Slavery/Abolition/Apartheid/Segregation Comparisons to Contingent Academic Labor: No

Earlier this week the open letter to the CUNY union leadership was posted to the AAUP’s Academe blog, which spurred two additional posts (here and here) as well as many comments (and I encourage you to read them all, as they helpfully illuminate the deep fissures between full-timer-dominated unions and academic associations on the one hand and contingent academic laborers on the other).

Unfortunately, though predictably, a slavery comparison cropped up in one of the comments in relation to the open letter, and as the author of the open letter, I wanted to make clear that I disagree with any such comparison. I posted the following comment to the Academe blog post that contains the comment in question.

I thank everyone for their support of the open letter and the related campaign for the representation of contingent academic laborers in full-timer-dominated unions—a national effort as the comments show.

I want to comment on the “slave-labor conditions” comparison in the second comment above. I’ve critiqued such comparisons on Twitter—and many more knowledgeable folks than I have written powerful critiques of it (for one particularly good example, see here)—but because this comparison is now cropping up in relation to the open letter, I need to say that I disagree with any and all comparisons between contingent academic labor and racialized social and economic control of any kind, whether slavery, segregation, apartheid, or any other form. Such comparisons, unfortunately, are a consistent trend in rhetoric on contingent academic labor.

I disagree with such comparisons both because, to me, they’re inaccurate—contingent academic laborers aren’t chattel, or property, or legally separated or denied civil equality, or racialized in any way qua their contingent labor—and because such comparisons are highly offensive to many people who are racialized, especially African-Americans who still deal with the multifarious legacies of slavery and Jim Crow today. Such comparisons are also offensive to many people who aren’t racialized by dint of their white privilege, including me.

The comparisons are also unnecessary to make the case that contingent academic labor and the two-tier academic labor system are unfair: both are patently unfair on their face. Even with the question of reform vs. “abolition”—and, for what it’s worth, I think we need to reform the unfair academic-labor system at the same time as we work to abolish it—it’s unnecessary to refer to the abolition of slavery (as I’ve seen elsewhere) to make the case for the abolition of the academic-labor system. The present system should be abolished for the very straightforward reasons that it’s deeply unfair and keeps people impoverished. (This is also, by the way, why I support the abolition of capitalism.)

Furthermore, the abolition of slavery was a highly complicated process that can’t be reduced to a metaphor (much like slavery/apartheid/segregation can’t): it had as much to do with U.S. westward expansion, for instance, and the question of whether new territories should allow slavery, as anything else—which is to say that the abolition of slavery was predicated in part on the further dispossession and genocide of indigenous communities. That dreadful connection comes with any reference to the abolition of slavery—and, again, we deal with the legacies of both slavery and indigenous dispossession and genocide today.

Finally, these comparisons to racialized social and economic control betray the fact that both the students and faculty of higher education remain largely white, and that higher education actually works as a form of racialized social and economic control, as does public education at all levels given the gross inequities of educational resources, on top of the gross inequities of economic and social resources at large. Indeed, because racial discrimination, in both overt and covert ways, remains a potent force in U.S. society, racialized students and faculty, including contingents, experience greater challenges, inside and outside academia, than their white counterparts. And though higher education staff tend to be appreciably more racially diverse than students or faculty (for a variety of reasons), that doesn’t diminish the challenges racialized staff members face.

All of these aforementioned issues are apparent to me in my academic research and, especially, in my teaching and organizing at CUNY, a highly stratified public university that not only reflects its highly stratified city but contributes to the city’s stratification, as I note in the open letter.

Just wanted to make my thoughts known since I’m responsible for the open letter, even as it continues to take on a life of its own.


Sean M. Kennedy

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