Why is it important to explore the relationship between white supremacy and academic libraries in general, let alone Oregon academic libraries? The answer begins with statistics. According to the most recent American Library Association diversity count, librarianship remains overwhelmingly white, with only 12% of credentialed librarians identifying as racial or ethnic minorities (“Diversity Counts” 2007). Furthermore, librarianship has only seen a 1% increase in minority librarians over the 2000-2010 decade, suggesting that, while diversity, equity, and inclusion programs such as the Spectrum Scholarship Program have begun to diversify the profession, many barriers to librarianship still exist. One barrier that is frequently left unexamined is the effect of historical structures of white supremacy on present-day librarianship. This was recently discussed at the 2019 ACRL Washington/Oregon conference, when academic librarians expressed consternation that the person who shot a protestor on the University of Washington campus in 2017 was a university student. There was confusion over the idea that a university student could also hold white supremacist beliefs, since the media tends to portray white supremacists as uneducated loners. Ultimately, the idea that white supremacy must not exist in higher education is the result of white supremacist tactics that disguise its genealogy and blend these ideas into mainstream speech and policy. However, an examination of the history of American higher education and academic libraries reveals the extent to which white supremacist ideology influenced the development of learning in the United States and provides insight into how these structures continue to impede the diversification of academic libraries today. Oregon provides an important case study as the state originally excluded all people of color from living there, rendering many white supremacist structures invisible but no less virulent. I will use Brook et. al.’s framework of White Institutional Presence as well as Santamaria’s work on economies of affect in academic library spaces to inform my analysis of how white supremacist structures continue to impede the diversification of Oregon academic libraries.
Definitions and Scope
Part of the difficulty in discussing white supremacy in any context arises from naming it. Does white supremacy refer to the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, the work of supposedly “lone wolf” terrorists, or something else entirely? The media often downplays white supremacist violence as the work of lone white men, minimizing the events by focusing on underlying mental health issues while ignoring the broader social implications of white supremacy as an ideology. Frances Lee Ansley discusses this in Critical White Studies, arguing that white supremacist beliefs are more than “mistakes of fact”: that is, education alone is insufficient to dispel white supremacist ideology because “the power and strength of White supremacy seem to come largely from its deep roots in individual consciousness and self-concept” (1997, 593). In particular, Ansley’s “race model” has critical implications for academic libraries and may serve as a partial explanation of how a university student can also espouse white supremacist ideology. According to this model, white supremacy defines white identity:
In the following discussion of ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are wide-spread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings (1997, 592).
This is the definition that I will use for this essay. Ansley’s definition is supported by Kathleen Belew, who ties the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas to a broader white supremacist ideology. She asserts that white supremacy undergirds “enormous parts of our electoral politics, our legal system, our court system, and more” (Nawaz et. al. 2019). It is the “and more” that applies to higher education and academic libraries specifically.
In terms of scope, this essay will connect broader white supremacist structures to their effects on Oregon academic libraries. Though commonly portrayed in the media as a progressive state, Oregon was founded as a white utopia and is the only state to write into its constitution that African-Americans could not own land (Labbe 2019). Oregon has a long history of white supremacist violence (Burley and Ross 2019; Rosenthal 2019), and recent events such as the 2016 armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by far-right extremists, the 2017 Portland train attack by a self-described “Christian white nationalist”, and the ongoing clashes between the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, and Antifa on the streets of Portland indicate that Oregon has a long way to go in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Clearly, street-level white supremacy still exists in Oregon, and this essay aims to determine how much of that ideology remains at the academic level.
There is a dearth of material in library literature naming white supremacy as such. More often, relevant literature tends to focus on behaviors stemming from white supremacist ideology, such as racism or microaggressions. In her 2015 study, Jaena Alabi noted that there is “relatively little” literature focusing even on racism and academic libraries (47). In 2018, she followed up her research with strategies for inclusion. However, her research primarily examined manifestations of racism rather than underlying beliefs and structures that influence these manifestations. While a growing number of articles examine “Whiteness” as a culture and explore its effects on academia, many of these are outside of library literature. The notable exceptions are Brook, Ellenwood, and Lazzaro’s 2015 Library Trends article, which outlined the “culture of Whiteness in academic libraries” (Brook et. al. 2015, 246), and Michele R. Santamaria’s 2020 Library Trends article about how economies of affect conceal white supremacist structures in academic libraries.
