Introduction to Section Three: Insurgencies

Rose M. Brewer

And once you’re in the apparatus…
Yes. And it doesn’t matter that a Black woman heads the
national police. The technology, the regimes, the targets
are still the same. I fear that if we don’t take seriously the
ways in which racism is embedded in structures of
institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable

—Angela Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, (2016, 18)

…I’m an anti-capitalist…Everybody’s got the right words but what’s going on is in the hypocenter. And some people are like, “we don’t go down there. But that’s where the struggle is.  

–Joy James, In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love (2022, 30)


I open with the above quotes given the contradictions of insurgencies in the Neoliberal University. These are hard, difficult spaces that we have no ready resolution of, but they must be sites of struggle. And sometimes, the enemy looks like the dispossessed but are inculcated in the system where “the technology, the regimes, the targets are the same” as Angela Davis astutely observes. A similar theme is advanced by Joy James. The words of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism flow from the lips but not from the practice of so-called academic activists. The question becomes what kind of struggle, and how are we engaged in catalyzing change? The essays by José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Rahsaan Mahadeo, and Marcel-Garzo Montvalo take on a number of these contradictions of resistance within the Neoliberal University.  

They provide powerful portals into the hows and how nots of insurgency in the Neoliberal University. This means traversing some of the treacherous and often genocidal terrain of the Neoliberal campus. This demands seditious acts and more. As Joy James (2022) asserts, assessing critically academic activists who say, “we don’t go down there.” “But that’s where the struggle is,” asserts James. Santillana Blanco, Mahadeo, and Montvalo understand all too well that that’s where the struggle is. They ground their insights of insurgency in the down there of the community, of the people. Santillana Blanco is strikingly clear that the “University will not Save Us.” And this is the point. Ultimately, social transformation must be rooted with the people in struggle on the ground. The earliest students who fought for Black and other resistive studies understood this. They understood that the Western Eurocentric University “was never created for us or our communities” as the three authors weave into their analyses.  Santillana Blanco, Mahadeo, and Montvalo ground insurgencies that are ultimately centered in community. Mahadeo rearticulates the idea of “imposter syndrome” by being very clear that the greatest tragedy would be to be treated as an imposter within his community. And Montvalo chillingly lifts up the genocidal reality of the Neoliberal University. Ancestor wisdom must be called upon when operating within a modality that kills, a university that does not recognize that knowledge. What is validated as knowledge in disciplines such as Sociology is highly problematic as Mahadeo profoundly points out. Too often this is what he calls “scholarshit.”

This thing: The Neoliberal University

The Neoliberal University is a capitalist formation. In fact, neoliberalism is the current articulation of a global capitalist system. I contend that locating the neoliberal university deeply within its capitalist moorings is a necessity. It is important to think of capitalism as a world system with a neoliberal ideological logic and practice advanced by transnational institutions of capital. Core characteristics of the system are: 1) privatization and advancement of  market supremacy; 2)  trade policies rooted in liberalization; 3) an ideology and discourse of the end of racism; 4)  austerity rhetoric and state practices involving the dismantling of public supports from Medicare to Social Security; 5) the cultural attention to race, class, and gender (Duggan, 2003).

The economic system in which the Neoliberal University is rooted is foundational. The US state/society are capitalist and provide the ideological and material underpinnings. As the essays in this section clarify, society in the United States was founded on white settler colonialism. It continues the settler project and with it is the ongoing removal, genocide, and land expropriation of Indigenous peoples. The Indigenous removal from ancestral homes, land theft, and the enslavement of African peoples created wealth for this white settler project. Santillana Blanco, Mahaheo, and Montvalo make clear that the settler project is ongoing. 

It is in this context of racial capitalism that we teach. It is in the pedagogy of the university classroom that the political economy of neoliberalism and its convergence with the long history of white supremacy in the US haunt our professorial practice. This must be named, rendered visible, and its history articulated. Santillana Blanco shares recounting experiences in a Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies classroom only to find that it was not an innocent nor safe space, but one that rearticulated the assumptions of what it means to be a capable graduate student. This, of course, was predicated on the normative, white male PhD student’s use of language and analysis.

