On 8 May 2017, the American Conservative blog posted a story under the headline “When Is It OK to Kill Whites?” reporting that Texas A&M philosophy professor Tommy Curry had said that in order for African-Americans to gain equality, “some white people might have to die.”
The story was accompanied by a recording of a podcast Curry spoke on in 2012:
Tommy Curry is an associate professor at Texas A&M. He is black, and specializes in Critical Race Theory. Prof. Curry does not limit his teaching to the classroom. He has a strong presence on YouTube.
In this brief interview, he discusses when it is appropriate to kill white people:
“In order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die,” he says.
Aside from incorrectly identifying Curry as an “associate professor” (he is a full professor), the article presented Curry’s remark out of context, failing to mention that he was discussing the historical role of self-defense in the black community in response to racial violence like lynching.
The interview in question was recorded in December 2012, when Curry was a guest on “Redding News Review,” a Sirius XM program hosted by Rob Redding. The two discussed a controversy that had kicked up earlier that month surrounding actor Jamie Foxx, who played an escaped slave in the Quentin Tarantino revenge film “Django Unchained.” Foxx joked in his opening monologue on the sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” that in the film, “I save my wife and I kill all the white people in the movie.” Foxx’s quip prompted a storm of outrage from conservative media, who characterized it as racist.
In the interview, titled “Dr. Tommy Curry on killing whites,” Curry, an academic who studies militant resistance by African-Americans against slavery and institutional racism, addressed both the violence in “Django Unchained,” and Foxx’s joke. The comment to which the American Conservative referred came amid a larger statement about self-defense and the double standard employed about the Second Amendment and race:
You lynch black people to show black people that they can never be equal so they will never challenge you, they will never pursue politics, they would never pursue the right to vote. So when we have this conversation about violence or killing white people, it has to be looked at in historical terms. And the fact we’ve had no one address how relevant and how solidified this kind of tradition is, is for black people to say ‘look in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people may have to die,’ I’ve just been immensely disappointed. Because we look at week after week, national catastrophe after national catastrophe, black people, black children are still dying.
And we are front row, we’re front and center when it comes to white people talking about their justification for owning assault weapons, and owning guns to protect themselves from evil black people or evil immigrants. But then when we turn the conversation back and say, ‘does the black community have a need to own guns, does the black community have a need to protect itself, does a black individual have a need to protect himself from police officers,’ we don’t have that conversation at all.
During the interview Curry talked at length about the role of self-defense in the black community by the likes of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion; Ida B. Wells, a journalist who led anti-lynching efforts; and Robert F. Williams, who advocated armed self-defense measures for black people during the mid-20th Century. The fact he was talking about self-defense, not indiscriminate murder, has not stopped a myriad of right-wing publications such as Gateway Pundit and the Daily Caller from regurgitating similar (but equally inaccurate) narratives.
We reached out to Rod Dreher, who wrote the American Conservative blog post. He told us a reader had complained to him about “campus double standards on racial discourse” and brought up Curry as an example, so Dreher did a Google search on Curry and found the 2012 video. He also said he didn’t try and contact Curry before writing the post. In an e-mail he told us:
No, I didn’t reach out to him. His public words, in both academic journals, podcasts, and in class, speak for themselves. I wouldn’t reach out to a white nationalist who said the same things Curry did. When people comment positively or negatively about the things I say or write in public, they don’t contact me to learn more about me and my work, nor should they feel compelled to.
Dreher also said doesn’t believe he took Curry out of context, saying that Curry “believes exactly what I said he believes”:
Tommy Curry strikes me as the sort of person who wants to mouth off radical statements, but doesn’t want to be held responsible for them.
As evidence for his argument, Dreher pointed to an academic paper Curry wrote entitled, “Please Don’t Make Me Touch ’Em: Towards a Critical Race Fanonianism as a Possible Justification for Violence against Whiteness” and a 25-second clip apparently recorded during one of Curry’s class lectures.
In the paper, Curry raises the theoretical question as to whether violence is a viable option in eliminating racial oppression of black people:
Inevitably white scholars will see the positing of such a question driven by anti-white racism, but it is only the failure to ask the question under the empirical conditions of white domination and in fear of white reprimand that one would silence a potential political strategy which in itself is the result of the historically more vicious anti-Black racist context. For example, discussions of violence are routinely entertained by legal theorists, politicians, religious leaders and military strategists. Why is this project any different? This project arises from the questions posed by Critical Race Theorists asking about the role of self-defense in an American society that has a dismal record of protecting Black populations and staving off genocide. Given the recent scholarly debates over the role of violence and just war theory in securing freedom and democracy, it seems only appropriate that these political questions be put up for discussion in the quest for racial equality and justice. I say this to point out that the investigation of violence as a means of liberation and protecting the “peoplehood” of African descended people should be dealt with as a serious political question, rather than an ideological and emotional manifesto, as is usually the case when white scholars claim to work on race, or Black philosophers acquiesce the call for diversity in philosophy by compelling more racial compassion and understanding. Political theory in general and violence in particular have been under-theorized as an outgrowth of Black discontent and have failed to be justiﬁed on speciﬁc Black experiences of racism.
