The black Texas professor at the heart of the latest right-wing campus witch hunt speaks

The black Texas professor at the heart of the latest right-wing campus witch hunt speaks
Source: AP
Source: AP

Tommy Curry has had a rough eight days. "I have received death threats from white men and white women," the black Texas A&M University professor said.

"Many of these have called me a Nigger, a feral beast, a savage and a boy," he added. "They have threatened to shoot me and my family. Some white women have claimed I am a rapist and would be lynched for [my] crime."

The vitriol stems from a series of news articles published last week. Beginning on May 8, several conservative media outlets — from the American Conservative to the Washington Examiner to the Gateway Pundit — resurrected an old interview Curry did on a December 2012 podcast.

"What we have today is a situation where the symbols of [Dr. Martin Luther] King and peaceful white progressives have become the hallmarks of the black civil rights struggle," Curry — who teaches philosophy and Africana studies — told host Rob Redding. "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."

It seemed to Curry an uncontroversial statement to make: He'd framed it in the historical context, and expanded on it in a five-minute mini-lecture, during which he criticized black and white liberals' unwillingness to discuss the real history of black armed resistance in the United States.

But nearly five years later, right-wing pundits zeroed in on one quote, in which Curry mentioned the feeling among black freedom fighters that, in order for them to be free, "some white people may have to die." They ripped those six words out of the historical context of the interview and accused Curry himself of advocating for killing whites. Death threats started pouring in. 

Then, at the height of Texas A&M's graduation week on May 10, Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young admonished Curry in a statement to the student body and faculty.

"[Curry's 2012] interview features disturbing comments about race and violence that stand in stark contrast to [Texas A&M's] core values," Young wrote. "We stand against the advocacy of violence, hate and killing. We firmly commit to the success, not the destruction, of each other."

Curry did not mince words criticizing how the president handled the situation.

"To appease the ultra-right, [President Young] impugned my research, denied my academic freedom, and indicted the competence of every Black and Brown scholar employed by Texas A&M University who discusses, teaches, and publishes in the areas of race and racism, freedom movements, and civil rights," Curry said.

Curry is not the only black professor to face the ire of ultra-conservative media for comments about race in recent years. In 2015, conservative outlets ran stories claiming that Anthea Butler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, called Dr. Ben Carson a "coon" on Twitter. In reality, Butler tweeted an article about Carson that had the caption, "If only there was a 'coon of the year' award." That same year, conservatives on social media accused Boston University professor Saida Grundy of racism for asking why white Americans were so reluctant to label white college males a "problem population." Both professors are black women.

"This was a deliberate campaign," Curry said about the controversy stirred by his recording. "There is no way [this] five minute segment ... randomly resurfaced."

It's become apparent to Curry that he and his black, Latino and indigenous peers enjoy less academic freedom than their white counterparts. Where the work of white professors and intellectuals is often judged by their academic communities, Curry says, professors of color must often answer to the emotional outrage of a resistant white public.

"[Other] scholars are to be judged by the peers in their respective areas of specialization,"Curry said. "Black scholars are evaluated by the reaction various white publics, or in this case white nationalists, have to their scholarly research."

Curry is not alone in his concerns about the freedom afforded academics of color who are targeted by conservative media outlets. As of Tuesday, more than 1,000 members of the Texas A&M community have signed a statement supporting him on Change.org.

"[We] are deeply alarmed and saddened by President Young's decision to not support Dr. Curry in the face of these attacks," the statement read. "President Young's response has not only exacerbated the situation but has legitimized dangerous and harmful rhetoric against a Black professor at Texas A&M University."

Young declined Mic's request for comment.

Meanwhile, this is the second time Texas A&M has been embroiled in a "free speech" controversy ginned up by conservatives in recent months. In December, white nationalist Richard Spencer was invited by a private citizen to speak on the public university's campus, causing protests and controversy. An opposition event called "Aggies United" was held at the same time as Spencer's speech, and Young also rebuked the event, saying that Spencer's ideas were "just simply reprehensible and abhorrent." 

But the idea that Curry's historical lecture and Spencer's racist comments are comparably objectionable in Young's mind remains troubling to many students and faculty.

"Young threw aside my academic freedom and chose to embolden the racist attacks against me by suggesting my statements were reprehensible," Curry said. "These statements not only disregarded the standards of peer review amongst researchers, but disregards the very process of tenure and promotion at the university which he presides."

Curry told Mic he has not heard of any disciplinary action threatening his employment, and so, for the time being, his job appears to be safe. But that's not much consolation after being publicly dragged by his own institution.

"There is no other side to this story," Curry said. "My comments were taken out of context."