- Introduction: Interethnicity:From Cultural Appropriation to Horizontal Comradeship
For the past decade or so—since the election of the United States' first black president and the rise of the Tea Party to more recent standoffs between "Bernie bros," Black Lives Matter protesters, and the altright—it has been impossible for me, an Americanist who obsessively reads the newspaper, not to think that our nation has reached a fever pitch in a new set of culture wars, ones that hark back to, and in some cases reproduce, older conversations about the utility of identity politics. As a Midwesterner, though, I am unused to being near the center of so many of these conversations: those of us in the middle have been here geographically, to be sure, but have long been considered residents of a relatively inconsequential region, one commonly represented as rather unremarkable and undesirable. It is a place where the diversity of our politics, our demographics, and our intellectual and cultural productions has, as a result, occasionally gone unacknowledged and unnoticed. This is the understated region where I was born, where critique is often made via the affectations of a flaccid "Midwestern nice" and which I have called home—admittedly, sometimes begrudgingly—for most of my adult life and nearly all of my academic career. This is the place—traditionally comprising bellwether and battleground states—which has increasingly become, instead [End Page 7] of a forgettable flyover country, the seat of ideological tugs-of-war. We in the Midwest have seen the curtailing of collective bargaining rights and the institution of right-to-work laws in states that were formerly union strongholds. We have seen our suburbs become flashpoints of rebellion against police violence and hearts of the Black Lives Matter movement. We have seen our votes determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Whether on the left or the right, we are, to the surprise of many, central.
When we think of universities as sites of ideological debate, we may be tempted to first think of coastal campuses like the University of California at Berkeley, home to the free speech movement, a hotbed of political protest throughout the 1960s, and a thorn in the side of California's then-governor, Ronald Reagan. More recently, UC Berkeley has again become a symbol for free speech controversies—this time, for the radical right, after the cancellation of Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos's campus appearance due to safety concerns and property damage by antifascist protestors. But here in the Midwest, our universities have also always been places for ideological debate—and such debates have received even more attention from those outside our campuses during these reinvigorated culture wars.
Indeed, many of the public universities throughout the region served by the Midwest Modern Language Association—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin—have suffered extreme cuts in state support. Sometimes, as at the University of Missouri, this has dovetailed with student activism and the public perception that free speech is being curtailed on campus. Our flagships have become increasingly tuition-dependent—or dependent on complex entanglements with corporations. At the same time, our Midwestern college-aged population has dropped, and many of our public universities have come to rely on the tuition dollars of students from out-of-state and from other nations, some of whom are not given the tools they need to succeed academically on our campuses. Furthermore, our campuses with missions to serve regional and local populations have eliminated positions, instituted hiring freezes, and, in some cases—like Chicago State University—nearly been shuttered. Like graduate students elsewhere in the country, ours continue to face uncertain futures as we have, in many cases, failed to transform our doctoral programs [End Page 8] to accommodate the realities of the academic job market by either decreasing the supply of PhDs or increasing the portability of advanced degrees—particularly in the humanities—to other professional careers. Our staff members, such as those at the University of Michigan, have been laid off and centralized. Our IT departments and dining halls have been outsourced and privatized. With all these forces shaping the lives of...