Posted on February 13, 2023

A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell

Vincent Lloyd, Compact, February 10, 2023

On the sunny first day of seminar, I sat at the end of a pair of picnic tables with nervous, excited 17-year-olds. Twelve high-school students had been chosen by the Telluride Association through a rigorous application process—the acceptance rate is reportedly around 3 percent—to spend six weeks together taking a college-level course, all expenses paid.

The group reminded me of the heroes of the Mysterious Benedict Society books I was reading to my daughter: Each teenager, brought together for a common project, had some extraordinary ability and some quirk. One girl from California spoke and thought at machine-gun speed and started collecting pet snails during the pandemic; now she had more than 100. A girl from a provincial school in China had never traveled to the United States but had mastered un-accented English and was in love with E.M. Forster. In addition to the seminar, the students practiced democratic self-governance: They lived together and set their own rules. Those first few days, the students were exactly what you would expect, at turns bubbly and reserved, all of them curious, playful, figuring out how to relate to each other and to the seminar texts.

Four weeks later, I again sat in front of the gathered students. Now, their faces were cold, their eyes down. Since the first week, I had not spotted one smile. Their number was reduced by two: The previous week, they had voted two classmates out of the house. And I was next.

Each student read from a prepared statement about how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless microaggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.

This might be just another lament about “woke” campus culture, and the loss of traditional educational virtues. But the seminar topic was “Race and the Limits of Law in America.” Four of the 6 weeks were focused on anti-black racism (the other two were on anti-immigrant and anti-indigenous racism). I am a black professor, I directed my university’s black-studies program, I lead anti-racism and transformative-justice workshops, and I have published books on anti-black racism and prison abolition. I live in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia, my daughter went to an Afrocentric school, and I am on the board of our local black cultural organization.

Like others on the left, I had been dismissive of criticisms of the current discourse on race in the United States. But now my thoughts turned to that moment in the 1970s when leftist organizations imploded, the need to match and raise the militancy of one’s comrades leading to a toxic culture filled with dogmatism and disillusion. How did this happen to a group of bright-eyed high school students?

The Telluride Association maintains a low profile, even in higher-education circles, but it has played an important role in shaping the US elite. {snip}


In the wake of the George Floyd protests, a group of black Telluride alumni pressured the association to examine the racism that, they claimed, was baked into the organizational culture. “We have all experienced anti-blackness within the association and through its programs,” their open letter said. The result was a redesign of the summer seminars: Telluride would now offer only “Critical Black Studies” and “Anti-Oppressive Studies” seminars. The former would “seek to focus more specifically on the needs and interests of black students.” The seminar I taught—“Race and the Limits of Law”—would be classed with the latter.

In this, Telluride continued a pattern of tracking liberal values as they evolved. It offered courses on race since the 1950s, and the Ithaca house was known as “the most liberal living unit on campus” in the 1970s because of its relatively early acceptance of Jewish, black, and female students. In 1993, at the height of US multiculturalism, Telluride began offering a new stream of seminars focusing on race and difference and aimed at underrepresented students. But perhaps the implosion of my Telluride seminar suggests that this final step, centering blackness, tempts the US elite, and particularly US elite educational institutions, to take a step too far, a step into incoherence—or worse.


Furthermore, in the 2022 community, afternoons and evenings would no longer be spent having fun and doing homework. Two college-age students called “factotums” (led by one I will call “Keisha”) were assigned to create anti-racism workshops to fill the afternoons. There were workshops on white supremacy, on privilege, on African independence movements, on the thought and activism of Angela Davis, and more, all of which followed an initial, day-long workshop on “transformative justice.” Students described the workshops as emotionally draining, forcing the high schoolers to confront tough issues and to be challenged in ways they had never been challenged before.

I am no stranger to anti-racism workshops: I have participated in many of them, and I have facilitated them myself. But the Telluride workshops were being organized by two college-age students, filled with the spirit of the times. From what I gleaned, they involved crudely conveying certain dogmatic assertions, no matter what topic the workshops were ostensibly about:

  • Experiencing hardship conveys authority.
  • There is no hierarchy of oppressions—except for anti-black oppression, which is in a class of its own.
  • Trust black women.
  • Prison is never the answer.
  • Black people need black space.
  • Allyship is usually performative.
  • All non-black people, and many black people, are guilty of anti-blackness.
  • There is no way out of anti-blackness.


If the seminar is slow food, the anti-racist workshop put on by college-age students is a sugar rush. All the hashtags are there, condensed, packaged, and delivered from a place of authority. The worst sort of anti-racist workshop simply offers a new language for participants to echo—to retweet out loud.


