Want to Improve Equity and Inclusion in Political Science? Address White Supremacy

Jan 11, 2021

Last week, the American Political Science Association released a milquetoast statement on the January 6 white supremacist attack at the U.S. Capitol that got buried in the onslaught of news coverage. It resurfaced on Twitter over the weekend to outrage, with many political scientists noting that the statement omitted any acknowledgment of racism or white supremacy but did mention that “both sides” needed to “do better.”

As is probably clear from my use of “milquetoast,” I was part of the outrage. I am a scholar of responses to white supremacist violence in the U.S. and Germany. I have interviewed bureaucrats and staffers in Washington who tell me there is no political will to combat white supremacist violence, and I have observed an inability to reckon with white supremacy in government more generally. I am also an activist in higher education on issues of equity and social justice, and I have witnessed an analogous lack of will to even name white supremacy in academic institutions, much less to address it—including dozens of similar statements issued by departments and universities following high-profile instances of racist violence.

The discipline of political science, in particular, has refused to seriously confront racist structures and practices within our own discipline. Put briefly, descriptive representation has been prioritized over justice and equity. Many departments have expressed commitments to hiring more faculty of color—a necessity in order to broaden scientific consensus beyond the views and experiences of white people—yet many have also failed to implement structural changes that would make them attractive to faculty of color in the first place. Likewise, departments have initiated pushes to recruit more students of color. I organized one such initiative in my own department two years ago—effort I now realize would have been better spent pushing to make the department an antiracist space, because we should not ask students to come to a place that will do them harm.

When I express these sentiments to white political science faculty, they tend to respond with confusion. What structural changes am I talking about? What more could, and should, political science departments do to combat racism and white supremacy, both as creators of social scientific knowledge and educators of the next generation of scholars? I write this piece as a centralized (but not exhaustive) answer to those questions. I build here on years of conversations with students and activists of color; I am grateful for their time, patience, and emotional labor in educating me. And so I write, also, in the hope that my fellow white scholars will demand far less time and labor from people of color in the future, and far more from ourselves.

What could real antiracist change in the discipline of political science look like?

First, departments must recognize that racism and white supremacy exist in a variety of forms. I was trained in the U.S. international relations tradition, one where the term “white supremacist” is typically reserved for Nazis (though, as Robert Vitalis notes, this was not always the case). But white supremacy is not only about physical violence. As Tema Okun notes, white supremacy is a culture, and it gains its power from being both omnipresent and so normalized as to be unnoticeable. It may not be obvious, for example, that hoarding of institutional knowledge contributes to white supremacy. But it does not take a race and ethnic politics scholar to recognize white supremacy in the mostly-white syllabi so many of us teach in seminars, nor in the disproportionate academic service and emotional labor we ask (and often require) of scholars of color, especially Black women. These and similar practices may not seem overtly violent, but they exist as part of, and contribute to, the larger system of white supremacy that makes physical violence not only thinkable, but unacceptably common.

Recognizing white supremacy requires naming it as such. Not doing so is a choice, one that signals that white departmental leaders find their own comfort (or that of wealthy right-wing donors) more important than the safety of current and future students, staff, and faculty of color. And it is as political of a choice as explicitly using the term “white supremacy” would be. Statements that fail to mention white supremacy in the name of objectivity or neutrality are in fact defending a status quo wherein the persistence of white supremacy requires that it not be acknowledged or challenged. This includes the statements put out following the attack on the Capitol. The bar for naming white supremacy here, following a blatant act of white supremacist violence, is scraping the floor. Departments who will not clear it cannot do anything that follows below in good faith.