Brook, Ellenwood, and Lazzaro built on the work of independent researcher Diane Gusa, who in 2010 examined white supremacy and its effect on institutional culture. Gusa articulated the effect of white supremacist structures by defining “White Institutional Presence” according to four categories: white ascendancy, monoculturalism, white blindness, and white estrangement (2010). White ascendancy creates “a sense of White entitlement, the notion that it is right and natural for Whites to maintain control over spaces, discourses, and outcomes” (Brook et. al. 2015, 251). Monoculturalism refers to treating white culture as the default and requiring all other cultures to assimilate into it, and this stems from a belief in the “superiority and normalcy of White culture” (Gusa 2010, 474-5). White blindness “obscures or ignores White identity and privilege while simultaneously espousing the ‘neutral’ concept of color blindness” (Gusa 2010, 477). Finally, white estrangement, the separation of whites from non-whites, results in an inability to conceive of a multicultural environment (Brook et. al. 2015). These categories create a useful framework for analyzing existing library structures. In particular, the effects of white estrangement are likely prominent in Oregon due to its exclusionary foundation.
Michele R. Santamaria examined how economies of affect conceal white supremacist structures in academic libraries. Specifically, Santamaria articulates three types of affective economies: library awe, library nostalgia, and library trespass (2020). Library awe is most often realized through architecture, constructing libraries using classical Western features, which communicates a sense of ancient power and domination. The fact that many academic libraries feature donor portraits, often “white, wealthy, usually male benefactors”, communicates “something about who can claim space in academic libraries and who is valued in those spaces” (2020, 434). This sense of awe might inspire some white students, but it also serves as a reminder of the Western legacy of colonial suppression, exclusion, and extermination of people of color. When patrons do not see themselves represented in the library, they might be more hesitant to attempt to join the profession. Library nostalgia invokes magical thinking, where books are elevated from mere objects to “talismans” that connect us to a “pre-technological past”, one in which patrons do not need to face the “nasty realities of contemporary society” (Schlesselman-Tarango 2017, qtd. In Santamaria 2020, 437). When viewed as a magical place that provides ancient knowledge, the library becomes disengaged from the white supremacist realities of its founding and mythologized beyond critique. Such a precious place must also be protected, which leads to the third affective economy, library trespass. Santamaria outlines notable cases of Black library students who were denied access to the library and even arrested because a white staff member did not believe that they belonged there (2020). Santamaria asserts that library awe and nostalgia combine to form a protective and often violent library response to the attempted diversification of the profession, as people of color are often read as “trespassing” in traditionally white library spaces.
Contrary to popular portrayals, white supremacy did not originate with the working class. At the turn of the twentieth century, universities played an important role in cementing white supremacist ideology in the minds of future leaders. This era saw racists turn to scientific theories to “bolster their contention that whites were “bolster their contention that whites were superior to non-whites in culture and intelligence” (Downs 2009, 179). University men in particular had a “disproportionate impact” on the implementation of “selectionist white supremacy” (2009, 270). At the time, “selectionist” thought favored education as a way to train leaders who would “select the proper aspects of society to reproduce in order to drive the nation toward progress and away from degeneration” (2009, 268). This is an example of White Institutional Presence in the form of white ascendancy, as white political leaders believed that they had the authority to decide which aspects of society should be allowed to reproduce. Selectionist white supremacy gained power from its “general association with an intelligent class”, framing hate in a way that was “sophisticated, relevant, and contagious” (2009, 270 & 276). It also set the stage for white estrangement, as this early form of eugenics encouraged whites to reproduce only with other whites. Selectionist thought turned on evolutionary theories developed at universities.
