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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Privilege, Guilt, Responsibility, and Contingent Labor

Two articles caught my attention. I wanted to see what I could make of them.

April 11, 2019
 
 

In a widely hailed essay titled “Privileged” at The Players’ Tribune, Kyle Korver of the Utah Jazz wrote about his own awakening to issues of racism in America.

Korver reflects on his attitudes regarding incidents like the breaking of his teammate Thabo Sefolosha’s leg by the New York police department and more recently, the racist heckling of Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder by a Jazz fan who was subsequently barred from the arena following an investigation.

Korver examined what he views as his privilege, “Demographically, if we’re being honest: I have more in common with the fans in the crowd at your average NBA game than I have with the players on the court.” 

The NBA is a majority black league. Its popularity has been driven by black superstars. That status is not sufficient to protect its players from the larger problems regarding race and white supremacy in America. After years of feeling sympathetic to the problems black athletes face, Korver realized that he could also opt-out of having to deal with those problems at any given time, simply because he was white, a privilege that his black teammates and fellow pros don’t have no matter their superstar status.

Korver says:

“I realize that now. And maybe in years past, just realizing something would’ve felt like progress. But it’s NOT years past — it’s today. And I know I have to do better. So I’m trying to push myself further.

I’m trying to ask myself what I should actually do.

How can I — as a white man, part of this systemic problem — become part of the solution when it comes to racism in my workplace? In my community? In this country?”

Borrowing from the work of William “Sandy” Darity, Korver draws an important distinction between guilt and responsibility when it comes to racism in America.

“When it comes to racism in America, I think that guilt and responsibility tend to be seen as more or less the same thing. But I’m beginning to understand how there’s a real difference.

As white people, are we guilty of the sins of our forefathers? No, I don’t think so.

But are we responsible for them? Yes, I believe we are.”

Korver concludes his essay by being clear where he stands on race. “I believe that what’s happening to people of color in this country — right now, in 2019 — is wrong.” He goes on to list the problems of higher rates of incarceration, of poverty, of unemployment, and the lower levels of wealth for black Americans all as not just facts, but injustices. 

“The fact that inequality is built so deeply into so many of our most trusted institutions is wrong,” he says.

It’s a powerful statement that Korver himself would say is nowhere near sufficient, but is nevertheless, a start.

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The same day I read Korver’s essay I read “The Death of an Adjunct” by Adam Harris in The Atlantic. Harris tells the story of Thea Hunter who started her career as a promising young, “brilliant” tenure-track historian and died from an acute medical crisis which could’ve been alleviated if she had insurance and consistent access to medical care. 

Worn down by the hostility she experienced as a black woman in a predominantly white university, she left her tenure-track position and bounced among a series of adjunct and contingent jobs, experiencing the precarity that comes with that life. It is not an exaggeration to say her precarious status killed her. 

I saw some parallels between Korver’s essay and the story of Thea Hunter. The parallels are not perfect, but they are interesting to me. Like black players in the NBA, contingent faculty are the majority in higher education.

They are necessary to the operations of the larger entity and yet because of systemic problems they are inherently “less than,” even superstars like Russell Westbrook or once promising young scholars like Thea Hunter. 

Similarly, there is a group who benefit from the presence of those who are less than who are not subject to the difficulties of being less than, white players like Korver in the NBA, tenured faculty in higher ed.

Thea Hunter was even more at risk as contingent faculty because she was also black and subject to the inequalities Korver highlights. Black and other minority scholars are disproportionately represented among contingent faculty. To the extent minority representation is improving on campuses, it’s predominantly among the contingent ranks

I made a vow to myself last year that I was going to stop writing about contingent faculty labor issues so much in this space. I was tired of repeating myself and have grown largely despairing over endlessly pointing out how this system damages not only contingent faculty, but students, institutions, and even tenured faculty as well and not only seeing nothing change, but the conditions getting steadily worse.

Reading Korver’s essay, however, woke me up to the fact that I’m wrong to have had these thoughts, especially now that I’ve successfully transitioned out of my contingent position and find myself at new heights of professional and economic security. 

Even though my sentiments have not changed regarding the unconscionable treatment of contingent faculty on many campuses, my successful transition has (to some degree) allowed me to opt-out of the discussion, or at least opt-in only when it’s convenient.

I’m going to do better. I’m going to start by highlighting Korver’s framing (by way of Dr. Darity) of the difference between guilt and responsibility, and asking those who are tenured to give it some consideration regarding the treatment and conditions of contingent faculty on your campuses.

Many times as I’ve written about these issues in this space, tenured faculty will comment expressing that they are powerless to do anything, that they have no influence over legislatures or budgets or provosts, and all of this is no doubt true, the same way it’s true that Kyle Korver by himself has no power to overturn the legacy of Jim Crow or the problem of mass incarceration.

Tenured faculty should not feel any guilt over the years of systemic problems that have resulted in our present unacceptable status quo. 

At the same time, it would be a good thing for many more tenured faculty to embrace Korver’s view of responsibility when it comes to issues of academic labor. If tenured faculty, with the protections that status confers, cannot acknowledge an injustice they’re walking among every day, I don’t see much reason for hope.

Stand-up. Say it’s wrong now and say it often.[1]Use whatever privilege you have to its best possible use. It costs nothing, and as Korver has experienced it may even be personally liberating.

Unlikely to be sufficient, but at least it’s a start.

 

 

[1]For an excellent example of what this can look like in public writing I recommend this review/essay by Hua Hsu of Vassar College published in the New Yorker in which he juxtaposes two recent books about higher ed in order to illuminate and contextualize the systemic labor problems of higher education and how elite attitudes exacerbate those problems. 

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