Dr. Tommy J. Curry is a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. His groundbreaking research and writing have earned him awards and publications, and a recent promotion to full Professor at the University (a milestone in A&M history). Despite this, a glaring contradiction from within occurred at the University, and Curry, an expert writer on the discrimination and oppression that Black men face, found himself experiencing both for the research on such topics that earned him this rank. In the following interview, Tommy Curry discusses the events he experienced when the far right targeted him, as an academic and as an individual, for daring to discuss his research as a Black scholar.
WN: What has been the context of this recent turn of events in your career. This all stemmed from a podcast? How did this all happen?
TC: Back in 2012 and 2013, I was a regular guest on Rob Redding’s show on Sirius XM. On that show, I did a five-minute segment entitled “Talking Tough with Tommy” that focused on issues of race and racism. My audience were Black Americans, so the tone of my segment addressed exactly the kind of experiences and questions that Black people had to deal with under Obama. The rise of unemployment, poverty, incarceration, police brutality and white vigilantism. The segment in question was on Jamie Foxx’s role of Django, which was a popular movie that came out in that year. In that segment, I talk about how Django was represented as a kind of fantasy, where Jamie Foxx said he enjoyed having the opportunity to kill white people who were responsible for enslaving Black people, and as you know back then, as today, there was a huge uproar and conservative backlash where Jamie Foxx was being condemned and being associated with racial hatred, anti-white racism, this type of thing. And in that regard, I said “Listen, this is ridiculous. Black people have historically utilized violence to revolt, as in the slave revolt. We see examples like Nat Turner, we see examples of slave revolt throughout South America, especially Venezuela. But outside of slave revolts we also see Black people using violence in the Civil Rights Movement, we see Black people taking up arms and leading themselves against white vigilantes, against the Klan, against the police, who wanted to intimidate and kill civil rights protesters.”
So I was suggesting that the right to kill white people, or the ability to kill white people, are solidly based in the idea that, historically, Black people have utilized violence as a way to strengthen themselves against white violence in this country. During that podcast, there was a piece where I said “Listen, if we’re going to have arguments about violence, we have to look at it in these historical terms. We have Black people debating with each other about nonviolence versus only self-defense versus turning the other cheek. So you have to look at it within the context of the debate going on during that period of time.” So there were some Black people who believed that in order to be free, some white people had to die. Other Black people believe that if you suffer enough, this is kind of the extreme Gandhi approach, if you suffer enough, eventually white people will realize their own humanity. This was the kind of debate between people like the Black Panther Party or Robert F Williams, and people like Martin Luther King and the SCLC. Those debates contextualized how Black people saw their political fight in the United States.
The alt-right declared this as, by me discussing Black focuses and Black civil rights, that this was somehow me advocating for violence against white people. That’s totally not the case in any of my publications. This wasn’t me going off on Twitter. This wasn’t a Facebook post. This was me stating things I’ve written about and published in reviews of my research over the last five or six years. So this was an attack on my academic freedom. They targeted me as a Black professor. One interviewer said that someone told him about me, and he sought me out and tried to expose my views of race on campus. So this was a targeted character assassination, and this was a targeted controversy by the alt-right that sought to make me an example of what they try to do to all Black professors teaching on race and race relations in the university.
WN: What has the response looked like? You’ve mentioned death threats in the past?
TC: Yes, I’ve received lots of death threats. About 40 or 60 of them. I have had to leave town, for fear of my safety. It’s been a very stressful time. The University, as of yet, has denied my request for leave, given that I’m still receiving threats, and that there are planned protests and demonstrations, and posts on boards from people trying to intimidate me, saying they would meet me outside of my classroom. These types of things have been announced that they’re being planned for the fall semester, and my university has offered me no part of protection or leave on that basis.
WN: Has the University offered you any kind of support?
TC: No. Not since the initial two weeks, when they coordinated with police officers, but as of yet, I have not received any plan for my protection. Aside from the original letter, the University has made no official response. I have not been contacted by anyone at the University, nor has anyone apologized. This was an attack on me by the alt-right on my academic freedom, but I’ve received nothing from them.
WN: Have you had any strong supporters or organizational action?
TC: Yes. I’ve received letters of support from various associations, I’ve received endorsements and I recently won an award for public philosophy from the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. There’s been a number of organizations for philosophy that have offered support, but what has not happened is a reflection of that in the administration. My colleagues have supported my academic freedom, but the administration has been pretty silent and lacked support for the type of work that I do, despite the fact that I am the first and youngest Black philosopher to earn the rank of full professor in the history of the department. I am the first Black full professor in the department of philosophy, and they’ve chosen to frame the work that they recently tenured me and given me full for, as somehow reprehensible and contrary to the values of Texas A&M.
