How does a White male student with no expertise in critical race studies, with little sociological training, publish a peer reviewed article in one of the most prestigious journals in our field? How is this possible when the paper misrepresents the Black Lives Matter movement and intersectionality theory? How does this paper make it through peer review to publication in less than six months? ‘Black Lives Matter at Five: Limits and Possibilities,’ by Adam Szetela, was submitted to Ethnic and Racial Studies on 24 January 2019, accepted for publication on 21 June 2019 and published online on 18 July. The expediency of the peer review process, given the content of the article, warrants strong evaluation.
I express my gratitude to Dr Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, who brought this to public attention, and who led a robust discussion on Twitter with sociologists and scholars from other fields. I’m using this and other examples as a case study of whiteness in academic publishing.
Whitewashing the history of protest
Szetela’s paper repeatedly uses emotional language and revisionist history to criticise the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement for its leadership and for not being ‘inclusive’ of ‘poor Whites.’ Phrases such as ‘chauvinistic rhetoric’ are used to belittle BLM activists and scholars.
The author chides BLM for not being like Dr Martin Luther King. In a whitewashed misinterpretation of King’s politics, Szetela writes that King subsumed Black rights under what Szetela sees is a race-neutral framing of ‘poor people’:
If one keeps these past historical achievements as the reference point, it is apparent that many of the leaders who anteceded Black Lives Matter understood the distinction between recognition and strategy. No doubt Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that black Americans are overrepresented among the poor. He spoke of this often. Yet, he and his organizers named their movement against poverty the Poor People’s Campaign (Laurent 2018; Honey 2018). Inspired by the “Freedom Budget for All Americans” (Ran-dolph and Rustin 1967), they authored a list of demands that would appeal to “all poor people” who bore the brunt of economic injustice (Southern Christian Leadership Conference 1968). Not only did King want to eliminate poverty and put all Americans to work, he understood that a movement called the Poor Black People’s Campaign would alienate individuals from other racial groups who had the same material interests as poor blacks. Dialectically, King also understood that this alienation would push people to the Right.
This is, quite clearly, a 2019 reinterpretation of King’s politics, complete with the logic that Black people’s anti-racism forces White people into ‘the right’ (an euphemism and justification for racism). In recent decades, White people have reimagined King as a ‘model’ nonviolent protester, clearly without engaging with his radicalism and evolution as a leader. King did not enjoy popular sway over the American public. In the year before he died, around 75% of White Americans disapproved of King and 60% of Black Americans were disengaged. It was not King’s popularity nor pandering to White people that made his leadership effective. King had a dedicated following who lobbied, protested and otherwise worked alongside him, using procial moral disobedience, to force change. Contrary to what Szetela and other White revisionists would like to believe, King did not pander to White fragility (responding with ‘anger, fear, guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation…’ when White people confront situations of racial inequity).
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote that protest was essential, and that making White people, especially ‘White moderates,’ uncomfortable, was pivotal to Black justice:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth… [My emphasis]
King very specifically focused on the way in which White people (in this case ‘fellow clergymen’) judge the anti-racism action of Black people in a way that excuses them from joining the Black rights movement. The passage below, by King, can easily apply to the writing Szetela’s article in the journal for Ethnic and Racial Studies (ERS). King very clearly, and unapologetically, centred Black liberation, even as he appealed to non-Black groups to join the civil rights movement:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. [My emphasis]
There is no greater paternalism than a non-Black person (in this example, Szetela) critiquing the leadership and aims of a significant Black rights movement (BLM), using a White-centred reading of King. How can the impact of whiteness (the unexamined, taken-for-granted ideas and practices from White culture) go without critical scrutiny in a top-tier journal like ERS?
