On Tommy Curry

A few days ago, Rod Dreher wrote a piece in The American Conservative about a 4 year old interview of Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. (I would like to add that, although I’m going to criticize Dreher’s article, I think The American Conservative is actually a pretty good publication. In particular, on foreign policy, it’s one of the few publications in the US where sanity has not totally disappeared.) In that article, among other things, Dreher quotes Curry as saying that “in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die”. Since Dreher wrote about this, not only did Prof. Curry apparently receive a lot of racist threats, but the president of Texas A&M University decided to issue a statement in which, although he does not name him, he is clearly attacking Prof. Curry for what he said in that interview. Curry’s statement in that interview, as reported by Dreher, sounds pretty bad, but if you listen to the interview, you will soon realize that, although Dreher didn’t exactly misquote him, his presentation is extremely misleading by omitting crucial aspects of the context. A commenter on Daily Nous wrote a transcript of the whole interview which makes that clear:

Today I want to talk about killing white people in context.


So over the last twenty years, black people allowed white academics, white liberals — and I don’t know if you saw the recent movie Django Unchained — factual history of black civil rights struggle and black slave insurrections.


What we have today is a situation where the symbols of King and peaceful white progressives have become the hallmarks of the black civil rights struggle.


I mean we saw this with people like Skip Gates when Obama won the election, saying that even all of our slaves foreparents who were enslaved and stolen from Africa, all the suffering dying and death that we had during the civil rights movement, have all accumulated in Obama himself, right.


And what that does is it puts a public-relations face on the history of enslavement. It puts a popular face on the suffering of African-descended people, and it puts a smile, a persona from black people, that we can in fact talk about American racism without mentioning the threat of violence or social social revolution at all.


Now two weeks ago Jamie Foxx made a joke about how great it was for him to be able to kill all the white people in his new movie. And I saw it and he’s right, practically every white person in that movie dies a very violent and well-deserved death for their participation in enslavement of African descent people.


But the problem I have with that statement — and it’s using a context of Django — is that it’s a fantasy where the death of white people are really just an entertaining spectacle. It’s something that didn’t really happen. It’s not like black people had that type of opportunity under enslavement.


And today what you see is a backlash, from white conservatives on the one hand who were offended, saying that Jamie Foxx is racist, and white liberals on the other hand who are saying that, well this is not productive that you ever talk about killing white people, and putting the burden back on black people who have actually suffered these types of horror, saying that you can never have a political conversation about the killing of white people, ’cause that in itself is evil, is non-productive, is nationalistic, only evil black nationalists do that, right.


And I think that a lot of times black people will buy into this as well. What I was surprised about is that I’ve seen no black public intellectual come out and actually address the issue of violence or social revolution or self radical self-defense by black people historically.


So right now black people simply buy into the idea that, “oh it’s entertainment,” or “oh you know violence against white people was only the ideas of the Black Panthers.”


But in reality we’ve had people from Nat Turner to Robert F Williams, who’s the father of radical stuff defense movement that inspired Black Panthers, and he wrote the book Negroes With Guns, that thought about about killing white people in self-defense.


Now remember that these black people were actually in a world very much like ours today where white vigilantism against black people, murder, state violence, were all deemed normal. This was how you preserved American democracy. This is what Ida B Wells talks about. You lynched black people because they’re an economic threat to white, poor whites getting businesses. You lynched black people to show black people that they can never be equal, so they will never challenge you, they will never pursue politics, they would have never pursued the right to vote.


So when we have this conversation about violence or killing white people, it has to be looked at in the context of this historical turn.


And the fact that we’ve had no one address like how relevant and how solidified this kind of tradition is for black people, saying “look, in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people may have to die.”


I’ve just been immensely disappointed, because what we look at, week after week, is the national catastrophe after catastrophe where black people, black children, are still dying. And we are front row, we’re front and center, when it comes to white people talking about their justification for owning assault weapons and owning guns to protect themselves from evil black people and evil immigrants.


But when we turn the conversation back and says, “does the black community ever need to own guns, does the black community have a need to protect itself, does the black individual have a need to protect itself from police officers,” we don’t have that conversation at all.


Now we see white citizens arm themselves with assault weapons fearing gun legislation, and we saw the nationalist rhetoric during the election where people are trying to kill Obama, but we don’t have any kind of connection between the arguments made today about the Second Amendment, where people say they have the right to bear arms, and the historical role of the Second Amendment, where it was used to allow[?] white people to press down slave revolts and revolts from indigenous natives.


