This year, the University of Michigan celebrates its bicentennial. U-M repeats its usual narrative of tradition and achievement. Missing from this narrative is how U-M has oppressed people of color, women, the working class, the disabled, and virtually anyone else who weren’t like its wealthy, white, men who founded and lead it. One might think U-M’s colors weren’t supposed to be maize and blue, but instead lily-white and spoon-silver. True, U-M did look into some of its worst moments last year with a series of art installations, but these were framed as “stumbling blocks,” as if these were isolated mistakes and not related to the oppressions integral to universities place in the capitalist system. It’s well past time to take an honest look at U-M’s 200-year history of oppression.
Let’s start at the beginning: the so-called Native land “gift” in Detroit, the University’s original location, which was later sold to fund the Ann Arbor campus’ endowment. The university was founded on land granted through treaty between the US government and Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi peoples. U-M would love to have us think this was an act of friendly cooperation, but treaties from the early 1800s were anything but. They were coercive, and they came with the threat of violence. And, the whole reason these treaties were made was to force Native people out of the Great Lakes region, the infamous policy of “Indian removal.” The treaty mentions the tribes’ wish to have their children educated at the public university on the land, but no indigenous students were admitted for one hundred thirty more years. The land gift is a lie.
For more info: https://mystudentvoices.com/rethinking-the-native-american-land-gift-to-the-university-of-michigan-64e0a972e2b8
Moving right along, we have U-M’s storied history of involvement in eugenics. Three buildings on campus are actually named for eugenicists: Victor Vaughan, John Harvey Kellogg, and, of course, C. C. Little (president of the deeply racist and ableist American Eugenics Society). For decades, Michigan passed laws facilitating forced sterilizations of the mentally ill and disabled and others labeled with the dehumanizing catch-all “degenerate.” This truly evil practice was used as a tool of white supremacy, with Black people and other people of color—and overwhelmingly women—were highly targeted. These sterilizations happened right here in Ann Arbor, at the U-M hospital, for decades.
For more info: https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/MI/MI.html
Even now, U-M is engaged in oppression. Its regents include real estate moguls participating in the gentrification of Detroit, plus a Trump campaign donor (Ron Weiser). Last year, the Central Student Government voted down a divestment proposal seeking to stop the University from continuing its investments in companies involved in Israeli occupation. Palestinian students should not have to have their tuition money go toward oppression of their families and their homeland. On top of that, the divestment movement was openly painted as anti-Semitic and somehow related to the rise in neo-Nazi visibility in the wake of President Trump’s election. Then, after real violence was committed against Muslim students, U-M President Mark Schlissel took it upon himself to condemn both the racist attacks and white students having their racist views challenged, as if these are at all equivalent.
Again, these are not mere incidents, mistakes, or “stumbling blocks.” We need to ask ourselves, how does the university function, and primarily for whose benefit? Capitalism has to actively maintain itself. Much more than the actions of individual actors, we have class interest to blame for the way things are. One of the ways that higher education—and for that matter, all schooling—operates within capitalism is to allow elites to create the next generation in their own image.
When the university talks about “opportunity,” this is an invitation into the system. To become the next round of bankers, politicians, businesspeople, etc. who will keep capitalism going. Who will exploit the labor of workers domestically and abroad for profit. Who will wage imperialist wars against countries under false pretenses to affect global markets in the US’s favor. Who will report and analyze the news through only the lens the ruling class taught them to use. This opportunity is definitely not available to all—top-tier universities’ admissions skew extremely in favor of students from wealthy families. U-M is among the worst for its class diversity. The median family income here is $154,000. Here we see how working-class high school students tend to be funneled into vocational training, lower-tier colleges and universities, or directly into wage labor. That isn’t to say trades and so-called “unskilled labor” aren’t good. Quite the opposite is true—a janitor does a lot more benefit to society than a stock broker. It’s just that Capitalism views this kind of work as inferior, and the education system is rigged against the working class to stay in their position while the rich get richer off their exploitation.
For more info on U-M’s economic diversity: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/university-of-michigan-ann-arbor?mcubz=0
What can we do about it?
Revolutionary Youth Alliance is a mass organization that seeks to unite the broadest section of working class students and youth to overthrow capitalism. We are a revolutionary organization first and foremost—we have no illusions that capitalism can be overcome through reforms alone. As a youth organization our primary trenches of struggle are schools, colleges and universities where the ruling class seeks to mold us in its own image. But the spirit of youth is one of rebellion and revolt, we don’t want to be assimilated into the University of Michigan’s centuries-long tradition of oppression and poison, we want to destroy it.
Revolution has two aspects: constructive and destructive. When we declare that the University of Michigan is a site of struggle for us, we mean that we want to break down its ivory walls that separate it from our communities and take it back into the hands of the people. We need to build our own systems of support and community and start constructing the new society within the shell of the old, and defend it from the pigs and ruling class lackeys that want to keep us obedient and exploited. Our task is to replace the University as it currently exists with educational institutions in service of the people and our class, the proletariat. We want to arm the people with knowledge and skills that will allow them to bring class society to an end and reach its historical conclusion: a new world without oppression, exploitation, and class distinctions.
This practice of building new institutions is a concept known as dual power and it’s happened in every successful revolution throughout history. A revolution is impossible without a base of support for it. We build this dual power based on a method of work called the mass line, where we take the people’s correct ideas from their struggles against capitalist violence and oppression and use them to guide our work, acting on the ideas of the people, strengthening the masses’ power, learning to fight alongside them, and creating these new systems to meet the needs of the people. If the people care deeply about a reform that needs to be won, we should not ignore their struggle but join and fight alongside them, seeing the reform as part of a broader revolutionary process. When the masses come into conflict with their oppressors the violent nature of capitalist society is brought into the open and we gain a sharper idea of how we can bring it down.
Though the University of Michigan has been a driving force of class rule for 200 years, what we’ve listed here is only the tip of the iceberg. The world is plagued by needless abject poverty, homelessness, starvation, and imperialist war; the rapidly changing climate threatens to destroy human civilization; we have seen fascism on the rise domestically as the United States’ grip on the world has weakened as well as increased violence against immigrants, women and non-men, and oppressed nations at home, and cities like Detroit gutted by capital flight. As we approach another financial crisis the conditions are only going to get more and more severe; we have no choice but to fight. As the Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh once said, “Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the… toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites.”