Antiracism, Social Justice, and the California Faculty Association

It’s nice to not all be white.
By Charles Toombs

Before the COVID-19 global pandemic, before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and before the summer of 2020 with its many protests and public statements calling on this nation to grapple with its practices of systemic racism and inequity, the California Faculty Association (CFA) had already begun its own racial reckoning. CFA, an AAUP-affiliated union that represents twenty-nine thousand faculty members in the California State University system—including tenured and tenure-track faculty as well as faculty lecturers, counselors, librarians, and coaches—took definitive action to address internal practices, policies, and processes that uphold white supremacy culture, white privilege, white fragility, and whiteness. We began a transformation predicated on inclusion, racial and ethnic equity, social justice, and the eradication of systemic inequities. CFA moved to ground all of its work in the principles of antiracism and social justice. We acknowledged that we did many things well as a union: bargaining fair contracts and addressing other bread-and-butter issues; supporting our students, the majority of whom are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC) and first-generation; advocating for legislative and budgetary changes; and engaging with the community, to name just a few. But we knew we could do better.

We also knew that BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ members often shared with union leaders their dire experiences dealing with institutional racism on our twenty-three campuses. Through our identity caucuses, housed under what was then called the Council for Affirmative Action (now the Council for Racial and Social Justice), we heard the stories of how these members bore the brunt of systemic racism and white supremacy culture and its practices at every step of their careers, in every aspect of their working conditions, and in their interactions with colleagues, administrators, staff, and sometimes even students. Their experiences in CFA, where whiteness and white supremacy culture dominated, were also problematic. Even to be a BIPOC officer or other member leader did not mean one was included in key decision-making; some of us may have been at the table, but our voices were not heard—perhaps, and this is being generous, they were slightly tolerated. Some of us knew that hearing about the experiences of these members was not enough for a union that represents all of the faculty. We could and must do more. Easier said than done.

For AAUP chapters wanting to organize around racial justice and undertake significant internal transformation, some straightforward and honest questions must be asked. Where should you begin? The chapter’s leadership must assess itself. Who makes decisions? Are they made in open forums, or are real decisions made in small private group meetings and then presented to others as a done deal? Is the chapter’s leadership white? Male? Do such demographics represent the racial, ethnic, and gender demographics of the faculty and student body? Who controls the chapter’s financial resources? What measures are in place to use such resources to promote antiracism and social justice? What plan is in place to bring BIPOC leaders into chapter work? What are the initial challenges to becoming a more racially inclusive chapter? What can chapters do to recruit new members to help in this transformational work?

In CFA, BIPOC officers, member leaders, and activists decided to push for change. As a starting point, we resolved that our union must be better, or working toward being better, than the CSU in dealing with systemic racism, the lack of real inclusion, and inequity. We had to be better ourselves to have an unobstructed vision of what change might look like in the CSU system to improve the working conditions of our members. These BIPOC leaders knew that many of our white leaders were not aware of how their leadership practices and policies supported and sustained white supremacy culture or how they were both the problem and (potentially) the solution.

Centering Antiracism

As a union we could not begin this transformation by ourselves. We needed outside help, experts who could look at our organization objectively, to help all of us see that, though we are a union, we have not escaped white supremacy culture and systemic inequity; we are no different from other organizations and institutions in this country. Chapter leaders presented to the CFA’s board of directors a request to approve funding for antiracism and social justice training with a national consulting group specializing in this work. In 2016, the board of directors approved funding, and the training of leaders and staff began. We divided into five cohorts for the training, which included officers, members of the board of directors, council leaders, caucus chairs, committee chairs, directors (managers), professional and support staff, and chapter presidents. The training consisted of three all-day meetings spaced out over several months; attendance at all three sessions was required. These training sessions were intense, difficult, and painful, as we all worked through the racial narratives that support and give credence to institutional and systemic oppression, discrimination, and racism in our nation, in California, and in the CSU. White members and staff had to acknowledge the benefits and power conferred upon them by white privilege and recognize the need to create space for nonwhite voices to be heard and included in decision-making. The most significant outcome of the training was the collective decision to center antiracism and social justice in our work and to make the changes necessary for that to occur. (More information about how CFA moved to center antiracism and social justice can be found in Journey toward a More Perfect Union: Dismantling Racism—Becoming Anti-racist, a 2020 book by Cecil Canton, a past vice president of CFA’s Council for Racial and Social Justice.)

Working together, CFA members changed our union’s bylaws, adding an explicit commitment to antiracism and social justice to its core mission: “The Association shall seek . . . to promote racial and social justice and thereby challenge systems of racial oppression and social inequity.” We expanded opportunities for members from underrepresented groups to hold positions on the board of directors by adding a second associate vice president for racial and social justice, two additional representatives from the Council of Lecturers, and two additional representatives from the Council for Racial and Social Justice; these changes gave the two councils together four representatives, the same number as the Council of Chapter Presidents. We also created a position for a director of antiracism and social justice. Currently, seven of ten elected officers are people of color; six of the ten are women. Our board of directors and staff, at all levels, are equally diverse.

We also developed antiracism and social justice principles to guide our work; these include the following statement: “We are a strong social justice organization but we can be stronger; we acknowledge that even WE in CFA are a part of the problem; we acknowledge that WE can be a part of the solution by being intentionally committed to addressing it; we engage in courageous conversations about racism and discrimination, in order to transform our union; we adopt changes in organizational values, policies and practices consistent with principles of antiracism and social justice.” To uphold these principles, we instituted a policy that any meeting can be interrupted when we experience examples of the racial narratives that underlie white supremacy or other manifestations of systemic racism, and these interruptions take place from an intersectional position. We have developed workshops on unconscious bias, interrupting, and privilege that CFA presents on all twenty-three CSU campuses as a part of ongoing training and education. New staff and new member leaders receive antiracism and social justice training. Our research and communications work, our government relations work, our representation work, our bargaining work, our community engagement work, and all other aspects of our work are viewed through an antiracist and social justice lens.