I’m reminded of my own journey, traversing the need for revolutionary change while maneuvering a space absolutely opposed to such a project. History is a powerful teacher. Even before the Neoliberal University as a site of struggle, the seeds of my revolutionary consciousness were planted early and often, under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past, a history forged in blood. This is the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, racial capitalist, colonial US state.

I grew up in a city that was bombed and burned by US state terrorism, white supremacism, class and racial apartheid at its apex. North Tulsa, Black Tulsa, Oklahoma was set ablaze, burned to the ground in 1921. At least 300 people were killed, countless homes were destroyed and the Black population removed from the city. This was State terror at its most horrific. The lessons learned were: 1) The Black community did fight back even in the midst of ethnic cleansing and murder, 2) This resistive spirit was passed on to subsequent generations, and 3) I was nurtured in this spirit—expected to resist, challenge, and fight against those forces that were bent on destroying me and my community if not physically—psychically. My community understood that oppositional education mattered. Indeed, it was an imperative for those of us who were poor, working class, and gendered female. I was expected to live the mandate and pass it on.

Passing it on was the beginning of a decades long engagement with struggles for change. My generation soon discovered that we needed revolutionary praxis. But we needed more, and the demanding lessons of coming of age during the late l960s and early 1970s mattered as the Black revolution was in full effect. The mistakes were many but the times honed the fight in me.  Indeed, those times deeply shaped my radical coming of age. I engaged in study and struggle inside and outside the academy. Revolution was in the air, and it mattered. But, over the longer haul, more would be needed.  

While my involvement in the Black Student Movement powerfully shaped me, it was joining the struggle against US imperialism, the Vietnam War, and the fight against domestic colonialism and patriarchy that shifted my consciousness deeply. It was the coming to consciousness regarding the deep interrelationality of these systems firmly rooted in the US empire that made me a socialist and revolutionary Black feminist. 

Multiple convergences were in play during the period that deeply shaped me. Most important were the courage and commitment of everyday people, the League of Revolutionary Black workers and their deeply resistive revolutionary unionism, and Black feminist radicals  from the Combahee River Collective and Black Women in Defense of ourselves. It was in the wake of the murder of Communist Worker Party members in Greensboro, NC, who were organizing in solidarity with the Black community for Black political power, that a few years later I became a founding member of Project South: The Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide. This was a defining moment for me. I’ve lived through state violence. I’ve witnessed the destruction of organizations of resistance through Cointelpro, internal sectarianism, and multiple conflicts and the lives gone too soon. But this is not the end of the story as is made clear by the essays in this section. The struggle continues as the great revolutionary, Franz Fanon makes clear, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” (Fanon, 145).  

The Radical Black Studies Tradition: Circa l968 and 2015

I would be remiss if I did not highlight the importance of the history of the struggle for Black Studies in informing how we think about insurgency in the Neoliberal University. The 20th century Black Studies movement should inform our interrogation of radical antiracism. There is also the reality of the institutionalization of these struggles, noted by the section authors. The erasure of the radical content as departments have been “normalized,” is a hard truth that must be wrestled  with. Yet, at its best, the fight for Black Studies, and the movement’s formation, were centered in the radical practice of study and struggle. The scholar and student activists of the period understood that you cannot confront racism strictly in the halls of academe. Dr. Nathan Hare, the chair of the first Black Studies Program at San Francisco State established in l968 through a long student strike, called it education producing persons capable of solving problems of a “contagious American society” (Karenga, 2). “The core idea is dismantling systemic and not just individual prejudice.” The Black student struggle would place engagement and commitment to social change at the center of the academic and social mission of the field (Karenga).

