Reframing Racial Justice

by Anjalé D. Welton / Dec 13, 2016

Engaging one another in meaningful dialogue about issues of diversity is especially important considering the rise in overt racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and persecution of religious minorities on college campuses nationwide post the recent 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In response, the College of Education Dean’s Diversity Lecture Series provides a space in which the College and the larger University of Illinois campus community can reflect on timely issues of equity and justice. For the 2016-17 academic year the lecture series will feature seven speakers whose expertise spans across a varied set of topics on diversity and institutional change that are important for colleges and universities to consider.

On Thursday, December 1, Dr. Dian Squire, Visiting Assistant Professor in the student affairs program at Iowa State University, delivered the first campus lecture of the series titled Reframing Racial Justice: A Discussion on Plantation Politics, Neoracism, and Critical Race Tempered Radicalism. Dr. Squire helped attendees understand how the historical roots of racism and white supremacy are not simply history, but very much so a part of how college and universities operate today. While Dr. Squires presented a few theoretical tools to articulate this point, most compelling was his use of the concept of plantation politics as a metaphor to draw parallels between the cultural and organizational norms of plantation slavery and the way in which contemporary higher education operates today. Thus, Dr. Squire suggests that plantation politics can be a useful metaphor to

Define the ways in which the organization of a plantation society broads economic, religious, and social implications. Continues to inform the ways in which higher education as a system perpetuates white supremacy and racial hierarchies.

At certain points in his lecture Dr. Squire gave credit to music artists whose lyrics serve as a poignant observation and commentary on the effects of racism in society and education today. Also, Dr. Squire’s use of music lyrics made the theories he presented in his lecture more accessible and demonstrated that theoretical analysis isn’t simply reserved for academia but also is recognized by contemporary art, social media, and especially in music like hip-hop.  For example, to help further define the theory plantation politics, Dr. Squire used the following quote from hip-hop recording artist Common’s recent single “Black America Again”:

I know that Black lives matter and they matter to us
These are the things we gotta discuss
The new plantation, mass incarceration
Instead of educate, they’d rather convict the kids
As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is

Hence, Common in his song “connects education to the plantation” or considers education to be “a new plantation” (Dr. Dian Squire).

Historically plantation slavery referred to how the bodies and physical labor of Black people were used for profitable gain. However, in the “new plantation” of higher education economic and financial ill-treatment extends to not just Black people, but to a number of minoritized groups in various ways. One rationale for promoting a diverse campus student enrollment is that it fosters cross-cultural interactions and relationship building among students, faculty, and staff. Yet, Dr. Squire argues that the democratic principles behind increasing enrollment of students of color often get overshadowed by competitive, market-oriented, and economic drivers like bolstering university rankings, publicity purposes, and tuition revenue.  Dr. Squire further articulated concern for how the economic rationale for diversity affects the “increase of international students on campus and the purposes of those increases” and in turn how the “increase of international students is higher education’s way of commodifying bodies of color only to produce and reproduce an academic capitalist knowledge regime.” Therefore, analogous to plantation slavery’s use of Black bodies for profit, from a capitalist perspective international student enrollment is seen as an economic gain for colleges and universities. 

The increase of international student enrollment at colleges and universities nationwide is a discussion that especially resonates with the University of Illinois, as we have one of the largest international student populations among public universities nationwide. Debates over our university’s capacity to provide academic as well as social-emotional support for international students as their enrollment continues to rise has not only drawn local attention (Des Garennes, 2014) but national (Redden, 2015) as well. Similar to the issues raised in Dr. Squire’s lecture, some of the discourse among our campus community questions whether the university’s intention behind increasing international student enrollment is a financial one. Moreover, how does this increase in international students inversely impact our land-grant mission to support domestic student enrollment, especially for African-American students, whose enrollment at one point in 2014 dropped to below 5 percent.  

In two separate activities during his lecture Dr. Squire gave audience members an opportunity to dialogue with one another to reflect on how plantation politics unfolds in their daily lives. In conclusion, as homework discuss with your campus community members some of the same questions Dr. Squire asked of us to consider:

  • What does a focus on slave plantations and plantation politics teach us about the significance of Black people and Black labor on university campuses?
  • What are important supports international students need to be successful?
  • How do these campus resources describe international students and their experiences, and how does that compare to the lived reality of international students? How do you know?

I encourage you to watch the video of Dr. Squire's lecture and to join us in the spring semester, when the Dean’s Diversity Lecture Series will feature the following five dynamic speakers.


  • Common (2016). Black America Again. On Black America Again (Mp3). New York, New York: Def Jam Recordings.
  • Des Garennes, C. (2014, October 12). Prescription for Disaster. The News-Gazette. 
  • Redden, E. (2015, January 7). The University of China at Illinois. Inside Higher Ed.