State auditor Shad White in a lather over a university prof’s “strike” for racial justice

September 16, 2020

If you don’t know this story, you should. Take a look –

So University of Mississippi sociology professor James Thomas engaged in a two-day, largely symbolic “Scholar Strike” – a national effort in U.S. higher ed – in solidarity with the movement for racial justice. In response, Mississippi’s state auditor, Shad White, wants Thomas fired for violating state law prohibiting state employees from striking. He also wants the state’s money back for Thomas’ two days of non-work. Said White: “Strikes and concerted work stoppages are illegal in Mississippi. Mr. Thomas cannot be paid for the days he did not work. Also, the penalty for striking is termination. The law is the law. He cannot act as if he is above the law.”

White’s position is outrageous on several grounds; here are just two:

1. Thomas is a tenured professor; termination for briefly withholding his labor as part of a conscientious action is a direct assault on the institution of tenure itself – an institution which developed in large measure precisely to protect faculty taking unpopular political positions.

2. The confrontation with systemic racism – highlighted but certainly not limited to police violence against black Americans – is the leading social crisis agitating the U.S. today. Mississippi universities have joined in voicing outspoken support for the racial justice movement. Terminating Thomas would make a mockery of such commitments.

Trying to discipline Dr. Thomas is, moreover, a politically risky, if not downright stupid, move. To the extent that White’s intention is to inhibit “strike” and “solidarity”-oriented behavior by faculty at state institutions, trying to terminate Thomas is likely to prompt exactly an opposite reaction. The Thomas case might well turn rapidly into a cause celebre. Far from squelching faculty organizing activity, punitive action will inspire it.

With luck, more sensitive and seasoned leaders will succeed in enlightening our ambitiously hard-right state auditor on the error of his ways.

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