The practice was to work in conjunction with those in struggle on the ground, with communities, as well as create a body of knowledge which would contribute to the intellectual and political emancipation of a people (Marable 2000). The field would restructure a curriculum and a university replete with Eurocentrism. From this perspective, theory is most effective when grounded in praxis. It means if we don’t struggle around the difficult and messy relationships between the academy and the community, and the community within the academy, we cannot build the just institution and society that are so sorely needed. Thus the crux of antiracism in the academy is preparing students to deal with issues of power and privilege—the core of structural racism.  

Circa 2015

I’m also reminded of the struggle of Black students at the University of Missouri. The University President, Tim Wolfe, who was hired by the University of Missouri explicitly for neoliberal purposes was brought to heel and forced to resign by Black student resistance at Mizzou (as the University is known). Indeed, Wolfe was a corporate executive brought in largely to cut costs in the state system (Brewer, 2016). The protestors lifted up Mizzou’s “long history of injustice toward black people.”  In the wake of the Mike Brown insurgencies after his police murder in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black student organization, Concerned Student 1950 joined with over a 100 other Black student college groups to articulate a National Demand Manifesto. This Manifesto, in a direct way, linked 21st century Black student resistance to the corporatization and 21st century racialization of the university and to an older legacy of Black student struggle coming out of the 1960s. 

This theme runs through the observations of Santillana Blanco, Mahadeo, and Montvalo regarding the historical grounding of Black Studies. But there is more than an economic dynamic at play, as Montvalo argues. A genocidal dynamic is in motion; an epistemic form as the University of Missouri Black students implicitly understood although they did not directly name the dynamic. They were clear about this erasure in the curriculum. Santillana Blanco, Mahadeo, and Montvalo understand that the “Neoliberal University operates as an institution of power and knowledge production predicated on white supremacy, settler colonialism and global capitalism in ways that criminalize, punish and discipline already marginalized students within it” (Santillana Blanco).

What is to be done?

Indeed, for those of us who are activists and scholars, who dare to be powerful, who use our strength in the service vision (Lorde, 1984), fundamental social transformation is the imperative. For those of us from communities that have been historically oppressed, it is an ongoing lesson for all who have fought for justice, to be less and less afraid, as Audre Lorde (1984) asserts. The charge is for radical resistance in and out of the Academy, says Montvalo. I contend that radical antiracism/antisexism and class struggle are our charge in and out of the University. Mahadeo situates himself in the radical tradition. The radical here, for me, is radicalism defined as those philosophies and practices which articulate deep level social transformation in the lives of the oppressed, requiring the dismantling of systems of oppressions of colonialism, imperialism,  capitalism, racism,  patriarchy, and heterosexism. Nonetheless, this is not an easy space from which to argue for a gender, race, and class analysis. Indeed, from its inception the driving forces behind Black radical theory and practice have been a concern with the racism, white supremacy, and capitalist economic exploitation. My position is that “race” and class must be understood in the context of complicated gender, race, and class scripts. 

This demands a radical stance against racial capitalism in its neoliberal expression. The struggle against racism is a linked one (Kundnani, 2023). The academy can be a core site of antiracist theory and practice but this must be connected to antiracist struggles in the broader social order, and capitalist social order, Arun Kundnani might add. Racial capitalism is a structured racialized, gendered and class logic that cannot be evaded. It sets the context for articulating the necessity of a radical  praxis in and out of the University. This is the kind of insurgency that transcends the snare of a “too liberal logic”— tellingly critiqued by all the essayists in this section. More directly as Kundnani (2023) incisely states:

Antiracism is not a politics of diversity. It operates beyond the individual psyche through economic and political forces. Racism is a projection  onto the skin of structures of inequality.  It is mediated through individuals but tied to economic structures. That which is rooted in property and can’t be undone by persuasion. Nonetheless, racial inequality is not just an illusion masking class inequality but becomes a material reality of its own.  And, of course, individual racism exists. (p. 65)

No doubt, the issues are complex, centered in a complicated set of social and political realities. Struggle requires simultaneously turning inward and out regarding the nature of social transformation. Montvalo is quite right that the struggle inward is tough. We all have absorbed some of the system’s poison. The University in its construction today and historically is an expression of this disturbed social order. As noted, the domination of corporate interests in the larger society and transnational economy are deeply expressed in and through today’s Neoliberal University (Tuchman, 2009). Neoliberalism’s logic of markets and privatization mark the campus. It is a site of intense individualism, negation of collectivity, and genocidal erasure, as Montvalo articulates.  

