As Princeton students, we are often reminded that due to our privileged positions, we are also the perfect candidates – that’s right: presidential candidates, senatorial candidates, and even big consulting firm candidates. Our leadership potential is assumed upon entry, and perhaps this is why we sacrifice everything from our youth to normal sleeping habits. As someone engaged with the tides of activism in its many forms – from social media activism to grassroots organizing I have come across a large range of people interested in changing the world. A great number of those I run across are college students or graduates.
However, because the average American still cannot afford to attend college without incurring massive student debt, folks who attend four year colleges often get categorized as part of the “elite”. Marxian scholars would even characterize such figures as part of the “petit bourgeoisie”. This is despite the fact that there are many students at schools like Princeton who come from low income backgrounds, receive full financial aid, and work multiple jobs. Unsurprisingly, this is especially true for students of color and more specifically, black students. The dynamics of race and class are more evident from within Princeton, yet from an outsider’s perspective, by enrolling at Princeton one is alienated from the proverbial masses.
How do black college students, receiving elite education and interested in social justice, reconcile this? Assuming it is the masses in most need of help, can their needs and desires be gauged by black college students who have studied long and hard within ivory towers? College students are notorious for reading Du Bois and drawing philosophies from Jay-Z and Solange albums. We create muses from thin air and use words like “pedagogical” and “hegemonic” without thinking about it (or perhaps to sound cool). Where do black college students fit within making changes for the “common people”? Do we at all?
In attempting to answer these questions for myself, I turn to some of my favorite activists of the 1960s and 1970s. One worthy of mention is Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael). He attended Howard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy. Howard is one of the most elite Historically Black Colleges in the country. Known for his Pan-Africanist, anti-capitalist Black Power politics, Ture marched through the streets (initially alongside Dr. King) and organized his fellow young people to take matters into their own hands and find new ways to fight white supremacy. Undoubtedly, Ture’s working class and immigrant family origins informed his activism work but his university career is also a factor. Although his college degree theoretically afforded him certain elite access and privilege, it did not preclude him from an influential role in the Black Power Movement.
Ture is one of many Civil Rights and Black Power Movement figures who attended university. Others include Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale. While there are certainly figures like Malcolm X who famously did not attend any formal university, there are many within the ranks of Black activism who did. For the figures listed above and countless others, the university was one of many conduits for activism. These leaders staged protests and organized student groups that would go on to be national organizations influential enough for perpetuity. As these leaders and other student activists realized, organizing within universities has its limits. Yet, one cannot deny the opportunity spaces like universities offer for learning, teaching, and organizing with like-minded individuals to effect radical change.
In 2017, however, perhaps the nature of universities has changed. Save for a select number of college students, massive debt plagues many students seeking degrees. It is easy to understand how the universities may no longer be birthplaces of grassroots organizations that have sustaining power. The African Revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral, famously touted the concept of “class Further, which contends that the national petit bourgeoise (in this case, college educated blacks) must betray their class interests in pursuit of the interests of the masses. Can one commit class suicide in the era of neoliberalism? Several student activism efforts have occurred since the 1960s and 1970s. However, it appears that neoliberalism as both an ideology and mode of ethics can often co-opted such efforts, incentivizing students and recent graduates to consider their own profit motive or private interest before they make radical demands of institutions.
On the other hand, perhaps such desperate situations can lend themselves to an even more robust organizing culture. With such internal contradictions, including the socioeconomic gap between low income and rich students, perhaps this is how activism can best occur. While race often complicates the nature of elitism, many black university students are positioned for upper middle class to upper class lifestyles post-graduation, regardless of their socioeconomic origins. Yet, this access to resources is an unique opportunity to organize, galvanize, and educate for the purposes of activism if we are willing to try.
– Imani Thornton