Cornel West’s Letter to UA: Supporting Divestment, Ethnic Studies
Center for African American Studies
Princeton, NJ 08544
28 April 2011
Dear University of Arizona Community,
My visit to your university in Tucson earlier this month filled me with utmost joy and reverence, especially for the youth who are engaged in one of the most important struggles of our time—the right to education.
I was glad to hear of the “Right to Education” tour that my brothers and sisters in Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) are organizing around the nation at this moment. I was similarly delighted to hear that one of the tour engagements would follow my own talk and focus on globalizing a preservation and defense of Ethnic Studies. Arizona is the epicenter of the struggle for human rights—especially educational rights. I anticipated that the JVP event at your university last Thursday would be just as inspiring as the one in which I had the honor to participate and was thrilled to find out the outcome.
At this event brave Ethnic Studies youth activists in Arizona exchanged their experiences, triumphs and tribulations with strong Palestinian youth who live a world apart yet whose struggles are intertwined. The international fight for education comes from the same deep place of drawing on cultural and historical knowledge to build a better world for our precious children. After all, Ethnic studies is integral to education, particularly through its quality of instilling self-confidence in students who can find out what’s possible in life by learning about what their own people and ancestors achieved through decades of struggling through adversity.
Today, these youth are taking education into their own hands, pulling from the immeasurable wisdom of their ancestors. Ethnic Studies—from Arizona to Palestine—is about the quest for truth, from the standpoint of the weak and the vulnerable who are rising up to speak, to educate, to struggle and to build justice from the ground up.
The intercontinental meeting that took place on your campus between these courageous youth held true to its promise and was a profound demonstration of love. Bold Arizona youth who are fending off attacks on their cherished Ethnic Studies in an environment of racism and hostility; courageous Palestinian youth who aim to preserve and defend their own fragile Ethnic Studies from the violent, cultural destruction of a vicious, 44-year Israeli occupation—an occupation whose length continually represses the memory of a peaceful time.
But in recognizing the obstacles and praising those struggling to overcome them, we would be remiss not to attempt to trace the origins of this treachery targeting our youth’s future. Attacks on education are big business. Greed is amuck in Arizona and in occupied Palestine. U.S. corporations like Caterpillar and Motorola—and others especially in the prison-Industrial complex—continue to profit from the suffering of peoples who seek dignity and self-determination in Arizona. Similar corporations profit from the misery of occupied and distressed peoples in Palestine.
These corporations should not be profiting from Palestinian suffering under occupation; they should not be profiting from immigrant and indigenous suffering and youth cultural censorship in Arizona and nationwide. Like my brother Desmond Tutu wrote in his recent letter to your community, I also support your institution’s divestment from corporations which shamefully engage in criminal activities, from racist-ridden Arizona to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. It is worth pointing out that both Caterpillar and Motorola are involved with a leading pension fund for educators, TIAA-CREF, which is the focus of Jewish Voice for Peace in the “Right to Education” tour and part of a noble campaign urging the fund to divest from these corporations.
Powerful social movements such as the one that helped end South African apartheid have shown that when world governments fail to enforce the rule of law, international civil community must arise to meet the challenge of upholding fundamental human rights and securing justice. Ethnic studies youth activists and groups like Jewish Voice for Peace are doing just that. As Tutu and many others point out in the case of the Palestinians—as well as that of Latina/o immigrants and indigenous peoples in the U.S.—the tactic of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is an effectively nonviolent means of exerting moral and economic pressures to end unjust policies, from racial profiling to repressive laws, to foreign occupation and land settlement. Perhaps the most vulnerable right in these situations is the right of education, because of the endangered cultural future it represents. Those in the United States and Israel who hold the levers of power and influence over such policies must be beckoned to the negotiating table so that vulnerable peoples can anticipate a peaceful future through living a just and honorable peace.
A decent education cannot be limited to tolerating youth accessing their ethnic and cultural history but must be about facilitating their right to do so, without the hindrance of state or corporate exploiters. The late Edward Said liked to quote the marvelous Martiniquan poet, Aimé Césaire, who urged us to remember that “there is room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory”—where all of us and our children can harmonize our lives together in universal humanity and mutual love.