In the early twentieth century, neo-Lamarckism was enjoying a heyday in academia. According to Gregory Downs, neo-Lamarckism asserted that acquired characteristics could be transmitted to offspring, and it included the idea that society could degenerate as well as improve over time (2009). To protect society from such regression, selectionist thought supported “child labor laws, the minimum wage, widows’ pensions, parks, clean drinking water, liquor prohibition and safe food to protect Anglo-Saxon workers” (2009, 280-1). While many textbooks label these changes as victories for marginalized peoples, they came about as the result of white supremacy rather than the fight against it. So-called “Teutonic theory”, an outgrowth of selectionist thought, was the thrust behind these policies, and institutions of higher education played a central role:
Education inspired progress by fostering broad views of society and higher intellectual life, and schooling also prevented racial decay by training the masses to keep “free from contact with degenerate races” and by telling students about what Alderman called “the political genius of the Teutonic mind” (2009, 279).
This is an example of monoculturalism, as “Teutonic” culture was considered the superior culture and how the rest of society should aspire to be. Clearly, the recipients of this education were intended to be white, as members of nonwhite races were supposedly agents of the racial decay that white supremacists were training whites to avoid. Segregation, either mandatory or de facto, provided a useful way for white supremacists to customize this education. Henry G. Connor, a North Carolina senator and judge, believed that whites must maintain political control to continue to advance the white race, and he implemented policies designed to deny nonwhites access to education. Convinced that he was part of a “global struggle against regression”, he set about eliminating the voting rights of African-Americans while simultaneously protecting their schools (2009, 292). Schools for nonwhites were intended to guide students into industrial work rather than education, and at one point, the state of North Carolina even segregated textbooks to accomplish this goal (2009). Ultimately, intellectual theories developed at universities during the turn of the twentieth century resulted in nationwide policies designed to prevent nonwhites from accessing higher education.
Oregon took the idea of segregation one step further, into outright exclusion. Oregon became a state on February 14, 1859, two years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Hoping to avoid the question of slavery that was tearing Kansas and Missouri apart, Oregon attempted to remain “neutral” by enacting racial policies that were both “anti-slavery and anti-Black” (Labbe 2019, 440). Abolitionists who believed in the possibility of a multiracial society were rare in Oregon, and many opponents of slavery accepted or even advocated “for [slavery’s] continuance or expansion elsewhere, as long as Oregon was preserved for the White race” (2019, 441-442). This is a striking example of white ascendancy and estrangement, as the white inhabitants of Oregon believed that they had the right to exclude people of color, including the indigenous peoples of Oregon, because they had the right to an all-white state. This also set the stage for white blindness, as future white Oregonians would be unlikely to witness racial violence and oppression or, conversely, evidence of a functional multiracial society, if virtually no people of color remained in the state. Indeed, Labbe asserts that Oregon’s exclusionist founding sustains the “persistent escapist myth that Oregon and the Pacific Northwest was and could remain aloof from the nation’s history of slavery and racism” (2019, 459). In such a hostile climate, educational segregationist policies like those in North Carolina were not needed, as people of color were excluded from education by default. These examples demonstrate that the present world was not built as the result of violence from street-level white supremacist gangs; instead, it was coordinated carefully and deliberately by white intellectual and political leaders of the day.
While overtly white supremacist theories fell out of popularity after World War II, the idea that some humans are inferior to others on the basis of race persists into the present day within academia. In 1994, psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, which purports that American society is structured as a meritocracy, with tiered classes according to intelligence. Herrnstein and Murray claimed that nonwhite races are in lower classes because they are simply less intelligent than whites (1996). The book also introduced the idea of Asian exceptionalism, citing IQ statistics which ranked racial intelligence with Asians at the top, whites in the middle, and Blacks at the bottom (1996). In a critique written the next year, Rosen and Lane claimed that The Bell Curve “is the work of a popularizer of ideas, from the fringes of the academy, that have been repeatedly aired and repeatedly ignored” (1997, 529). Overt white supremacy may have been considered “fringe” by the 1990s, but the fact that it remains in academia in any form is a testament to the longevity and strength of the ideology. Far from a relic of a bygone era, white supremacy has adapted to the concerns of the modern day to remain relevant to young people. When Loretta J. Ross and Mary Ann Mauney examined the changing white supremacist movement of the mid-1990s, they were surprised to find a significant number of women skinhead recruits, many of whom were “college-educated, sophisticated, and display skills usually found among the rarest of intellectuals in the movement” (1997, 556). While it seems shocking that women would join a movement with such a long history of misogyny, it speaks to the adaptability and persistence of white supremacist ideology. In the case of these 1990s skinhead women, higher education did not prevent them from espousing white supremacist beliefs.
