I was involved in Turning Point USA’s (TPUSA) recognition as an organization. This was right after I fought for the student senate to deny TPUSA during its first presentation. Their rejection should have been the end of this story. But I maintained contact with TPUSA, and weeks later, I voted to let them present again.
After TPUSA’s rejection, I offered to work with their leadership to form a free-standing organization focused on what they said was their main interest: economic liberalism. I figured this would be a common-sense move. In our interactions, they presented a sincere interest in discussing “free markets and limited government.” I was assured they were not interested in ‘social issues’ or persecuting university faculty like other TPUSA chapters. However, the leadership insisted that their affiliation with TPUSA remain. Its connections to speakers, conferences, and politicians, they said, provided more programming opportunities.
I was skeptical. But I wanted to believe in their intellectual curiosity. I gave into the narrative that recognizing TPUSA would allow for engagement with conservative ideas underrepresented in the university; and that cooperating with them would encourage civility in political discourse (very Michelle Obama ”We go high” of me). I trusted that this chapter would be different. So I worked with them. I offered to invite them back for recognition if I could do one thing, with their support: establish derecognition procedure in case a student organization proved harmful to the integrity of our community in the same ways TPUSA has proved deceitful, self-serving, and inflammatory at universities across the United States. Just in case.
Now Rider’s TPUSA is cultivating an on-campus vindication of White supremacy. They are offering Barbara Franz up to online mobs to sow distrust in faculty, and are using the recent resignation of Cynthia Newman to encourage anti-queer sentiment.
Essentially, the university community and I trusted TPUSA not to be like TPUSA. This was dumb. But that does not erase the fact that trust has been betrayed.
I understand the desire to engage TPUSA with academic collegiality. Even if their arguments are racist, some believe we owe it to ourselves to meet them with reasoned conversation. All the while respecting their right to say what they want. That is how we are taught to believe members of an academic community should act. That is how we are taught higher education ‘works.’
But I have learned to reject this narrative. It is steeped in the respectability politics used to delegitimize the experiences of marginalized groups. And it assists in perpetuating the influence of white supremacy in American higher education–a long tradition TPUSA sees as its right to continue.
White privilege is not a myth. As a product of White supremacy, it is upheld by the legal, economic, and educational institutions of the United States. But what is certainly a myth is TPUSA’s self-fashioning as a marginal demographic, when they work to maintain an ideology at the center of the American university.
I’ve learned about this history more intimately at the University of Virginia (UVA). When neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville and killed Heather Heyer in 2017, it seemed to some like the University’s dark history of slavery and segregation had resurfaced. But that take disconnects this history from UVA’s ongoing perpetuation of anti-Blackness. Today University expansion is spiking housing prices and forcing working-class Black citizens out of the city; the names of racial scientists remain on University buildings; predominantly white classrooms remain hostile to honest discussions of racial privilege. These are daily reminders that UVA was made by Black people, but not for Black people. Some want us to ignore them.
But good work is being done in response. At UVA, I am inspired by students, faculty, administrators, and staff who direct support to the underrepresented and keep resources away from the oppressive. They understand that universities are more rigorous, rich, and intellectually honest when they encourage perspectives long decentered by higher education’s project of white supremacy. They also understand that letting whiteness reassert itself as the center of the university only exploits our community and makes it unimaginably more dull.
Being at UVA has challenged me to understand the consequences of giving a group like TPUSA a platform. I encourage the Rider community to challenge itself in the same way. As long as TPUSA exists at Rider, it will remain dishonest about its intentions, the consequences of its actions, and the privilege its ideologies have enjoyed for centuries. The community needs to ask itself: Does that deserve our trust?
The members of TPUSA should also consider how their political questions are being co-opted by a massive corporatized political machine. TPUSA force-feeds its chapters pre-determined narratives–supported by a collection of pre-approved speakers, events, and publications–aimed at invalidating student inquiry and other educational opportunities throughout the university. Any organization so deeply committed to fostering distrust among members of a community is not an intellectual enterprise, but an insurrection against the better intentions of higher education.
I made a mistake in trusting TPUSA. But I know better now. And I want to recommit myself to working every day against white supremacy in our universities. I hope, when I start teaching UVA first-years in the fall, I can help them do the same. And I hope the members of the Rider community will decide to help one another, too.
(Side note: Can I get on that watchlist?)
John Modica ’18