Dr. Ibram X. Kendi took to Twitter to express his outrage following the recent decision by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s (BCRI) Board of Directors to rescind scholar-activist Dr. Angela Davis’ invitation to receive the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award.
“When we do not have the courage to honor our greatest freedom fighters, we should not wonder why we are not free,” tweeted Kendi, who is scheduled to be in conversation with Davis on Thursday at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.
As the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, Kendi’s remarks add to the growing concerns of some academics who note an increasing attack on activists and intellectuals of color who support justice for Palestine. These scholars argue that attempts to conflate pro-Palestinian support as anti-Semitism promote censorship of conversations that link the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to other human rights injustices.
“That’s an absurd conclusion,” said Dr. Raymond Winbush, research professor and director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. “What you have is the successful attempt by Israel to mute criticism of their treatment of the Palestinians, which is kin to the treatment of Black people during apartheid.”
To equate pro-Palestine with anti-Israel is to say that someone is against African dictatorship but is somehow anti-African, Winbush added, saying that it is possible to disagree with nearly seven decades of Israeli occupation and not be anti-Jewish.
In 2014, the University of Illinois withdrew its offer of employment to American Indian Studies professor Dr. Steven Salaita after he was critical of Israel and Zionism in a series of tweets. Salaita later sued and reportedly settled with the university. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censured the school.
In late November, CNN fired Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and Temple University’s board of trustees condemned the media studies scholar’s comments after he spoke at the United Nation’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other critics accused Hill of anti-Semitism when he used the phrase “from the river to the sea” in his U.N. speech, claiming that the phrase calls for “an end to the State of Israel,” according to a statement from ADL’s senior vice president for international affairs Sharon Nazarian.
Hill rebutted: “My reference to ‘river to the sea’ was not a call to destroy anything or anyone,” he said, in part, in a series of Twitter posts. “I support Palestinian freedom. I support Palestinian self-determination. … I do not support anti-Semitism, killing Jewish people, or any of the other things attributed to my speech. I have spent my life fighting these things.”
Davis and Hill are just two examples of “people who have long, long histories of working on behalf of people who are marginalized,” said Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of communication and African and American Studies at Loyola University Maryland. In speaking out, they are using their position of power to advocate for people “who need a spotlight shined on their struggle,” she said.
Whitehead added that she has been surprised by the recent media backlash and the dearth of individuals who stand in solidarity with Black and Brown intellectuals who speak up in defense of Palestine.
“There’s this notion that [critics of Israeli injustices] are involved in language that is oppressive,” White said, likening false charges of anti-Semitism to the times when writers, actors and other social figures were accused of being Communists around the time of the Cold War.
The media push back is “about shutting people down. It’s a climate of fear where if you’re going to speak out, you may actually risk everything and you may lose everything,” Whitehead said. “We’re already marginalized as scholars of color, and then we’re further marginalized as scholars who are Black, and scholars who are women. It’s the positional where you really have to decide if what you’re standing up for is worth you losing potentially your job.”
“When you talk about rescinding awards not just from an average, ordinary activist, but when you rescind an award from Angela Davis, that’s a huge statement to make and it is greatly concerning,” she continued.
Even so, Whitehead acknowledges the role that tenure and national reputation plays in granting certain academics and public intellectuals the voice and power to speak out.
“Those of us who have tenure, those of us who have this little bit of privilege … it is our job to speak up because we can,” she said.
Winbush pointed out that such criticism by Zionists and some Jewish groups has existed for decades and has targeted even those outside of academia. He pointed to anti-Semitic criticism cast at former president Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu for their support of peace in Palestine, and most recently basketball player LeBron James for his caption in an Instagram story post.
“This has been going on for a number of years,” the research professor said, adding that it is good that Black scholars are speaking out more prominently. “We cannot be afraid to stand up for our scholars, our heroes and sheroes.”
After the BCRI rescinded Davis’ invitation to receive the human rights award, supporters took to social media to stand in solidarity with Davis.
“This is shameful. I stand with my dear sister and friend Angela Davis,” said Hill on Twitter.
Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson, associate professor in the Departments of Chicana and Chicano Studies and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, similarly announced her support of Davis.
“#SolidaritywithAngelaDavis This is an insult to the history and spirit of solidarity and social justice work,” Johnson posted. “Individual donors and foundations who give to BCRI should take note: if Angela isn’t qualified to receive this award, no one is, nor should anyone accept it hereafter.”
Davis issued a statement Monday noting her activism around international solidarity, particularly around uniting global struggles against police violence, the prison industrial complex and racism.
“The rescinding of this invitation and the cancellation of the event where I was scheduled to speak was thus not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice,” Davis’ statement said in part. “Despite the BCRI’s regrettable decision, I look forward to being in Birmingham in February for an alternative event organized by those who believe that the movement for civil rights in this moment must include a robust discussion of all the injustices that surround us.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.