In ERS, Szetela is disparaging of BLM using American right wing language: ‘In today’s land-scape, where “safe spaces” abound and activists are “triggered” by the slightest faux pas, this kind of coalition politics is unimaginable…’ The author mocks the BLM movement for fighting anti-Blackness, using Latin people as a prop. See these two separate examples below (of five extensive passages about Latins):
…One might ask how a movement for black loan forgive-ness, a black jobs programme, and other race-speciﬁc concessions from the state will garner comparable support from poor Native Americans, Latin/x folks, whites, and other groups of people who are unemployed and drowning in debt…
For example, when Latin/x folks saw their own victimization aligned with the plight of black people, they began to mobilize the hashtag #BrownLivesMatter. While many Black Lives Matter activists embraced this mobilization through an intersectional lens – which echoed the collaborations between the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the white Young Patriots – Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors were frustrated. Together, they leveled the charge that Brown Lives Matter fails “to name blackness” (King 2015). As such, it is “anti-Black”
The author fails to comprehend that anti-blackness and scholarship is also central to the anti-racism research, Afro-leadership and other activism of Latin people (see various examples, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Peru).
The article reeks of the so-called ‘grievance studies’ hoax, in which writers with a history of attacking social justice movements and scholarship, and without credible academic training in social science, are motivated by personal politics to publish incendiary peer-reviewed articles. Whether he is deliberately obfuscating the aims of BLM, or whether he is just another ‘White moderate’ King described, who looks to excuse his own inaction by critiquing Black activism, Szetela fits the pattern of aggrieved entitlement. That is, White men who are angry about the changing political landscape, eager to regain their status. Either way, the author has a history of trivialising social justice movements.
On 26 June 2019, writing for The Progressive, Szetela argued that American university students are protesting ‘the wrong’ issues. Szetela uses emotive language (‘riled up’) and evokes similar gripes as in his ERS article (safe spaces). Op eds thrive on emotional appeals, but emotive dismissal of Black scholars have no place on an academic journal. Szetela also uses a similar anachronisms in his critique of students, whom he deems less politically savvy than those protesting in the ‘1960s and 1970s.’ He writes: ‘The recent waves of activism on campuses reflects a class blindness in America.’ It is the same curious tactic that Szetela deploys in ERS: by comparing today’s protesters to idealised notions of the past (King, students from the 1960s and 1970s), Szetela appeals to some mythical time when protest was done ‘right,’ according to his racialised, classist perception, which he leaves unexplored.
On his Academia bio, Szetela describes his credentials as a ‘graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison’ and says he will be ‘a visiting fellow in the history department at Harvard University.’ In an article for Inside Higher Ed in August 2018, he describes himself as ‘a professor of American studies at Berklee College of Music.’ There, Szetela defends poet Anders Carlson-Wee, who wrote a poem about being homeless (though he is not). Szetela’s verbose anger is singularly manifested, laser-beamed onto a Black bisexual academic, Professor Roxane Gay, much like his anger at the queer women of the BLM movement:
Indeed, the mob-like rage directed toward Carlson-Wee and the cowardly response by his editors sends a chilling message to any progressive who might want to write on topics that engage race, homelessness and other identity issues. For those of us who lack the vanguard wokeness of Roxane Gay and others — and who still believe in discourse over punishment — we can only hope that our work is not read by the wrong liberals
‘Mob-like’ is a racially loaded term that evokes mob lynchings, which targeted Black people. White people appropriate this imagery to shield themselves from online critique. We see Szetela misuse the term ‘woke’ (as he does in ERS, below) as a pejorative. ‘Woke’ is another Black term that White people have adopted in cringe-worthy attempt to capitalise on Black culture, as well as a clumsy deflection of any criticism. The ERS article is clearly a chess piece he was lining up. He’s set up his excuses with his op ed: any critiques would reveal more experienced authors nothing but a mob of wrong liberals (including a distinguished professor and celebrated author).
Szetela puffs himself up for not having filed sexual harassment claims (a suspect, but telling, badge of honour). He uses a sanctimonious example from one of his students who – lean in closely – argued that ‘racism no longer exists.’ Szetela boasts:
I heard them contend that black culture was to blame for black poverty… Unlike many professors today, I hold the view that my students — and people in general — have the right to be wrong…. More important, I believe that with rational arguments rooted in evidence, I can push more closed-minded people to self-reflect on why they have certain views.
