Message From the Chair

This year, I was invited to address new and continuing students at the UCSB Residential and Community Living “Bienvenida.”  I provide here my comments at that event.

Remarks at the 2017 UCSB “Bienvenida”

Let me just start by thanking Fermin for the invitation to speak to you all today.  I’m happy to be here and happy to represent the Department of Chicana/o Studies.  And that leads directly to my first point:  in 2018 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Black Studies and Chican@ Studies at UCSB.  Let’s reflect on that.

·      That means that 50 years ago, high school students were walking out of their classrooms, protesting the lack of representation in the required curriculum and their concerns with low graduation rates.  Fifty years ago, students younger than yourselves were protesting for a better education.

·      Now, or at least until this year, the courts in Arizona were still fighting against laws that were written to ban Chicana/o Studies in the high schools of Tucson.

·      50 years ago, Muhammed Ali was stripped of his boxing titles for objecting to the Vietnam draft; today, Colin Kaepernick is ostracized from the NFL for standing up for Black lives.

·      50 years ago, we had a president whose term ended early under impeachment; once Republicans in Congress finally find their spines—or we hit the mid-term elections—Donald Trump, too, will be impeached.

So, yes, it would be nice to say “look how far we’ve come in these 50 years,” but that’s starting to look less and less hopeful.  We often like to think that progress is inevitable, that the passage of time itself brings social justice progress.  But I’d like to contend that such progress is hard work and that we have to be ever vigilant to maintain any social justice gains that we may make.

            I do think, though, that there is something very different about where we are now at the latter end of this 50-year period—Donald Trump is the president of the U.S.  And while everything about my entire existence believes that this is a travesty against humanity and against nature itself, I think I’ve finally found a silver lining.  In thinking about what to say to you all today, I think I’ve finally identified something positive about Trump’s presidency:  it lays bare all the injustices and abuses of power in the government that in the past we had to work hard to expose. 

            You used to have to make subtle or nuanced arguments for… say… institutionalized racism.  Now it’s all out there.  We can all watch as Trump ignores Puerto Rico’s American citizens so he can attack athletes of color.  We used to have to argue for “peacekeeping missions” or fostering democracy to justify military intervention abroad.  Now Trump just says:  ‘we want their oil in the Middle East’; ‘we want mineral rights in Afghanistan.’  Guns used to be for self-defense; now they can be used to kill men of color—shot in the back—by police officers and private citizens with impunity.  All of this is out front now.  The abuses of power are no longer pushed back under the shadows of flowery rhetoric.

            And while that’s horrifying on one level, on another, it also presents opportunities.  Now that the first layer of abuse is rendered obvious, now we can move on to subtler forms of analysis.  Now we can move on to nuance and develop responses accordingly.  Let me give you an example:  DACA.

Let me be clear.  DACA is not about illegality.  Let me tell you what DACA IS about. 

DACA students are about beating all odds.  DACA students are about waking up and realizing that the cards are entirely stacked against you, but you push through AND SUCCEED nonetheless.  DACA students are the proverbial underdogs, coming through in the end.  Our DACA students should be celebrated, not denigrated. 

            But by this administration, they are not.  And there’s racism there.  But I want to make a finer point here.  That’s racism as a tactic—not as a strategy.  Racism as a tactic is what individual administrations and elected officials have appealed to time and again in the U.S. towards a larger strategic end.  But it’s a tactic—it’s only a tool—not the end goal.  The strategy that it feeds is the larger aim of further privileging corporate America.  Yes, there is white privilege in this country and we should address it.  But more important in my opinion is corporate privilege. 

            Critics like to say that DACA recipients broke the law and they should be held accountable.  That they are “illegal.”  That they should turn themselves in and be deported.  But how often do you hear anyone advocating for drivers who break the speed limit to pull over and request a speeding ticket?  Do we call them “illegal drivers”?  How many under-age drinkers of alcohol are told that they can’t drink anything until they pay for their crime of drinking too early?  Do we call them illegal drinkers?  How many drivers who took a chance and drove home when they were still intoxicated… how many of them are being told that they have to go down to the police station and turn themselves in before they can drink alcohol or drive a car again?

            So it’s not some strict adherence to a consistent interpretation of the law that’s driving the outrage with “illegal” activity.  Instead it’s pretty clear that it is a racist tactic, useful in deflecting attention from the larger governmental strategy.  By forcing the language of illegality, the rhetoric pushes the creation of a “them” against an “us.”  The “us” for Trump is clearly white people—even white people who have much more in common economically and culturally with people of color and DACA students than with Trump himself.  But the epithet of illegality allows them to believe they are within his “us” and that drives the division. 

            And he needs that division as a distraction, otherwise the strategy becomes much clearer.  The larger strategy is to make more money for the 1%.  By pushing persecution of undocumented immigrants, corporations can buy up deserted strip malls and turn them into detention centers.  These detention centers are part of for-profit businesses that make money by detaining more people—by filling beds.  What we should be screaming about is the expansion of the privatized prison industrial complex… far fewer voices are screaming about the monetary incentives for locking people up than they are for the racism of Joe Arpaio.  Even when it is the former that is used to make the latter possible.  I’m sure many businesses don’t give a flying fig about racism, but if it increases their profit, then they won’t oppose it.

            And that’s what I think Trump has done for us.  He has made visible so many of the tactics of divisiveness that point to their ultimate motivation—corporate privilege.  I think it’s useful now to recall that the last time the white working and poor classes found solidarity with women and people of color was probably 50 years ago in the protests against the Vietnam War.  Vietnam was rhetorically about Communism—the tactic—but practically it was about corporate access to Southeast Asia—the strategy.  Working class and poor citizens of all colors in the U.S. were sacrificed for corporate profit then.  And working class and poor citizens of all colors came together in opposition to the war and to support each other’s civil rights.

            Now, today, our challenge is to see that racism is indeed still alive in the U.S., but it is being used to facilitate corporate privilege.  We need to move beyond that divisive tactic—find our common ground across ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation—beyond the instigated divisions toward a broader-based social and environmental justice agenda. 


This academic year will see the 50th anniversary of the Chicana/o Studies Department, but we are not calling for social justice just for Chicana/o/xs, Latina/o/xs—we are calling for social justice for all.  And this reminds me of a quote by the activist scholar Miguel de Unamuno: “Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie…”  Yes, welcome to UCSB; go out and have a good time this year.  Try new things and explore new ideas.  But remember also that you are joining a community of some of the top students in California and in the nation.  You are clearly talented—and that brings along its own forms of power.  With that power, we are asking you that you also assume responsibility.  We ask you to use your education to find ways out of the lies.  To not lie to yourselves or to your communities.  To find your voice and not be silent.  To begin the hard work of articulating an inclusive, coalition-based post-Trump agenda.  Thank you.

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