Libraries and Classification Systems
The potential of libraries to perpetuate white supremacy is not negligible. Before the advent of the Internet, books were one of the only ways to acquire knowledge without a teacher, which is why North Carolina felt the need to segregate textbooks in its quest to educate nonwhites differently than whites. The reasoning was that separate textbooks would prevent “contagion or contamination”, as Black children were deemed mentally unready for the ideas that white children were learning (Downs 2009). Some might argue that this was the act of state government and that libraries merely provided information as a neutral third party. However, remaining neutral in a power imbalance will only help the stronger power, as it will allow them to continue what they are doing, while speaking out for the lesser power might actually bring balance to the situation. While libraries today proudly host Banned Books Week, and the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee denounces censorship, the role of the library as a neutral provider of information bears critical examination. As early as 1960, librarian Rick Estes lamented that many librarians had no idea that the majority of Southern libraries were segregated. Responding to Danville, Virginia’s decision to close a public library rather than allow it to integrate, Estes observed:
When a book is banned in the smallest hamlet, there is a vigorous protest -- as indeed there should be -- that the Library Bill of Rights is defamed and that reading privileges are being denied. Such a protest is usually supported by a majority of librarians. But when a city takes away the right of citizens to read every book in the public library, we say nothing (4418).
The line between selection and censorship is thin, and claiming to have selected the most appropriate material when the selection pool is narrow and incomplete does not fulfill the mission of intellectual freedom.
Taking one step further back from textbook segregation, white supremacist structures have historically acted to prevent the writing and publishing of diverse literature, especially in children’s books. Bronson asserts that the “first picture book to feature an African American character, The Snow Day by Ezra Jack Keats, was not published until 1962” (2016, 28). Earlier attempts to place nonwhite protagonists in children’s literature were met with outright censorship. In 1947, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote The Secret River, about an African American girl, but when it went to print in 1955 after her death, the illustrator chose to use ambiguous colors to conceal the character’s race and avoid censorship (2016). This type of racial erasure has contributed to monoculturalism in available children’s books by replacing visibly Black characters with a universalizing white or racially ambiguous character. It has also increased white estrangement by preventing children from reading diverse books and learning about nonwhite cultures. Today, the available selection of published children’s books remains overwhelmingly white. In 2015, Bronson estimates that African American characters were present in picture books only 7.7% of the time, the highest representation since libraries began collecting statistics (2016). Furthermore, the Hispanic population, though acknowledged to be a significant segment of society, only appeared in picture books 2% of the time in 2015 (2016). This lack of diversity in children’s book publishing means that librarians selecting a statistically random sample of books will not stock their shelves with diverse books that reflect their communities. Instead, they will contribute to monoculturalism by providing books to children that depict white characters as the standard protagonist. Librarians who wish to actively select diverse children’s books face additional difficulties, as “cataloging doesn’t necessarily reflect racial diversity unless it is an ‘issue’ book” (Krueger and Lee 2016, 19). Therefore, these librarians must either research diverse books by hand or rely on lists created by various committees and interest groups, both of which require additional labor on the part of likely overworked and underpaid individuals. All of these factors lead Krueger and Lee to conclude that book selection “has the strongest impact on creating diverse storytimes” (2016, 19). Publishing inequalities mean that passively selecting library materials from approved catalogs is likely to continue to silence diverse voices, contributing to censorship even if librarians are not actively removing books from shelves.