Racial Justice Victories

Because CFA’s work is guided by antiracism and social justice, it is easier for us to immediately address ongoing systemic racism and racist events as they occur, without unnecessary debate among ourselves. Our antiracist values are apparent both in the lobbying campaigns we have undertaken and in our union’s work within the CSU.

CFA was the original sponsor of Assembly Bill 1460, a bill that requires all CSU students to take at least one three-unit course in ethnic studies prior to graduation. Assembly member Shirley Weber, a former professor and chair of Africana studies at San Diego State University, who is now California’s secretary of state, introduced the bill because the CSU had failed for several years to follow the recommendations of its own ethnic studies task force to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. It is rare for the legislature to become involved in such curricular matters. Although the vast majority of CSU students are BIPOC, ethnic studies faculty, departments, and programs have long been institutionally neglected. CFA organized and waged one of its strongest lobbying campaigns to ensure that all CSU students received a twenty-first-century education that included learning about resistance to racism as well as the history, culture, and achievements of people of color. Ethnic studies programs had struggled for more than fifty years for full inclusion in higher education. The time to act was now.

Of course, this was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that legislative actions to advance racial and social justice are needed when institutions fail to act on their own. The CSU fought to defeat AB 1460 at every step of the way during the two-year legislative process, but the bill passed both legislative houses and Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law in August 2020. Its results are already apparent: campuses are adding new tenured faculty lines in ethnic studies, existing ethnic studies programs are being made independent departments, and some of the smaller CSU campuses are getting ethnic studies programs for the first time in their history. The bill’s passage is an achievement for our students, who will graduate with knowledge and perspectives that will enable them to be fair and just leaders in their careers and professions. It is also groundbreaking, making the CSU—the largest public four-year institution in the country—the first university system to require an ethnic studies course for graduation.

CFA’s other recent legislative advocacy is equally important. During the summer of 2020, CFA issued “Anti-Black Racism Demands,” a response to the police murders of George Floyd and too many other Black people. We demanded specifically that there be no militarization of campus police or racial profiling of faculty and students and that our campuses avoid overreliance on police and instead seek other ways to address safety issues, such as by hiring more mental health counselors and trained specialists to deal with noncriminal matters. Campus police are often called by white campus employees for noncriminal incidents involving Black faculty, students, and staff.

Police reform in California must go well beyond the campuses; it must also include our students’ communities. Far too many of our students and their family members and friends have been mistreated, harassed, unjustifiably arrested, physically harmed, or even killed by the police. To begin to address this crisis, CFA sponsored several police-reform bills that the governor has signed into law: Assembly Bill 89—the PEACE Act—requires the office of the chancellor of the California community colleges to develop a modern policing degree program and increases the minimum age for police officers to twenty-one; AB 490, also known as Angelo’s Law—named after thirty-year-old Angelo Quinto, an Asian American Californian who died after police knelt on his neck—prohibits any law enforcement agency from using restraints that cause positional asphyxia; AB 1196 bans any type of chokehold; Senate Bill 2 creates a statewide decertification process for bad-acting police officers, preventing them from moving from one state agency to another after being fired for serious misconduct; and AB 48—introduced after police shot a teen in the face with rubber bullets during protests following the police murder of George Floyd—prohibits the use of kinetic-energy projectiles or chemical agents by police to disperse any type of assembly, protest, or demonstration.

CFA has also sought to address policing in bargaining. We put forward a proposal that calls on campuses to have in place an ombudsperson to deal with noncriminal conflicts and disputes between faculty. During CFA’s 2021 fall assembly, delegates passed a “Resolution to Protect Labor against Police Associations” with the following language: “RESOLVED, that the California Faculty Association declares BLACK LIVES MATTER; and be it further RESOLVED, that we assert that police associations stand in opposition to basic union principles; and be it further RESOLVED, that it is inhumane to provide space for affiliates that protect the murderers of the loved ones of other delegates and members; and be it further RESOLVED, that the California Faculty Association joins Black Lives Matter in its call to #EndPoliceAssociations; and be it further RESOLVED, that we ask our fellow unions to join us in this demand.”

CFA also used an antiracist and social justice lens in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Way Forward, a document issued in two volumes, addresses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on faculty working conditions. Volume 1 was initially planned as a set of guidelines to defend quality higher education and lay out conditions for a potential return to campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A year later, we released volume 2 to track our work, what we have accomplished, what still must be done, and what is particularly challenging and will require significant organizing. This latter volume serves as both a health and safety doctrine for repopulating campuses during and after the pandemic and a reimagining of a more inclusive campus amid the corporatization of higher education and the continuing pandemic of systemic and structural racism that plagues our society. In volume 2, we also draw connections between our demands and our bargaining proposals, which highlight how we give priority to antiracism and social justice in the workplace. For example, we put forward bargaining proposals to address bias in student evaluations; to acknowledge and mitigate the cultural taxation of BIPOC faculty, who bear additional burdens in mentoring and service; to increase parental leave; to implement five-year contracts and automatic salary range elevation for lecturer faculty; to implement multiyear contracts for coaches; and to establish pathways to tenure for lecturer faculty.

To move your organization toward using an antiracist and social justice lens requires courage, challenging work, and commitment and intention. Inclusion and equity are well worth the effort. Dismantling the wrongs of systemic racism is well worth the effort. Creating a more democratic organization is well worth the effort. Although there is much work for all of us to do, there is also love and joy in doing it.

Charles Toombs is professor of Africana studies at San Diego State University, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and president of the California Faculty Association.