He says he was mostly teaching White ‘poor’ students at Kansas University, where he was apparently vanguard to White supremacist notions. What ‘evidence’ would a White student present to make the claim that racism no longer exists? The racial examples in this article are indicative of the subjective and muddled ideas of race that Szetela reproduces in ERS: White people’s aggrieved entitlement is positioned as ‘rational.’ They see that their ‘arguments’ and anger should stand on equal footing with anti-racism. Both are just valid opinions, in the aggrieved entitlement mindset.
Fortunately, that is the antithesis of anti-racism, which is founded on empirical evidence of racial inequality, and is no way ameliorated by class struggles.
In critical race studies, we don’t change people’s minds by allowing them to argue whatever they feel. We provide students with critical thinking tools to take apart taken-for-granted notions about the world. The desire to maintain racial inequality is not benign and it is not equatable to the fight for racial justice. Aggrieved entitlement removes race from class discussions, to make it seem like White men’s anger is justified. It’s not. White anger about social change attempts to distort poverty, so that White people can mobilise White interests. The fight for racial equality is scary to White people who fundamentally believe that only White people deserve to be on top, at the expense of all Others.
In this op ed, as with ERS, Szetela evokes the sociological concepts of reflexivity and self-reflection, but completely devoid of their sociological meaning. His writing is reminiscent of a first-year undergraduate student (not one working towards a PhD), who has not done the readings nor shown up to class, but who thinks they can ‘wing it’ by skimming abstracts and talking loudest on the last day of term.
His previous academic publications are all post-2016, and all on cultural studies, but without the dedicated thematic focus of most early career researchers as they hone their theoretical craft. (He has published papers on bodybuilding, Don DeLillo, and neo-Liberal Christmas.) None of these are in the discipline of sociology, and none use a critical race studies framework.
How then is Szetela’s paper published in ERS, when it clearly does not apply a sociology of race / critical race studies perspective? There are important questions sociology of race scholars have asked online on Dr Buggs’ thread. Here, I focus only on race in academia, and the editorial process.
Race and academic publishing
The two editors plus another associate editor of Ethnic and Racial Studies are men. The managing editor and assistant manager are women. All five are based in the United Kingdom (as is the ERS journal) and all present as White.
The Black Lives Matter movement started with the activism of predominantly Black queer women in the USA. History, race, gender and place are central to any analysis of this movement. Context matters too, given that, in 2018, data show that, of the 19,000 professors in the UK, only 25 women and 90 men are Black. These Black women academics face discrimination and bullying as they progress in their careers. Who gets to edit ethnic and race journals in such a context where Black scholarship is institutionally de-valued? Institutional racism is a matter of academic attention, especially in the premier journal publishing on ethnic and racial inequality.
White scholars have an elevated responsibility to address anti-racism through an informed, critical lens. Yet White academics from majority groups contribute to a discriminatory culture that excludes people of colour and other minorities. Sociologists have faced criticism for favouring accounts of race that ignore critical race scholarship. White sociology lecturers have used their position of authority to degrade Black students. White scholars similarly attempt to minimise the contribution of Black women academics. Two recent examples from Australia provide a useful contrast, given they involve Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, preeminent race studies scholar.
Prof Moreton-Robinson is a Goenpul woman and sociologist whose critique of White women academics, broader academia and colonialism, are central to Aboriginal and other people of colour scholars in Australia and around the world. In January 2018, Dr Simone Bignall, a White woman academic, critiqued the scholarship of Moreton-Robinson in response to another Black male theorist (Dr Bryan Mukandi) noting that no Indigenous or people of colour scholars had been invited as keynotes to the Australian Continental Philosophy conference. To be direct: a conference about combating racism in philosophy has failed to invite Black scholars over the past two decades (with two exceptions), and responded by attacking an Aboriginal woman who was not present. Bignall lectures on Indigenous strategy, she was the Chair of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy which hosted the conference, she serves on the Society’s equity and diversity committee, and she’s writing a book on colonialism.
As with the ERS article, academia should be asking why it is that White people who devalue Aboriginal and other Black scholars get to position themselves as experts on racial justice.