In addition, libraries shape reality as the developers of classification and cataloging systems that allow people to access information. Hope A. Olson highlights libraries’ critical role in making information accessible, stating that “naming information is the special business of librarians and other information professionals”, and that those “theories, models and descriptions” are just as “presumptuous as controlling as scientists’ construction and containment of nature” (2001, 4). Through cataloging and classification, libraries shape the information landscape, and if those classifications are based on categories created within a white supremacist framework, then the information landscape becomes a reinforcer of this ideology. Olson acknowledges this problem when she notes that cataloging and classification systems still contain “biased terminology and objectification of marginalized groups” (2001, 8). Historically, catalogers have treated biased cataloging as a mistake to be corrected, starting with Sanford Berman’s Prejudices and Antipathies in 1971. However, Emily Drabinski cautions that locating the problem of bias in classification with the catalogers themselves is too narrow a view (2013). Rather, it is a system of white supremacy that creates these biases, and in Drabinski’s view, correcting them erases the workings of the system and inaccurately portrays the catalog as authoritative and representative. Drabinski recommends leaving errors in the catalog:
A user confronting the perhaps initially shocking and upsetting placement of materials here could, with the deployment of technical and human resources, be encouraged to think critically about the classification and cataloging structure; after all, if LC thinks about gay men and lesbians this way, what else does it get terribly, consequentially wrong? (2013, 104).
While it is important not to obscure the structures of white supremacy, simply leaving the catalog in its current state perpetuates white supremacy as users browsing the catalog may not be aware that the classifications they are encountering are the result of bias. If users are browsing about a group of people who are different from themselves, they may not experience shock at the placement of materials but instead absorb the category as valid. White ascendancy means that users are not accustomed to questioning authority, especially not library authority, which vocational awe has elevated to the untouchable status of a religion (Ettarh 2018). When biased terminology is included in an official system, it becomes a legitimate way of talking about other people. Linda Tuhiwai Te Rina Smith asserts that classification itself is a Western activity:
...to a large extent theories about research are underpinned by a cultural system of classification and representation, by views about human nature, human morality and virtue, by conceptions of space and time, by conceptions of gender and race. Ideas about these things help determine what counts as real (2012, 46).
“Western” can be read here as “white”, and the positions of power held by white individuals ensure that white ways of knowing remain primary. Smith asserts that when “confronted by the alternative conceptions of other societies”, white thought became entrenched as a “better” way of knowing, and all other ways of knowing received the label of “primitive” (2012, 50-51). This monoculturalism denigrates the viewpoint of any culture that does not fit into the established systems of whiteness. Such a bias shows itself in both the Dewey Decimal Classification and the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which differentiate between many nonwhite groups but mostly fail to name whiteness. Even when categories explicitly naming whiteness exist, they are rarely used to catalog books. Krueger and Lee’s point that books rarely reflect racial information in cataloging unless they are specifically about race further serves to cement whiteness as the unspoken default in the information hierarchy.
Academic Libraries and the Culture of the Book
Academic libraries exist within the broader sphere of higher education, and the policies around higher education inevitably affect the academic library. Before the advent of the Internet, academic libraries played a central role in student education as the only way for students to access the required material for their courses (D’Andraia et. al. 2011). Therefore, if professors at the turn of the century were teaching white supremacist theories such as selectionism and Teutonic theory, the academic library would have been required to provide books on these topics to students. Biases in publishing already narrow the selection pool for libraries in general and for academic libraries in particular. Writing the kind of book that would be included in an academic library requires advanced degrees, and the American educational system disproportionately excludes people of color from higher education. Brook et. al. cite Helen A. Moore’s 2005 article arguing that standardized testing under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is racially biased (2015). The idea that a test can be considered “standardized”, measuring all students equally regardless of environment and background, is an example of white blindness. This blindness proved so persistent that in 1984, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a ruling prohibiting schools from using IQ tests “to evaluate Black students for placement in special-education classes on the grounds that the tests are culturally biased” (Foster 1984). The endurance of these tests speaks to both white blindness and white ascendancy. White ascendancy occurs when people conclude that nonwhites consistently scoring lower on standardized tests than whites demonstrates the natural order of society rather than a problem with the test design or administration. Brook et. al. argue that “high-stakes testing” itself is modeled on white supremacist ideology and is in direct opposition to “traditionally African American values such as cooperation, collaboration, and socialization” (2015, 252). Multiple standardized tests guard the gate to higher education, many of which cost money, including the PSAT, SAT, and ACT for undergraduate education, and the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or GMAT for graduate school. This barrier prevents people of color from obtaining higher education and therefore from writing books that could be included in an academic library.
