ISA joins the signatories of the open letter in defense of Dr. Barnor Hesse

The International Sociological Association rejects efforts to silence critical scholars and scholarship on race, colonialism, and white supremacy, and joins the signatories of the following letter to condemn attacks on Dr. Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology from Northwestern University, USA.

The letter and the signatories can be found here:  

Open Letter in Defense of Dr. Barnor Hesse
March 4, 2021

Dear Northwestern University President, Morton O. Schapiro,

Since February 15, renowned political theorist and Northwestern African American Studies professor Dr. Barnor Hesse has been the target of an onslaught of anti-Black, racist, and violent emails and phone messages. These messages have threatened his life, in brutal detail, on numerous occasions. We, the undersigned scholars and students at Northwestern and beyond, stand in solidarity with Professor Hesse and denounce this attack on our colleague and comrade. We also reject these and other efforts to silence critical scholars and scholarship on race, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy. Furthermore, we believe that universities have a responsibility to publicly defend targeted scholars and to affirm, without equivocation, the importance of their scholarship, teaching, and mentorship.

The onslaught against Professor Hesse began after a tweet from the conservative journalist Christopher F. Rufo. Rufo, a research contributor to Donald Trump’s executive order against “critical race theory,” claimed that a New York City public school had sent white parents a document on “eight white identities” that told them “they must become ‘white traitors’ and then advocate for full ‘white abolition.’” The document was based on a heuristic Professor Hesse created for a 2013 undergraduate course, which had been placed on the internet by a student without his consent that same year. This teaching tool highlighted three types of white identity that endorsed racism and five types that opposed racism. It was meant to help students—white and nonwhite alike—engage in the critical work of deconstructing race and joining the fight against white supremacy. This work should be lauded rather than mischaracterized and demonized. However, Rufo’s sensationalistic tweet quickly went viral, and soon became a subject of conservative media outlets, such Fox News and the New York Post.

Further fanning the flames of anti-Black and right-wing hysterics and attacks on Professor Hesse, Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale University, irresponsibly and erroneously tweeted that Hesse’s framework was “dangerous, racist drivel.” His tweet garnered close to 400 retweets and upwards of 2,000 likes, among which was a lecturer at the Stanford School of Engineering, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, and an advocacy group seeking to remove ethnic studies from K-12 settings. Although he has no known expertise on race and racism, Christakis took no public efforts to engage Hesse or his work. As fellow social scientists and scholars, we are deeply troubled by Christakis’ cavalier attitude and apparent disregard for Hesse’s intellectual freedom and physical safety.

We consider the heinous attack on Professor Hesse as part of the most recent wave of attempts to stifle and delegitimize the critical study of race, ethnic studies and anti-racist scholarship, more broadly. It is no coincidence that Trump’s now repealed attempt to ban antiracist education (as well as feminist and diversity work more broadly) came on the heels of widespread support for Black Lives Matter, which included unprecedented numbers of white (U.S.) Americans joining protests and seeking knowledge on racism and antiracism.

In particular, recent assaults against professors like Dr. Hesse—often curiously minimized or ignored by those decrying “cancel culture” on both the left and the right—reveal the fundamental importance of the critical study of whiteness. It is worth remembering that historically the study of the sociopolitical and historical construction of whiteness has been led by those who, while not afforded legitimacy by historically white institutions, could not afford ignorance of its intricacies and effects. This includes the intellectual contributions of one of the discipline’s recently recovered and now celebrated figures: W. E. B. Du Bois, for whom the analysis of White souls was as critical as Black ones. At a time when sociology and the social sciences could use more—not less—attention to the historical processes that connect contemporary racial orders to their colonial origins, Dr. Hesse’s scholarship and teaching have been necessary rejoinders to studies of race that isolate the contemporary structure of racial inequity from the historically specific (and evolving) production of whiteness.

At this moment of insurgent white supremacist movements, racialized death at the hands of police and failed health systems, and rampant racial inequalities and exclusions, we affirm the importance and legitimacy of critical scholarship on race and racial domination. We stand with Professor Hesse and others that have been unfairly criticized and violently attacked for their vital intellectual work. We also call on Northwestern and other universities and academic associations to openly denounce such attacks, build support systems, and defend targeted colleagues and intellectual communities. Professed commitments to racial equity and social justice ring hollow without such actions. Lastly, to those that believe they can frighten us into silence, know that we will not be deterred.