So Robert Control and Raymond Diamond write this excellent piece called The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration, where they actually trace the history of that, and say that the second amendment isn’t about individuals simply trying to protect themselves, it’s actually about community.


But the problem is the black community has not taken the time, has not taken the, doesn’t have the discipline to look at black politics as an outgrowth of how it needs to protect itself from violent anti-black forces, that are still killing our children, are still taking our communities, and now is trying to justify nationalist rhetoric to to preserve its right to bear arms.

With the context, it’s clear that, in the statement quoted by Dreher, Curry wasn’t necessarily expressing his own view, but lamenting what he takes to be the erasure of the fact that, throughout American history, many black leaders have taken seriously the possibility of resorting to violence in order to protect themselves. (I actually think he is right about that, but that’s a pretty common phenomenon. Once a political/cultural figure becomes coopted by the establishment, he is turned into a consensual figure, even though he used to be quite controversial. This happened to Martin Luther King and Gandhi, but also to Charles De Gaulle and Winston Churchill, so despite what Curry seems to think I doubt it has much to do with race.) It’s true that, a bit earlier in the interview, after he pointed out that several black leaders have advocated and/or used violence in the past, he notes that “these black people were actually in a world very much like ours today where white vigilantism against black people, murder, state violence, were all deemed normal”. This can be taken to suggest that he thinks such calls to violence against white people might still be justified, but 1) he doesn’t actually say that and 2) depending on the circumstances in which he thinks violence against white people might still be justified, this may be a reasonable view.

Now, it’s true that what he says in that interview also promotes the narrative that black people are constantly under physical threat from white people, which is false. Indeed, as anyone who has ever had even a cursory look at the data from the NCVS knows, white people are significantly more likely to be victimized by black people than the other way around. (As Robert O’Brien showed in a paper from 1987, this remains true even when you control for the fact that white people constitute a much larger share of the US population than black people, which means that they have more opportunity to victimize white people. As I mentioned before, O’Brien commits a fallacy in that article which I think is pretty interesting, but I’ll talk about this at length when I have more time.) I have skimmed a paper that Curry wrote after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson and it confirmed that he is promoting that false narrative. But this is not a reason to defame him by misrepresenting his statements and, in doing so, unleashing the dregs of the Internet on him. If you think that Curry is saying a lot of nonsense, which indeed seems to be the case, then you should just write a response to him in which you debunk it, but you should stick to what he actually said. Unfortunately, Dreher did not do that and, clearly, the president of Texas A&M University either didn’t bother to check whether his account was accurate or he caved to external pressure by threwing Curry under the bus even though he knew that his statements had been misrepresented.

Although he deserves censure for misrepresenting Curry’s interview, there is one thing Dreher says which strikes me as correct. Indeed, even if you don’t misrepresent what Curry said, it’s clear that any white person saying even half of it would immediately become the object of universal vilification and be cast out of polite society. Indeed, it’s striking how bigoted and, let’s say it, racist and/or sexist language has become on the left, which is apparently okay as long as no minority is targeted. For instance, among educated progressives (as they like to call themselves for a reason that remains a mystery to me), the expression “white man” or, if you want to be up to date, “heterosexual cisgendered man” (it’s hard to keep up with this stuff) is effectively used in a derogatory way. I know many people with a PhD who seem to think that someone’s being a white man somehow disqualifies anything they might have to say about certain topics. (I often wonder what they would say about white midgets who were born with male genitals, but unfortunately I have not been able to figure out the answer to that existential question.) Of course, they would deny that it’s racist, but that’s only because they are under the delusion that somehow they have the power to change the meaning of words. So, when he denounces a double standard, Dreher is clearly right. The correct reaction, however, is not to treat people like Curry in the same way as liberals treat anyone who violates their hypertrophied sense of propriety, but to insist that people should be able to say anything short of incitement without fear of being the victim of a witch hunt.

12 thoughts

  1. I have no direct contact with U.S. university life, so I was wondering what percentage of university students and faculty really believe that “heterosexual cisgendered white males” (a category that includes Marx, Henry David Thoreau,
    George Orwell, Bernie Sanders, etc.) are instrinsically evil and what percentage just mouth the cliche phrases to avoid problems with the thought police. Generally, in any rigid religious environment, besides a small group of true believers there’s a whole lot of secret sinners and even more who harbor sinful thoughts.