An additional structure that reinforces existing white supremacist structures in higher education is the marginalization of researchers who stray outside of “approved” academic topics. According to Smith, speaking out against oppression “can land a researcher in considerable trouble, being ‘named’ as a leftist researcher or native sympathizer is likewise a risk that is carried even in societies that value freedom of speech and of academic discovery” (2012, 198). This atmosphere creates a culture of silence around white supremacist structures, making it difficult to research them and be taken seriously in academia. This is an example of white estrangement, in which not only are whites unable to conceive of a multiracial society, but they also view naming the structures that have contributed to their estrangement as a threat to the existing society. Furthermore, researchers interested in these topics are often “in the margins themselves”, and they report that undertaking research “with marginalized groups or about the concerns of such groups” has a “significant negative impact on their careers” (2012, 206). This casts their research in a less authoritative light, where it is less likely to be noticed or talked about by other academics. When academic structures prevent the creation of material outside of approved topics and categories, academic libraries cannot provide diverse material to students and faculty. Due to this silencing, research tends to focus on the “the hegemonic role of intellectuals who occupy the establishment, their power to influence others and decide what counts as legitimate knowledge” (2012, 200). However it is one thing for research to be completed and another thing entirely for it to be published, disseminated, read, and included in syllabi for students. Research that is not cited will eventually be forgotten, and the danger of researching “in the margins” is that such research will never reach the core that it is trying to change.
When researchers are unable to publish about their topics of interest, they cannot write books about them, and when information exists outside of a book, it is automatically viewed with suspicion. Santamaria cites Manguel’s assertion that books are framed as an “undeniable source of power”, lending “‘awe-inspiring’ credibility by bestowing power to those who seek it” (2020, 437). The history of humanity is often painted in terms of evolution, with writing featuring as a hallmark of civilization. According to this model, we started as hunter-gatherers, developed agriculture, then industry, and now live in a world run by technology (Jabr 2013). The original theory of writing, called monogenesis, held that writing was invented once in Sumer and spread to other cultures through cultural diffusion (Fagan 2012). This view is encapsulated in a quote from Stanford historian Ian Morris’ book, The Measure of Civilization, “No society can develop very far without systems for writing and counting; to go further still, it needs increasingly sophisticated media for storing and transmitting this information and institutions to impart the skills of literacy and numeracy to more and more people” (Morris 2013, 41). This linear view holds that the development of writing can be used to measure how evolved a society is, and it simultaneously denigrates the oral tradition as somehow less reliable or evolved than the written word. It is pertinent to note that researchers now believe that writing was invented in multiple places throughout history: in Sumer, Mesoamerica, China, and Peru (Olson and Torrance 2009). These three additional origin points are in geographic regions where the people are considered nonwhite. As an example of monoculturalism at work, writing from these areas was not considered legitimate for many years because it did not look like Western writing. However, civilization is often equated with intelligence, as Herrnstein and Murray would like to suggest, and measuring authority based on the ability to write and publish has silenced indigenous and marginalized voices in academia for a long time.