Curry told us that he wrote the essay as a graduate student in philosophy and pointed out it thus raises a philosophical question. He told us Dreher misinterpreted it by taking it at face value:
How do you take an article that says, this is a political question, literally? That is the exact opposite of how you read the English language. This is a base level of ignorance at this point. If I ask, should we go to war with Russia, I’m not advocating war with Russia. Asking philosophical questions is my job.
Dreher is an example of the presumed knowledge and expertise white Americans assume they have in all areas regardless of education or the notoriety of the black author they’re waging criticisms against. Even in ignorance they assert expertise.
Curry also told us the video clip was taken from a lecture he was giving about a book written by George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party. The class was discussing a chapter in his book, Blood in My Eye which dealt with the concept of revolution. Curry pointed out that he also lectures about civil rights icon and symbol of non-violence Martin Luther King, Jr. and if a recording were taken from that lecture it would have presented a different picture.
After the blog post was published, Curry started receiving death threats that were serious enough to warrant what he described as a constant police presence near his home. Curry sent us a sampling of some of the threats he has received (caution: offensive language and images below):
Curry called the characterization of his words as “willful ignorance” that has placed him in harm’s way:
This is willful ignorance on the part of the alt-right — this is what I was pointing out in the podcast, this is the contradiction. Historically white people have formed militias to squash slave insurrections, and police borders to shoot immigrants coming into the country. Black people have thought of self defense as a means to protect themselves, their families, their lives, and those who fight for civil rights from white aggression.
You have to think about the contradiction of teaching at a place like Texas A&M that has concealed carry [of firearms] in classrooms. The argument by state legislators is that concealed carry makes the campus safer from people who may try to kill me or my students. Their argument is that when guns are possessed by conservative whites that seem to be moved by this alt-right movement, it makes the learning environment safer. Then they say a black professor who researches the militant civil rights movement and who believes that black people have a fundamental right to self defense makes the learning environment more dangerous.
So this is really based in a racist stereotype. White people with guns, even when they’re teenagers, are safer than black people who even think about possessing them. It’s based in the idea of black criminality. Imagine what the teaching environment is now. Armed white students get to police my speech in classrooms because the alt-right has said I’m dangerous.
After the controversy spread across the Internet, Texas A&M president Michael Young released a statement calling Curry’s comments in the podcast “disturbing.” Curry’s peers in the philosophy department then wrote a letter supporting of Curry and expressing disdain at the lack of support he received from the university. The letter was published in the campus newspaper, The Eagle:
The death threats he has received, and the anemic support he has been offered by the university, suggest to us, regardless of our individual views on the role of violence, that on the question of this double standard he clearly is correct.
We would like to emphasize two points in particular: The first is that nowhere in the interview does Tommy Curry incite violence. What he does do is discuss remarks made by the actor Jamie Foxx about his (Foxx’s) role in the film Django Unchained and relate those remarks to the role that violence and armed struggle has played in the progress of black civil rights. Second, in pursuing this discussion Curry is not simply exercising his First Amendment rights as a private citizen, but also is doing the job for which he has been awarded tenure at Texas A&M University.
Young released a follow-up statement a week later expressing more support for Curry:
I want to affirm my career-long, unwavering support for academic freedom, an essential element to enhance understanding and allow us to come to a closer approximation to the truth. Scholars have a responsibility to engage in deep dialogue and ask questions within their areas of expertise; however, through sound bites or social media headlines, profound issues can be oversimplified and distorted.
I know that, as scholars, we often find our comments misunderstood. With the resurfacing of this podcast in social media last week, the professor and podcast host alike reiterated to media that comments were in reference to a movie related to the professor’s scholarly work. It was not my intent to suggest otherwise nor to overlook the oppression that led to this kind of scholarship, only to reassure our community of that for which we stand as a university. For those of you who considered my comments disparaging to certain types of scholarly work or in any way impinging upon the centrality of academic freedom at this university, I regret any contributions that I may have made to misunderstandings in this case, including to those whose work is contextualized by understanding the historical perspectives of events that have often been ignored.
Curry noted that the threats and harassment he’s been dealing with coincide with a similar experience of another black professor, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who teaches African-American Studies at Princeton. Taylor cancelled scheduled West Coast speaking appearances the week of 30 May 2017 because she received so many death threats after Fox News posted video of her criticizing President Donald Trump during a commencement speech at Hampshire College, labeling it an “anti-POTUS tirade.”