In late 2018, another, very famous, White woman academic, Professor Raewyn Connell (whom I otherwise greatly admire), published a peer reviewed article on Current Sociology, on ‘decolonising sociology’ without citing Moreton-Robinson. She barely referenced significant scholars who’ve worked in this field for decades, and largely ignored other Aboriginal and people of colour from Australia.
These examples, alongside the ERS article, are illustrative of a recurring pattern, where White academics overlook or tear down Black scholars and practitioners, and otherwise dominate race discussions, replicating discrimination of Black people in publishing and elsewhere.
Instead of a scholarly analysis offering unique insight on a significant Black protest movement in America, the ERS paper reads more like an op ed, and even uses the phrase ‘this essay’ – a curious slip, given many commenters on Dr Buggs’ thread say the author went to the University of Wisconsin with this specific student essay already written. University of Wisconsin academics also report the author is no longer at the University. Somehow, Szetela has entered the peer review process and been accepted for publication in June and in between left the University but is still published under Wisconsin affiliation? While this is not unheard of, this is unusual. A big question for the ERS editors is why this piece, which is clearly politically motivated and lacks theoretical rigour, was rushed to publication? Even a cursory glance at other recent papers in ERS shows average publication time is around 12 months.
Sociological research shows that Black and other Hispanic sociology graduates face significant barriers in their careers. Black sociologists, and other people of colour, can attest to the racism of the academic publishing system, including excessive scrutiny and hurdles in publication.
Why does an inexperienced White man, with a history of right-wing leaning pop culture articles (including similar uninformed critiques of Black women and BLM), pass peer review with something far removed from the ‘objectivity’ and ethics demanded of Black sociologists and other people of colour?
The rest of the Ethnic and Racial Studies Board includes people of colour, notably sociologist, Professor Patricia Hill Collins, a key theorist in intersectionality theory and practice. It is not the job of Board members to read papers (they see most after publication), but, clearly, the editors could have reached out to Black scholars on the Board for peer reviewer recommendations.
Szetela positions intersectionality as divisive, yet nowhere does he explain what this term means. He references a 2019 anthology by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (rather than the 1989 original text), without any quotes or citations. Szetela bases his critique on class, though this term also goes undefined. As such, it is difficult to comprehend his disconnect: Crenshaw’s 1989 theorisation of intersectionality is centrally concerned with class. Her original paper addresses how industrial law compartmentalises sexual and racial discrimination in the workplace, disadvantaging Black women who experience both (and other) structural inequities simultaneously. Any dedicated peer reviewer or editor of a race studies journal would have required substantial revision.
As it stands, the paper clearly coasts from a populist misunderstanding of intersectionality, which confuses pop culture references because they have not consulted the original text. For example, Szetela uses wounded phrases such as ‘intersectional politics’ and ‘intersectionality is a watchword.’ These misunderstandings are divorced from intersectionality scholarship. Compare Szetela’s confusion about intersectionality versus Crenshaw’s original text:
Szetela: ‘At its best, intersectionality is a valuable contribution to the understanding of social life. In the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw (2019) and other progenitors, the concept illuminates and contests blind spots in areas as diﬀerent as labour law and democratic theory… Despite its theoretical “wokeness”, it is apparent that intersectionality in practice often considers class less important than the aforementioned categories of ascriptive identity.
Crenshaw: I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. These problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.
An attempt to demote an established lawyer and academic’s theoretical contribution to mere ‘wokeness’ (a phrase betraying Szetela’s whiteness and white fragility), by a scholar without any experience in anti-racism, is another warning bell to peer reviewers. What is Szetela really ‘riled up’ about? (To use a phrase Szetela imposes on student protesters.) Is he interested in a dialogue about the role of intersectionality in the BLM movement? Or is he concerned about what the movement and intersectionality does to his sense of place in the world? Szetela is very interested in speaking about, and shouting over, Black organisers and fellow students protesting sexual harassment. Aggrieved entitlement in academia looks exactly like this:
- White people inserting themselves as experts in Black spaces;
- pitting minority groups against one another;
- dictating what social movements should look like, even though they do not have the knowledge, practice or social capital to do so; and
- allowing other White people to publish absurd fantasies about anti-racism, where whiteness prevails and Black people are only allowed if they know their place.