While media portrayals of white supremacist radicalization focus on the role of the Internet, books continue to be an important part of the ideology. D’Andraia et. al. note that “an academic library’s collections are often heavily revered” (2011, 225). There is a mystery and awe around rare books, perhaps a spillover from the vocational awe described by Ettarh. Ettarh observes that the earliest librarians “were also priests and viewed their work as a service to God and their fellow man” (2018). The Catholic Church treats the Christian Bible almost as a holy relic, dressing up the cover and parading it in front of the people during Mass. This view of a book possessing sacred power may carry over to the rare books of academic libraries, and this is important in understanding the relationship of books and white supremacists. Despite the book burnings of Hitler’s era, white supremacists do not eschew all books. In a 2019 National Public Radio interview, Kathleen Belew explains that the white power movement left behind a huge paper archive, primarily of periodicals. Arthur Jipson elaborates that white supremacists consider it a point of pride to own a printed copy of the material that they read online, to the point where extremists that he has interviewed “sometimes show up with a rare book, sometimes autographed books with the names of prominent racists” (Allam 2019). These books become relics and serve as symbols of what white supremacists consider their history of resistance. Jipson asserts that they believe they are reading the forbidden material of their struggle, which adds a sense of community around a shared secret.
#In Oregon, white supremacy in academia can be difficult to trace due to the outright exclusion of people of color from the state. However, University of Oregon records show that a small number of Black individuals successfully entered the state during the exclusion period. While Oregon’s exclusion law was not repealed until 1926, Mabel Byrd became the “first African American enrolled at the University of Oregon” in 1917 (O’Neil and Bigalke 2015). She was not permitted to live on-campus due to her race, so she had to live in the home of history professor Joseph Schafer, working for him “as a domestic” in addition to attending school (O’Neil and Bigalke 2015). Even after the exclusion law was repealed, the University of Oregon continued to deny housing to people of color for several years. Unlike legally segregated states that contained designed areas for Black people to live, early Black students in Oregon faced immense difficulty with housing because Oregon’s exclusionist founding meant that there was no official space for them anywhere.
This intentional exclusion is compounded by the fact that an actual Klan member served as University of Oregon faculty. Frederick Stanley Dunn was the assistant professor in the Latin department in 1898, and he became the head of the department in 1921 (“Faculty in High Places” 1921). A report commissioned by University of Oregon president Michael Schill reveals that Dunn was not merely a Klan member: he served as the Grand Cyclops (leader) of the Eugene Klan chapter (Johnson et. al. 2016). Conservative weekly magazine Oregon Voter mentioned in 1923 that “Eugene now appears to be one of the most thoroughly Kluxed cities of Oregon” (Johnson et. al. 2016). As both the head of an academic department and a powerful Klan figure, it is doubtless that Dunn influenced the development of the university to align with the Klan’s stated mission of “upholding the supremacy of the White man’s civilization and racial purity” (2016, 33). While it is impossible to personally attach Dunn’s name to Eugene Klan activity due to the Klan’s secretive nature, the following ad in the Springfield News illustrates that the Klan’s reach and ambitions extended into the realm of academic libraries. In 1922, Oregon governor Ben Olcott issued a statement condemning Klan activity. In response, the Eugene Klan took out a series of ads attempting to rebrand the Klan as a “benign organization”. One of these ads addressed the educational system:
In our schools and libraries are books that libel American citizens, books that create hatred and dislike among the people of different sections of America. The Klan is pledged to true history. So great is the power of these books for evil that if the Klan takes [just] one of them from our schools, it has earned the friendship of every patriotic American (2016, 30).
While library censorship is often portrayed as something called for by individuals outside of the academic community, the Eugene Klan had someone on the inside. Dunn’s position meant that he would have worked closely with academic library staff to secure the necessary materials for his courses. The historical record is silent on the extent to which the Klan was able to remove books from the University of Oregon library, but the mere presence of a Klan figure in academia indicates that white supremacy has historically operated not only from the street level, but also from the highest levels of the establishment. At the time of this writing, the Knight Library still contains a mural stating that the mission of a university is “conservation and betterment not merely of our national resources but also of our racial heritage and opportunity to the lowliest” (Warner 2020).