So, I find it interesting that you’re willing to extend the rank of full professor, which is the highest rank that you can give someone in the university after endowed chairs, and simultaneously distance yourself from the research that I was just promoted for. The dates behind things were uncanny. I received a letter for my promotion to full on May 8. The letter sent out by the president, suggesting that my research and my views were reprehensible, was sent out on May 10. So there is a stark contradiction that is based purely on racism at Texas A&M. I think that the reaction that you get from the administration alone clearly demonstrates that the board and the alumni association are sympathizers with the alt-right message, and that they’re targeting minority professors who believe that they can have opinions in the university.
Black and brown men are among the most underrepresented in the university. This puts a face on the type of discrimination that Black males face, because the stereotype in this is that of an angry, militant Black male who is dangerous to white people and dangerous to white lives, and he has to be eliminated and fired. The way that this is going suggests that there is no remedy when discussing this with administrations, because administrations have started an affair with the alt-right and declared war on minority faculty.
WN: So you have noticed the far and alt-right directly steering this conflict?
TC: In my case, this story has only been mentioned on alt right and white supremacist websites. The Daily Caller, the Daily Stormer, et cetera. There has been no reputable journalistic source that has reported on my case in a negative way. That has completely been isolated to alt-right and white supremacist publications. People laugh when Black and minority professors say that the world is white supremacist and academia is white supremacist, but what other explanation is there in a world where white supremacists are the audience and driving the propaganda behind how minorities are treated in major universities? The administrations are listening to white supremacist publications about the status of research that minority faculty composed. If that’s the case, what is the point of having a PhD if anybody with a blog can decide what is or is not a reputable idea?
WN: And if these negative opinions of your work are only coming from the alt-right, and the blogs of white supremacists, there’s nowhere else where the administration could have heard it. Right?
TC: Exactly. There is no other story here. For them to believe this, they have to value what white supremacist and alt right publications are saying about the work of tenured professors. Our department has been around for 65-70 years, and in that period of time, it’s taken until 2017 for a Black person to receive the rank of full professor. So that’s what Texas A&M values. They value the voices and opinions of white supremacists over the historical milestone that finally got a Black professor to the rank of full. Please understand that I achieved this in six years. Generally, it takes about six or seven years to go from Assistant to Associate Professor, but in that period of time, I went from Assistant to full. I’ve published books, written 60 articles, I’ve had chairs, I’ve had awards, and even with that the argument is “He’s still Black, so we can use any kind of publication, even just a white supremacist blog, to discredit his life’s work.”
WN: Has anything positive come out of this?
TC: No, not really. I think when this happens, it’s an attack on your career and your character. If the university where you have tenure suggests that these things are OK, that they can intimidate you to quit your job, it’s part of the negligence saying “We don’t want to deal with the alt-right and we don’t really want Black professors at our university, so it’s easier if we can just get this guy to quit.”
WN: Because then they won’t look like they fired you for being Black?
TC: Exactly. Because if they tried to fire me, then they would break tenure. I just did what I was hired to do. So the attempt is to drive me out.
WN: Are you planning to stay on?
TC: As of now, yes. But with this type of thing going on, it really does show how horrible it is to be a minority in the university, and how dangerous it is to be a minority male. Some types that associate Black men and other racialized men with danger, to themselves and to other members of society, really resonate within the minds of administrators at research institutions. They’re outraged by the idea that a Black person might ever think they should kill white people, but have no outrage whatsoever against the history of violence and suicide victimizing people of color and indigenous people since white people colonized them. It is ridiculous. This is what it is like to be a minority under Trump. These incidents will continue to happen. We’re moving back into a period of time when being a Black academic or a racialized minority in the university is an extremely dangerous occupation. People are threatening our lives because of our research. People are threatening our jobs because of our research. People believe if we think anything differently than what white people think we should think, we should not be employed. That is exactly what tenure was created to protect: our ability to have these kinds of thoughts and to have them even amidst the most conservative, repressive conditions.
WN: Does it seem to you like academic freedom and freedom of discourse are being erased?
TC: Yes. Exactly. We are going back in time. The University thinks the intimidation by the alt-right and its alumni will do the job for them. This is what the world is.
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