Confederacy, these attacks represent more than a backlash against the era that I have characterized as the nation’s “Third Reconstruction.”

What we are experiencing here in Texas is an assault on the nation’s democracy. As in Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida, Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts here amplify conservative legislators’ vision of “reclaiming” the university from a so-called “woke mob” apparently populated by folks who look like me.

I attended two demonstrations at the university this past week — one in support of Palestinians and free speech (where I was heartened to see a small pro-Israel demonstration taking place alongside the larger gathering), the other a long-delayed protest in support of DEI. At the same time, elsewhere on campus, activists attempting to set up encampments were confronted by law enforcement, placing this community I love in the news for all the wrong reasons.

What gives me hope now, in the face of all this, are my students and their allies among the faculty and advocates here in Austin. So many of them are standing up for the need to continue working in the belly of the anti-DEI backlash to build a multiracial democracy.

Standing beneath a hot sun, chatting with students and colleagues, bumping into familiar faces and meeting new ones reminded me of the promise and potential of higher education I first encountered in New York at the age of 17.  Attending Stony Brook University improved my life, paving the way for me to grow the voice I have today.

Higher education, both its positives and negatives, is simply a reflection of us, our society and its constantly evolving understanding of what dignity, citizenship and democracy mean. It is also an engine of wealth and job creation, a policy and technology hub, a sports, entertainment, and artistic incubator, and a site for science, health, engineering and law innovation.

The humanities — the study of our intellectual, spiritual and moral purpose through inquiry and experimentation — is perhaps the least well-regarded part of the university and most important. All the talk about Artificial Intelligence and transformation in technologies of the future will be for naught if we lose sight of our horizon by failing to invest in the multiracial democracy necessary to make our universities and the nation thrive.

This will not happen by scapegoating DEI programs, brutalizing student protesters and threatening the livelihood of faculty and staff. What happens here can indeed change the world. But not just in one direction. April has offered definitive proof that institutions of higher education can be leveraged as a tool to crush dissent and curtail freedom of speech and expression.

What starts here changes the world: Only we — students, faculty and staff collectively — can make that slogan something to be proud of once more.

I for one still believe in the power of a just university and intend to fight for it.

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