Second, departments must pursue public, universal antiracist practices. For example, BIPOC student activists on my campus were told not to direct their concerns about racism at UW–Madison to our chancellor, despite the fact that the chancellor has the power to set the agenda for the entire institution. Similarly, students who demand higher-level action on racism are sometimes told to take grievances to their advisors, and serious concerns about abuse and exploitation tend to be handled on an ad-hoc basis. This piecemeal approach avoids departments having to engage in any serious structural work that would transform institutions for all current and future students, and it isolates students rather than shining a light on their experiences as the product of inequitable systems that can be changed. (It also assumes a facility with addressing instances of racism that many faculty do not yet have.)

Real antiracist change would look like well-publicized grievance procedures, explained to every new student, faculty, and staff member in their first semester, that refuse to tolerate racist and white supremacist behaviors from any member of a departmental community. It would look like advocacy by political science faculty on college or university committees for similar practices at the institutional level. It would look like new norms, set and reinforced by department leadership and senior faculty, of encouragement and thoughtful engagement in seminars and workshops, rather than interruption free-for-alls that create hostile environments for marginalized students. It would look like well-funded mentoring and support networks for students of color. And it would look like a culture of intra-departmental communication that recognizes our community members of color do not get a choice in whether they pay attention to racist incidents on campus or in the news and condemns these incidents, prioritizes compassion, and shares mental health resources.

Third, departments must not demand even more labor from community members of color in pursuing antiracist change (and, in fact, are not actually pursuing antiracist change if they do this). Well-intentioned faculty may respond to student concerns by offering a meeting, not realizing that power dynamics may make students feel uncomfortable saying no, even though reiterating concerns is an act of uncompensated and emotionally taxing labor no matter how sincere the other party is about helping. Our community members of color have told us what changes we need to make, and it is not their fault that we have chosen not to act upon their recommendations.

Furthermore, members of our profession regularly take the time to publish articles in journals we already read with data on racist practices in the academy and insights into new efforts to transform them. It would behoove all of us, especially tenured white faculty, to take on one fewer project and use that time to instead teach ourselves about white supremacy in both political science research and political science as an educational institution. Departments, and universities, can create informal faculty reading groups—many of your grad students, whether or not you are aware, already have these—and make discussion of antiracist issues a regular agenda item at department retreats and faculty trainings.

Finally, white faculty must resist the urge to respond to student concerns with excuses. A common response I hear to calls to hire more Black faculty, for example, is that hiring more Black faculty explicitly because they are Black is illegal. Yet this does not preclude departments from engaging in practices that would attract more Black applicants. This includes everything from advertising postings more widely to implementing curricular changes and fighting for paid family leave and similar policies at the university level. There is little incentive for a Latinx scholar to join a department that minimizes their lived experience by not regularly offering a course on race and ethnic politics, nor for a Black scholar to join a department that teaches its students about IR paradigms but not about the discipline’s ignorance and belittling of scholarship on the role of racism in those paradigms.

White political scientists, this is on us. Real, structural antiracist changes are difficult. The system is designed to make them that way. Figuring out how to negotiate and eventually dismantle institutional barriers requires investing time and resources many of us would prefer to devote to other professional endeavors—and this is why white supremacy continues to be a problem. Nevertheless, our students and colleagues of color have long put in the work, despite not having access to the levers of power that would make change the easiest. Especially for those of us who are tenured and in positions of leadership where we can set agendas and institute new practices, it is past time to recognize that naming and addressing white supremacy in academia is as important and deserving of as much attention as our research and teaching, and is in fact inextricable from our responsibilities as producers and communicators of knowledge about the world.

It is shameful that political science, a field with the exercise of power embedded in its very name, continues to fall so short of serious action on racism and white supremacy in our discipline. But it is not surprising. As political scientists, we are students of institutions and power. We know with how institutions perpetuate themselves and how they do so by constructing social hierarchies and then exploiting them. It is all too easy to build our own institutions such that they do the same thing. Yet we are also intimately familiar with how institutions can change. If only we chose to put that knowledge to good use—and to put up with the discomfort required—in order to create a more just and equitable discipline.

Note that this post was written before APSA released an expanded statement on the white supremacist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

website | + posts

Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.