The responsibility here lies with the editors and peer reviewers. Publication is obviously not the final step in critical engagement with scholarship – but it should be a meaningful gateway, to ensure that the theory and evidence in academic papers are valid and reliable. That’s not the case here.
Not having previous publication record on race is not necessarily a problem. The issue is that the content in the paper is clearly not worthy of publication in a scholarly journal and the author’s prior publication history outside academia reveals him to be politically antithetical to social justice movements. Anonymous peer reviewers should have picked up the former. The editors could have ascertained the latter, or at least not indulged the author another unearned platform.
BLM is not exempt from a critical lens, but that sociological analysis should include theoretical engagement with Black scholarship. Black queer women scholars, for example, shed light on the marginalisation of Black women, especially transgender Black women, in media stories of BLM, as most public attention focuses on Black cisgender men. Szetela gives a cursory mention to transgender people, but only to berate BLM founders and leaders. It’s a strange critique from a White man who has no public organising record, and given that the BLM co-founders are outspoken in their support of Black transgender women.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are the First Nations of Australia and custodians of Country, and who are both Indigenous and Black – have a complex relationship to BLM. Local use of #BlackLivesMatter both adopt and challenge what this movement means in the Australian context. This includes for transgender Aboriginal people. BLM founders received the Sydney Peace Prize in 2017 and met with various Aboriginal groups to explore their solidarity in health, over-incarceration and related justice movements.
The author of this ERS article seems not to understand these, and other, nuances. Instead, his insistence on judging BLM ‘leadership’ through a White, hierarchical model of power, dominates this misguided and superficial treatment of a complex movement that has global impact. Where Indigenous people are mentioned from the USA context, it is in a similarly tokenistic fashion as with Latin people. Szetela feigns anger that Indigenous and Latin people have been told not to appropriate the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, without really understanding the dynamics at play, and irrespective of the fact that Indigenous people around the world engage with the BLM movement in different ways. Using Indigenous and Latin people as pawns in an ideological argument reeks of the anti-Black racism that Szetela is so keen to undervalue. No expert anti-racism scholar would allow such amateurish caricatures of anti-Black scholarship to pass. So what happened with ERS?
Where is the sociological vetting of phrases such as ‘Oppression Olympics,’ and ‘ﬂippant attitude of… an Afro-pessimist framework that subordinates other struggles to the struggles for black power.’ To argue that BLM should not centre Black oppression is nonsensical, given the origins and aims of the movement. Where is the academic merit in publishing what is essentially a White supremacist op ed masquerading as scholarship? White supremacy is the ideology that White people are superior to other racial groups. It is enforced through racial categories and hierarchies, forcing one group into competition with another, for the benefit of maintaining the status quo. That includes using Latin and Indigenous people as an excuse to diminish the racial justice struggle of Black Americans (let alone that this crass binary erases Afro-Latins and Indigenous Latins).
So, the final and most pertinent questions are: first, does the Ethic and Racial Studies reviewer pool include enough Black scholars? Second, what will the ERS editors and Board do to improve their peer review process?
Any anti-racism endeavour, including a journal that functions as the beacon for ethnicity and race studies in the English language, should operate through anti-racism principles. Having five White-presenting editors and managers calls into question the leadership and anti-racism practices of the journal. The journal is replicating the racial hierarchy that keeps Black people out of academia. White people control access to scholarly publication, to the extent that uncritical, anti-Black scholarship makes it past peer review.
Is this what racial justice should look like in the academy in 2019?
When other editors have been called out on replicating sexism and racism in academic publishing, they sometimes double down. White women and White male ‘allies’ are acutely aware when academic activities are not gender balanced, but whiteness stops them from noticing racial imbalance. Hopefully, the Ethnic and Racial Studies editorial team will review their policies and diversify its management, drawing on the extensive expertise of the Board to make concrete changes.