    I realize that no one can calculate a mathematical percentage of true believers, but one can get a general idea how many really swallow campus orthodoxy.

    1. I think the dramatic fall of the popularity of the name “Caitlyn” is an accurate indicator of the typical 20-something hetero family’s feelings in the matter of “support” vs “tolerance”.

      1. You’ll have to account for the fact that parents often don’t want their children to have a publicly controversial name. So, we’re unsure how much of actually signifies tolerance (as opposed to supporters looking to save children from politicization).

        1. The official organs of society don’t reflect that there is any “controversy” concerning Caitlyn Jenner: she is presented as wholly admirable, on a par with Mother Teresa or the troops in Afghanistan. So even if the decline in the popularity of the name results from “controversy,” that indicates that large numbers of Americans see a controversy where they are told there is none.

          1. You are right that establishment institutions, the cosmopolitan classes, and Hollywood largely saw Jenner as the 2nd coming of Christ. At least, before Jenner began cheering for Republicans during election season.

            Also, I believe there are many more silent dissidents then there are silent supporters. This is because merely questioning popular orthodoxy in a public manner (even simply asking whether there are other, better ways to deal with gender dysphoria) is grounds for job termination and death threats.

  2. One of the problems right-wingers create for themselves is that they very rarely try to empathize with how many black people experience life in the U.S. Even though many right-wingers may end up conceding the following:

    (1) Blacks are significantly more poor than whites.
    (2) Being poor typically saddles you with many unique burdens not shared by those more wealthy than you.
    (3) The combination of 1 and 2 make it so that even though standard racism is not a major part of the black experience, something like racism is simply because of economic disparity along racial lines.

    Why is it often so hard for them to merely empathize, publically, in very substantive ways? I think the reason is exactly the same as it is for many of left-wing people on certain issues. Namely, anything that might be perceived as a concession would alter the Overton-Window-Of-The-Argumentative-Score-Of-Debate-About-X (or something like it). If you too frequently concede the implicitly obvious, or near-obvious, you will ultimately lose ground in on the issue.

    It’s clear that many conservatives want Curry to have really been condoning violence, because it provides more ammunition in the culture wars. It’s also clear many liberals are self-aware enough to recognize that if a white professor had been saying the inverse, liberal social media would have hanged the professor immediately, and if it later came out that it was taken out of context, many liberals would have felt fine not providing a public correction of this fact (essentially, just let the negative effects of the mistreatment remain).

    Somehow, someway, many people on both sides will have to get over the point-scoring and inconsistency-in-responce attitudes.

  3. I’m not sure how bad a misrepresentation of Curry’s views Dreher produced. To be sure, he leaves out some crucial context in the specific interview he cites. This would be a bad thing if the view he presents Curry as having is not a view Curry actually holds. It would be less bad if Curry does have that view, even though he doesn’t express that view in the interview. Right? Imagine if someone was getting a lot of flak for saying, I don’t know, that abortion was murder. But in fact, the source people offered for their having said that was kind of ambiguous about whether they think abortion is murder, whereas some other available source did have them unambiguously saying abortion was murder. I would think the seriousness of having taken them out of context and found a view somewhere it wasn’t totally expressed might be a little reduced (of course, the seriousness of death threats and bigoted vitriol against that person wouldn’t be so reduced).

    Anyway, my point is: in my opinion, Curry does think that “in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people may have to die.” I think he think this because he seems to say so, although in a roundabout way, in the conclusion of his paper “Please Don’t Make Me Touch ‘Em: Towards a Critical Race Fanonianism as a Possible Justification for Violence against Whiteness.” Here’s that conclusion in full.

    “Violence admits the harsh political realities of the legal and social institutions of America pushing African descended people toward the truth held in a racial realist account of the world. The decision to act violently is a calculated risk; it admits the unchanging reality of Black oppression and seeks to respond to that oppression in earnest. Derrick Bell argues that “we must realize, as our slave forebears did, that the struggle of freedom is at the bottom, a manifestation of our humanity which survives and grows stronger through resistance to oppression.” In the past,our Ancestors courageously fought and resisted the narratives of Eurocentrism, today, however, the potential for liberation will be based on the shaking off of the multiculturalist dogma that is hanging over the heads that allows us to endure the death of African people in an effort to humanize the oppressor and love our enemy. Ultimately, the Black scholar must reconcile this question as an African descended person. Do we (African descended people) advocate the death, murder, poverty, and oppression of our people at the hands of whites, or do we advocate the end of racism, even if the means to do so is war?

