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Ward Churchill and the Right Wing Aftermath: Institutional Racism and Attacks on Ethnic Studies

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The Department of Ethnic Studies at Colorado-Boulder, where Churchill works along with eight tenured/tenure track faculty and several lecturers, graduate students, staff and student workers and over a 120 majors, has become a battleground in the ongoing culture wars.

As Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” statement has made its way through the press and pressure has mounted on Churchill and the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU), a disturbing counter-trend has emerged. Employees and students of their Department of Ethnic Studies have been routinely subjected to hate speech and a restriction of free speech. In response, CU faculty passed an Arts and Sciences resolution to defend free speech, academic freedom, and supporting ethnic studies. On a national level, there has been several campaigns to support of Academic Freedom, Ethnic Studies, and the right to dissent. A range of nationally known scholars like Carlos Muñoz, David Pellow, Noam Chomsky, Deena Gonzalez, and others have come in defense of Ethnic Studies as a discipline. But the CU administration has done nothing to support the Ethnic Studies Department, the discipline, its faculty and students.

The Department of Ethnic Studies at Colorado-Boulder, where Churchill works along with eight tenured/tenure track faculty and several lecturers, graduate students, staff and student workers and over a 120 majors, has become a battleground in the ongoing culture wars. One of us, Arturo Aldama, works in that Department and has seen it firsthand. Ethnic Studies is a viable and rigorous discipline that contributes in a myriad ways towards educating students to be ethical, and responsible in a globalized and diverse world. It has, in other words, a classic liberal arts mission. The field covers a range of important issues in a diverse world. Issues like the histories, lives, and experiences of American Indians, African Americans, Chicanas/os and other Latino groups, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and other non-western civilizations; and the issues of immigration, gender, sexuality, the religious origins of white privilege, the irrationality of white supremacy; and the value of ethnic literatures, art, film, non-western philosophy are crucial to the pedagogic and research mission of any University.

On a page that accompanies this editorial, we publish an open letter from the Ethnic Studies faculty and a small sampling of the hate mail received by Churchill and department members (including office staff) in the wake of the attacks on Churchill. The hate mail speaks for itself. The vitriol is terrifying, and it points to the continued need for Ethnic Studies and institutional efforts directed against racism.

And yet, when CU students organize to support their faculty, the Governor of Colorado characterizes them and their actions as “evil” and “abhorrent.” When the Department becomes the subject of hate speech, the University does nothing. We quote from the open letter:

Despite repeated requests, the University has offered no public defense of the Department, given no support to our already overworked staff, and provided no additional security in the face of threats to students, staff and faculty. To give just one small example, campus police were recently sent to pressure DES staff about taking down a painting created by youth in an anti-gang program in which “stop the lynchings” is superimposed on an American flag. Shortly thereafter, the campus police simply stood by and watched while a local resident prominently displayed a picket sign which falsely accused Ward Churchill of advocating that people “Rape B*tches” and “Lynch N*ggers.”

It is not hard to understand why Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” comment became a source of national controversy. But whatever your position on Churchill’s comment, or his work as a whole, no decent person can countenance the kind of racist vitriol directed at CU Ethnic Studies faculty, staff and students, including Churchill himself. Take a look at the emails we reprint, and judge for yourself.

If that is not enough, the attacks on Ethnic Studies need to be set in the context of other incidents at CU:

  • Invoking his academic freedom and right to free speech, a Marine trained CU instructor Michael Kanner physically assaults a female student, throws her backpack around, and holds a knife to her throat during his lecture November 11, 2004 ( He claims that he felt compelled to do this to prove a point on how the U.S. needs to defend itself from terrorism at all costs – and in defense of policies that say U.S. should invade other countries and inflict its “collateral damage” on children, women, and other civilians, not to mention prisoners of war. If Churchill’s words are cause for concern, certainly an instructor physically attacking a student - during class time on university grounds! – demands some kind of response from the CU administration and national press coverage in its own right. Instead, the university has played it off as an internal “personnel matter.”
  • CU Coach Gary Barnett came under fire for his players’ behavior and his own sexist remarks, the University stood behind him. Now that Ethnic Studies faculty, staff and students are the subject of a violent barrage of profanity, threats, and intimidation, where is the University’s support?
  • The Cultural Events Board at The University of Colorado routinely pays hefty fees to speakers like Ann Coulter ($40,000 plus expenses) to come and argue that all “swarthy men” (does this mean Chicanos, Italians, and Sephardic Jews?) should be profiled and detained on sight, that students of color “lower” academic standards and that youth should flogged in public for being delinquents. She also characterizes Native American peoples as backward “savages” and “cannibals” who contribute nothing to civilization, and tacitly applauds their continued genocide.

If we broaden the focus to Colorado more generally, we can find other forms of hate speech routinely protected under the banner of free speech. Frosty Woolridge and Tom Tancredo are well known for their racist and anti-immigrant positions. Where is the outrage on these speech acts that are in their core hateful racial bigotry?

Like decent people anywhere else, the University of Colorado has a responsibility to denounce hate speech and to protect its employees from harassment. As it stands now, they tacitly endorse the racist attacks on Ethnic Studies faculty, staff and students through their inaction. Some opportunistic conservative commentators have used the controversy over Churchill’s words to attack Ethnic Studies as a field. If they honestly believe one person’s words can disqualify an entire field of study, then their own cause must certainly be held accountable for the thousands of hate mails received by employees of Ethnic Studies at CU. To do anything less would be to suggest a double standard. So next time you read or hear of an attack on Ethnic Studies as an academic field, think back to the emails we publish on the accompanying page, and ask yourself which side you are on.

Click here to view the full text of the open letter from CU Ethnic Studies faculty and a sampling of their hate mail.

Copyright © Arturo J. Aldama and Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.

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