MLK Day speaker promotes BDS to counter 'pressure' from right

The keynote MLK Day speaker at St. Olaf College used the forum to rail against “anti-democratic” conservatives and advocate for divestment from Israel.

Andrew Williams, the executive director of the Higher Ed Consortium for Urban Affairs, made those claims and more during his speech, “Epistemologies of Healing: Race, Reconciliation, and Radical Hope in Higher Education,” which had the stated focus of encouraging peaceful reconciliation between groups he sees as oppressors, and those who are supposedly oppressed.

Interspersed throughout that message, however, were a number of polarizing political statements criticizing conservative positions on issues such as free speech and diversity on campus.

“In the past year we've seen resurgent white supremacy, and we've seen them bring higher education into their bullseye,” he remarked, saying that the academy is “a crucial front” in the culture war, and “that’s why the Right is targeting campuses with thinly veiled provocations disguised as somehow a concern with free speech.”

Speculating that conservatives are “trying to cultivate the next generation to replace them down the road,” Williams added that he views the free speech debate as part of a “larger assault on higher education from neo-liberal forces, from conservative forces.”

[RELATED: Republicans sour on academia, profs blame conservative media]

In response to this ongoing “pressure” from “the right and other anti-democratic forces,” Williams suggested that university communities “form a common front that’s all that much more resolute in moving every truth and reconciliation,” saying this would enable them to “push back against some of the most reprehensible forces in society.”

Williams went on to criticize the higher education system as a whole, saying that efforts to cultivate student diversity have not improved the collegiate experience for minority students.

“When we look at campus climate, things haven’t changed that much in the last three decades,” he asserted, noting that “students of color continued face of the same indignities and hostile climates of violence [as in the days of Martin Luther King] despite increases in diversity of campuses.”

Black activists are particular targets, he said, claiming that “when you protest on a predominately white campus as a person of color that you often times will fall from grace from being the good negro to one of the troubling and troublesome negroes.”

Reflecting on his own activism, he remarked that African Americans “kinda have this sense that even though you're in're also on a plantation where ultimately our bodies, our movement on that campus, our thinking, was being controlled by others.”

[RELATED: Students declare Howard ‘Trump Plantation’ after DeVos meeting]

Shifting to a more proactive theme, Williams told students that “a measure of an institution’s commitment to its values—a measure of its ethical ambition—can be found by looking in its investment portfolio,” suggesting that they take a critical look at their own school’s investments.

Specifically, he singled out investments in “the prison-industrial complex,” Israel or Israeli companies, and “Monsanto or big oil” as prime targets for “divestment” activism.

The AMCHA Initiative, a group dedicated to protecting Jewish students against anti-Semitism, criticized Williams’ support for divestment from Israel, a cause that is among the key objectives of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

“Schools that host BDS-supporting speakers are twice as likely to have incidents of the worst forms of anti-Semitism, [including] assault, harassment, destruction of property, and suppression of speech,” a spokesperson for AMCHA told Campus Reform. “This is why promoting a boycott of Israel is unlike any other social justice cause that a faculty member may choose to pursue.”

AMCHA added that “it is particularly troubling that during a talk which focused on reconciliation and hope, the speaker promoted BDS, which is steeped in bigotry and hatred and has been shown to significantly increase acts of anti-Jewish aggression on campuses where it is promoted.”

[RELATED: Religious groups challenge SPLC’s ‘silence’ on anti-Semitism]

During a Q&A session immediately following the speech, Campus Reform asked Williams to clarify whether he thinks that the average conservative student or organization harbors racist beliefs, which Williams embraced as a “softball” question for an anthropologist such as himself.

“As a social scientist, I’ve been persuaded by the literature, by the data, that suggests that America—that racism is endemic to American society,” he answered. “And so it would be quite odd to me that a right-wing organization, a so-called liberal organization, or these places we call universities and colleges are somehow immune to the infection that we call racism.”

Reiterating his contention that racism “has been a permanent feature of American society,” Williams added that “just because higher education is supposed to be this enlightened place where people really think more deeply...doesn’t mean that they’re immune from the larger social ills of our society.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter @KyleHooten2