Perhaps the most insidious trait of white supremacy is its relative invisibility to white people. Another name for the Ku Klux Klan is the “Invisible Empire”. This invisibility is not an accident, but rather the result of efforts to mask structures and language that reveal the extent to which white supremacy continues to influence society. Judith Butler, arguing about the ambiguous nature of gender, asserts that gender essentialists often appeal to nature in order to ignore structures of oppression, “the vocabulary of naturalistic affect effectively renders that ‘paternal law’ invisible” (1990, 91). Butler stresses that the aim of this process of ineffability is to “disguise its own genealogy” (1990, 64). White blindness is a prime example of the white supremacy’s attempt to disguise its own genealogy. By separating whites from nonwhites and casting white culture as the default, white supremacist structures paint the current social order as the natural order, the result of the supposed innate superiority of the white race rather than the result of centuries of oppression and genocide. Indeed, John Drabble examines the history of white hate in the United States to conclude, “In the course of subsequent conflicts over urban riots, court ordered busing, and affirmative action, the nation learned to understand race in ‘nonsystematic, nonstructural terms’” (2007, 50). As people of color incrementally gained rights, white supremacist rhetoric shifted to paint the Civil Rights era as the time when all racial discrimination ended. According to the logic of supporters of The Bell Curve, since people of color are no longer enslaved or facing outright exclusion and segregation, they must have all of the same rights and privileges as white people; therefore, any racial economic disparities only highlight that people of color must be lazy, which is why white people rose to prominence in the first place. In reality, white supremacist structures continue to keep people of color from accessing the same opportunities as white people:
Today, over forty years since the Court's rejection of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, the passwords that still exist for the property right in being white include “higher entrance scores,” “seniority,” and “neighborhood schools” (Bell 1997, 600).
The language of white supremacy still exists, but it has evolved to be subtler and easier to miss. In addition, media portrayals of white supremacist terrorists as mentally ill, lone wolf operators reinforce the idea that racism is a relic of the past, and only isolated people with mental health issues would ever resort to racial violence. White supremacists encourage this image, as it allows the true scope of their networks and ambitions to remain undetected. When Ross and Mauney examined changes in white supremacy in the 1990s, they noted that “seasoned adults have abandoned open violence to sanitize their public images”, instead encouraging “young people to commit crimes”, which allows “the adult leaders to escape punishment” (1997, 555). In academia, white supremacy operates in a similarly invisible way, with the added caveat that professors may perpetuate white supremacy without being aware of it. Syllabi that are Eurocentric and composed of mostly white men contribute to white blindness and white ascendancy. Library classifications that privilege European knowledge, religions, and orientations contribute to white estrangement and monoculturalism. The veneration of manuscripts in academic libraries contributes to a vocational awe that discounts the many cultures who transmit knowledge via the oral tradition. Because white supremacy operates on ineffability and invisibility, the best way to avoid perpetuating it is to openly name it and actively include the voices of people of color in library collections and decisions.
As this examination of the history of white supremacy and Oregon academic libraries demonstrates, the higher education and libraries are riddled with white supremacist structures. Especially in light of the shooting on the University of Washington campus, it is critical for academic librarians to understand that higher education alone is not sufficient to combat white supremacist ideology. Until the intersections of class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other axes of structural oppression are openly examined in required university courses, librarians will continue to witness white supremacist ideology in students and faculty. Until we can dismantle the vocational awe around librarianship and invite our communities to participate in it, the profession will remain mostly white. Until we critically examine the reasons and motivations behind our classification choices and incorporate decolonial perspectives, much information germane to the struggle against white supremacy will remain effectively hidden. Until white supremacy is named and taught as an integral part of the history of the United States, it will continue to pervade our educational structures and shape our future. Until Oregon openly acknowledges its openly racist founding and history of discrimination and violence against people of color, students will continue to believe the myth that Oregon is a progressive state with equal opportunity for all. Ignoring white supremacy will not make it go away; it will simply allow the ideology to grow unchecked and unmonitored. This movement is not limited to a small segment of the working class, and we ignore the warning signs at our own peril.
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