Curry called the incidents dangerous incursions on academic freedom:
The idea that America is a democracy has made American citizens believe there are no repressive or fascist elements in our society and that’s fundamentally false. The attacks you’re seeing on black professors within this last month are evidence there is now an ideological intolerance for viewpoints that do not reflect ethno-nationalist leanings [of the alt-right]. In other words, now in the 21st century, we’re finding that people who speak out against racism are being cast as anti-American because the constituency that voted for Trump have fundamentally maintained that America is a white republic.
We have transcribed Curry’s full remarks from the 2012 interview with Redding. They can be read here:
So today I want to talk about killing white people in context. Alright, so over the last 20 years, black people have allowed white academics, white liberals, and I don’t know if you saw the recent movie “Django Unchained,” the actual history of black civil rights struggle and black slave insurrection. What we have today is a situation where the symbols of King and peaceful white progressives have become the hallmarks of the black civil rights struggle. I mean we saw this with people like [intellectual Henry] ‘Skip’ Gates when Obama won the election saying that even all of our slave fore-parents who were enslaved and stolen from Africa, all the suffering, dying and death that we had during the Civil Rights Movement, have all accumulated in Obama himself, right. And what that does is it puts a public relations face on the history of enslavement. It puts a popular face on the suffering of Africa-descended people, and it puts a smile, a persona from black people that we can in fact talk about American racism without mentioning the threat of violence or social revolution at all.
Now two weeks ago Jamie Foxx made a joke about how great it was for him to be able to kill all the white people in his new movie. And I saw it and he’s right, practically every white person in that movie dies a very violent and well-deserved death for their participation in the enslavement of Africa-descended people. But the problem I have with that statement and its use in the context of “Django” is that it’s a fantasy in which the deaths of white people are really just an entertaining spectacle. It’s something that didn’t really happen. It’s not like black people had that type of opportunity under enslavement, and today what you see is a backlash from white conservatives on one hand who are offended, saying that Jamie Foxx is racist, and white liberals on the other hand who are saying, well this is not productive, you ever talking about killing white people and putting the burden back on black people who have actually suffered these types of horrors, saying, you can never have a political conversation about the killing of white people cause that in and of itself is evil, is not productive, is nationalistic. Only evil black nationalists do that, right? And I think a lot of times black people buy into this as well. What I’m surprised about is that I’ve seen no black public intellectual come out and actually address the issue of violence or social revolution or radical self defense by black people historically. So right now black people simply buy into the idea that oh, it’s entertainment or oh, violence against white people is only the ideas of the Black Panthers. But in reality we’ve had people from Nat Turner to Robert F. Williams who is the father of the radical self defense movement that inspired Black Panthers, and he wrote the book Negroes with Guns that thought about killing white people as self defense.
Now remember that these black people were very much in a world very much like ours today where white vigilantism against black people, murders, state violence were all deemed normal. This was how you preserve American democracy. This is what Ida B. Wells talks about. You lynch black people because they’re an economic threat to poor whites doing business. You lynch black people to show black people that they can never be equal so they will never challenge you, they will never pursue politics, they would never pursue the right to vote. So when we have this conversation about violence or killing white people, it has to be looked at in the context of historical terms. And the fact we’ve had no one address how relevant and how solidified this kind of tradition is, is for black people to say look in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people may have to die, I’ve just been immensely disappointed. Because what we look at week after week is national catastrophe after national catastrophe where black people, black children are still dying. And we are front row, we’re front and center when it comes to white people talking about their justification for owning assault weapons, and owning guns to protect themselves from evil black people and evil immigrants. But then when we turn the conversation back and say does the black community have a need to own guns, does the black community have a need to protect itself, does a black individual have a need to protect himself from police officers, we don’t have that conversation at all. And we see white citizens arming themselves with assault weapons, fearing gun legislation, and we saw the nationalists during the election trying to kill Obama, but we don’t have any kind of connection between the arguments made today about the Second Amendment where people say they have the right to bear arms and the historical role of the Second Amendment where it was used to arm white people to put down slave revolts and revolts form indigenous natives.
So Robert Cottrol and Raymond Diamond wrote this excellent piece called “The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration” where they actually traced the history of that. And so the Second Amendment isn’t simply about individuals trying to protect themselves, it’s actually about community. But the problem is, the black community has not taken the time, has not taken the — doesn’t have the discipline to look at black politics as an outgrowth of how it needs to protect itself from violent anti-black forces that are still killing our children, are still attacking our communities, and now is trying to justify nationalist rhetoric to preserve its right to bear arms.
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