We must build emancipatory movements, deeply and more broadly than has ever been attempted. They must be local and global, in and out of the University. When Black Studies challenged the University to be meaningfully engaged with communities, this was a revolutionary charge. The students involved in the Third World strike at San Francisco State in l968 understood all too clearly that the academy was deeply complicit in the perpetuation of racism—that the ivory tower is an institutionalized expression of what most needs to be changed in U. S. society—exclusion, elitism, sexism, racism, economic exploitation, and state violence. 

These lessons explain much of what we’re facing today. The dates are different but the structure of power remains in place. The call to both scholarship and activism is real. Scholarship is always political in one way or another, supporting one set of interests or another, and we must name and understand how. I say when institutionalized practices are so resistant to change, part of the very fiber, warp and sinews of the everyday world, the normalized taken for granted world, the demand for radical change is an imperative. The actualization of that change is our challenge and charge. This is the deep side of radical transformation. When deep levels of disrespect, inhumanity, and genocide, are business as usual, we must struggle for revolutionary change.

I’m reminded that this is powerfully so in the cities of Minneapolis and St.Paul. These are the homes of the Neoliberal University of Minnesota research campuses. Indeed, there is no after-George Floyd given what it means to confront on a deep level a racialized capitalist city and neoliberal higher education. Minneapolis liberals have talked about racial justice for decades now, as has the University of Minnesota. In the Neoliberal city and University, it is evident that the current structure can’t/won’t accommodate the deep level of social change necessary. Indeed, in the wake of the seemingly endless list of Black deaths by police, the mystification of the city is gone and what it has professed to be and what it is—now revealed.

Yet, this is not the end of the story: young freedom fighters, Black, Brown, Indigenous, Queer, radical Black feminists, revolutionary socialists, and abolitionists are here. I proudly witness, participate, and salute them for lifting the veil of hypocrisy, and the struggle continues. And what more might we say about this moment, this conjuncture of profound urgency? It is a system in deep trouble today. During a period of so-called post-COVID recovery, over a million people have died in this country, millions remain underemployed or unemployed, houseless and contending with poverty and deep austerity. Right, center, and liberals too articulate a resolution through state violence expressed through policing, mass incarceration, war and occupation. And, given the current realities, violence often turns inward. The consequences for the working class are harsh—nationally and internationally. Prisons, indeed, are silos of hyper exploitation. We are confronting the consequences of a rapacious profit driven system, dangerously teetering toward a fascist response to resolve its contradictions. Indeed, we are in a particular crisis in which contradictions are sharpening between the corporate, extractive economy and human needs and the Earth’s own limits. The Neoliberal University is enmeshed in this set of realities.  

We’re in a moment of great urgency and possibility. The system will not transform itself.  This work must come from us. So the old and the new must move forward in deep interconnectivity through vision, strategy, and consciousness changing as Ruth Wilson Gilmore powerfully continues to remind us. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Rahsaan Mahadeo, and Marcel-Garzo Montvalo all understand this Gilmore wisdom. They also understand that the spirit calls for justice, and there is the material reality of the ground shifting beneath our feet, the clarion cry for our humanity and for the people to rise.


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Suggested citation:

Brewer, R. 2024. “Introduction to Section Three: Insurgencies.” In eds. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Kidiocus King-Carroll, Naimah Zulmadelle Pétigny, and Kong Pheng Pha in collaboration with AGITATE! Editorial Collective. Seditious Acts: AGITATE! Special Volume with CRES:

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