    The dissenters to such a view will no doubt support the basis of violence against whites as theoretically, and politically justified, but reject the proposal on the basis of practicality or morality. Here the criticisms that violence against whites will increase white racism, that violence against whites will inevitably harm more Blacks than our current oppression, that violence is simply not a promising political alternative for Black, or that violence against whites would make oppressed Blacks no better than the white oppressor are largely ideological co-signers to the maintenance of the status quo. These criticisms only maintain the current conditions of Blacks now. Blacks are dying daily from poverty, police brutality and incarceration. Where are the objections to these realities? Is there an ontological difference between the deaths of Blacks that appear normal, and the deaths that appear abominable because they occurred in the midst of revolt? Does our willingness to be moral agents that seek to educate whites and live together peacefully arrest the murder of Black people? The reality of Blacks, especially Black men in American society, is that death is always imminent. Ultimately, the death of Blacks, be it at the hands of white supremacy, or in rebellion against colonialism, should advocate the unrealized possibility of their living, namely the end of racism.”

    In my opinion, it’s hard to see someone as having written and published the foregoing but not as thinking violence against whites is justified. Obviously Curry should be allowed to believe and write things like this. And maybe he’s right; I don’t purport to know exactly who violence is and is not justified against. But anyway, I think people interested to defend Curry probably shouldn’t lean too heavily on the angle that he was just discussing a view that some other people might have held at some point. It really seems to me to be his own view, although not unambiguously expressed as such in the interview Dreher quoted.

    Of course, as you point out, Philippe, any white person expressing views parallel to Curry’s (e.g. saying that violence against blacks was justified in order to prevent “white genocide” or whatever) would not exactly be treated nicely by most people in academia. I think seeing what Curry actually says on this score strengthens your point. It really isn’t just that Curry hinted at some stuff other people have said in a way that would be unwise for a white person to do; it’s that he holds, or anyway seems to hold, views the parallel of which would provoke academic internet mobs out the wazoo. I don’t myself think any internet mobs, death threats, or similar action is justified against Curry, since you should be able to say and believe whatever you want, but that his views seem to be as extreme as they are highlights the extent of the double standard (or whatever you want to call it) that you point out.

    1. Honestly, and with no offense to Curry, without reading more of what he wrote it appears he is just piss-poor at making a clear argument. I’m not really sure what he is even trying to argue. There is too much ambiguity in what he wrote.

      If he is advocating for vigilante justice against whites and/or the murdering of innocent whites, then he is at least advocating for it in a non-explicit way. Also, it should be noted that he has publicly come out and stated has hasn’t been advocating for this type of violence (though, of course, one cannot ignore the possibilty of strategic back-pedaling).

  4. Anonymous, thanks for this, I agree with pretty much everything you say. I will probably post a follow-up when I have some time.

    Jordan, other things Curry wrote have been brought to my attention which, while they remain ambiguous, are ambiguous in a way that deserves strong criticism. To be clear, I think he should be able to express his views and keep his job, and that Texas A&M University’s president should not have criticized him, but I also think it’s disingenuous to pretend that he doesn’t have unusual views about the legitimacy of political violence. And that’s fine with me, I don’t even think his views insofar as I can discern them are obviously false, but I nevertheless think they are false and that he is clearly incompetent. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise since I think most people in critical race theory are incompetent… Anyway, I still think that Dreher misrepresented the content of the interview, but again I think Anonymous is right that he ascribed views to him that he came awfully close to endorsing elsewhere, although you’re also right that, whether deliberately or not, he seems incapable of expressing his view on violence clearly.

    1. “…are ambiguous in a way that deserves strong criticism.”

      I can agree with that.

      On a related note, what is the point of Crit Studies and what has now become of academic progressive’s work in furtherance of social justice? I find it difficult to link work done in Crit Studies, etc. with any verifiable protection of marginalized people. It often seems like a mere echo chamber of rage, wholly disconnected with any actual injustices.

  5. S.wallerstein, most of the people I have in mind would never say that “heterosexual cisgendered white males” are intrinsically evil, of course. But they routinely use that expression in a derogatory way and the kind of things Coyne is attack in this blog post has become ubiquitous among supposedly educated people. It’s not that I’m outraged or even shocked by this, because unlike them I’m not easily outraged. I’m just baffled that something so obviously stupid has become so common.

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