In the 2022 anti-racism workshops, the non-black students learned that they needed to center black voices—and to shut up. Keisha reported that this was particularly difficult for the Asian-American students, but they were working on it. (Eventually, two of the Asian-American students would be expelled from the program for reasons that, Keisha said, couldn’t be shared with me.) The effects on the seminar were quick and dramatic. During the first week, participation was as you would expect: There were two or three shy students who only spoke in partner or small-group work, two or three outspoken students, and the rest in the middle. One of the black students was outspoken, one was in the middle, and one was shy. By the second week of the seminar, the two white students were effectively silent. Two of the Asian-American students remained active (the ones who would soon be expelled), but the vast majority of interventions were from the three black students. The two queer students, one Asian and one white, were entirely silent. {snip}


During our discussion of incarceration, an Asian-American student cited federal inmate demographics: About 60 percent of those incarcerated are white. The black students said they were harmed. They had learned, in one of their workshops, that objective facts are a tool of white supremacy. Outside of the seminar, I was told, the black students had to devote a great deal of time to making right the harm that was inflicted on them by hearing prison statistics that were not about blacks. A few days later, the Asian-American student was expelled from the program. Similarly, after a week focused on the horrific violence, death, and dispossession inflicted on Native Americans, Keisha reported to me that the black students and their allies were harmed because we hadn’t focused sufficiently on anti-blackness. When I tried to explain that we had four weeks focused on anti-blackness coming soon, as indicated on the syllabus, she said the harm was urgent; it needed to be addressed immediately.


The dozen participants in this summer program were spending almost every hour of every day together, I was almost the only outsider they were encountering, and I was marked as a threat.

The feature of a cult that seems to be missing from this story is a charismatic leader, enforcing the separation of followers from the world, creating emotional vulnerability, and implanting dogma. Enter Keisha. A recent graduate of an Ivy League university, mentored by a television-celebrity black intellectual, Keisha introduced herself as a black woman who grew up poor and “housing vulnerable,” whose grandmother’s limbs had been broken by white supremacists, and who had just spent four years of college teaching in prisons and advocating for prison abolition. She told the class that she had majored in black studies, had been nurtured by black feminists (though her famous mentor is a man), and she was planning to devote her life to transforming the academy in the direction of black justice.

Keisha was tasked by Telluride with serving as a teaching assistant in my class and organizing workshops for the students in the afternoon. I welcomed Keisha into the class, suggesting that we find some days when she could lead discussion or share her own research. Instead, she largely remained silent during class for the first three weeks, counter-programming the seminar in the afternoons. During a week on the racist background of the US immigration system, Keisha found one of our texts, the foundational Asian-American memoir Nisei Daughter, insufficiently radical, so she lectured to the students that afternoon about the supposedly more radical Yuri Kochiyama. Keisha was frustrated that our week on incarceration began with George Jackson and not a black feminist, so she lectured on Angela Davis that afternoon. I talked at length with both Keisha and the class about learning unfolding over time, about the need to wrestle with an idea before moving on to the next one, and about the overall direction of the course, but for her (and soon for the students), everything had to happen now.

Keisha and I were supposed to meet weekly, but she told me she couldn’t schedule in advance, and she would let me know when she had availability. She never did. But Keisha did find time to intervene when a student was “harmed.” During one class, when we discussed Brown v. Board of Education, my co-instructor explained what the “doll test” was that provided a psychological basis for the Supreme Court’s decision: It involved showing children black and white dolls and asking what language they would use to describe them, “colored,” “white,” or “negro.” During the seminar break, a student had reported this to Keisha, and she rushed in to tell us that a student had been harmed by hearing the word “negro.”

The fourth week of the seminar examined theories of anti-blackness. It should have been predictable that the seminar would blow up during that week: Since the first days of the seminar, Keisha had been talking about how anti-blackness is qualitatively worse than every other system of oppression, so it made sense she would want us to be stuck on that week, unable to move forward—leaving anti-blackness as the course’s climax, and nadir. {snip}


It was clear to me the situation was getting out of control, and after the students left my house, I reached out to the Telluride Association to share my concerns. They promised to investigate. Late Sunday night, I was informed the students were too exhausted to have class on Monday. Tuesday morning, no one was in the seminar room. I waited 10 minutes, and Keisha entered. She said the students had something to say to me. Ten more minutes of waiting in silence. Then all nine remaining students entered, each carrying a piece of paper. One by one they read a paragraph. Out of their mouths came everything Keisha had said to me during the “urgent” meetings she had with me after classes when students had allegedly been harmed. The students had all of the dogma of anti-racism, but no actual racism to call out in their world, and Keisha had channeled all of the students’ desire to combat racism at me.

They alleged: I had used racist language. I had misgendered Brittney Griner. I had repeatedly confused the names of two black students. My body language harmed them. I hadn’t corrected facts that were harmful to hear when the (now-purged) students introduced them in class. I invited them to think about the reasoning of both sides of an argument, when only one side was correct. The students ended with a demand: In light of all the harms they had suffered, they could only continue in the class if I abandoned the seminar format and instead lectured each day about anti-blackness, correcting any of them who questioned orthodoxy. {snip}