Why Does Campus Activism Tend to Ignore International Injustices?

Campus activism has repeatedly captured national attention in recent years, on issues ranging from racism and cultural appropriation to sexual assault to divestment from fossil fuels and private prisons. Yet the focuses of campus activism rarely extend to injustices faced by people beyond the United States’ borders. Even on issues that could easily relate to international populations, campus activists have tended to use American-centered frames. Fossil fuel divestment and climate change activism focuses far more on the future costs it will impose on college students like themselves than the far greater costs poor countries will face. Debates over immigration center on those like the DREAMers who are already in the country rather than those who have not been able to get in. This is not to say that the causes campus activists have tended to focus on are not valuable, and they also tend to be much more strategically accessible than international issues. However, given the massive scale of injustices beyond American borders, international issues deserve more than a peripheral role in campus activism.

One reason campus activists have often overlooked international issues is that campus activism is heavily influenced by a brand of progressive identity politics that has struggled to incorporate international issues. This is not meant as a critique of identity politics. I generally buy the argument that all politics is identity politics, and the term identity politics is applied when the identities in question are not the dominant ones. The trend towards identity politics has played a valuable role in bringing the voices of women and racial and sexual minorities to the fore. The problem is that when the emphasis is on personal experience and allowing those affected by issues to speak for themselves, if the affected person is not present, their voice is much less likely to be heard. For the issues of immigration and climate change mentioned above, DREAMers are on campuses, those who have not been able to get into the US are not; American millennials who will be affected by climate change are on campuses, subsistence farmers whose crops failed this year due to climate change are not. Beyond the idea of letting marginalized populations speak for themselves, it is simply far more likely people will be motivated about an injustice they themselves face than one distant strangers face. This problem is further exacerbated by the struggle of progressives to achieve a unified vision of foreign policy, instead relying on much more coherent ideas on domestic social and economic policy.

A second reason for the scant attention to international issues is the fact that the goals of campus activism are almost always local. In other words, the target is for the university to do something differently. Fossil fuel divestment wants the college to divest its own endowment from fossil fuels, the Missouri protests demanded the removal of Timothy Wolfe as university President, and protests around sexual assault tend to demand that colleges redesign their own sexual assault policies and adjudication mechanisms. While undoubtedly these campaigns are debates about racism, climate change, and sexual assault, their demands are about the college. Even in South Africa, where student protests have made the ANC look vulnerable and even raised questions on whether the idea of a “born free” generation is a false dawn, the issues in question have been a university’s statue of Cecil Rhodes and a rise in university fees. In the US context, international issues lend themselves far less easily to targeting university policies. In part this is related to the question of presence mentioned above; students will experience racism, sexism, and homophobia (this is not an exhaustive list) linked to campus policies, but the victims of campus policies abroad are not present. Yet the larger, and in many ways legitimate, reason international issues struggle to get on the agenda of campus activists is that campus policies are significantly more influential on domestic politics than international ones, meaning there are far fewer targets available to activists focusing on international issues.

While internationally-focused campus activism has rarely hit the heights of domestically-focused activism, the cases that have gained prominence have managed to find ways around at least one of the challenges presented by the difficulty of fitting international issues into progressive identity politics and finding a local target. Likely the most high-profile current case is BDS. By focusing on divesting endowments and colleges abstaining from purchasing Israeli goods, BDS has found an easy target. It has also managed to fit the Palestinian struggle into an anti-racist and anti-Islamophobia frame that has salience with young progressive audiences, as well as benefiting from the fact that Israel-Palestine is a particularly personal issue for many students.  While not as prominent, efforts to divest from Sudan and conflict-free campus efforts have targeted university endowments and spending. And while they have faded in recent years, anti-sweatshop movements targeted campus spending and aligned themselves with conventional progressive anti-corporate sentiment. Looking further back at likely the most successful case of campus activism on international issues, anti-apartheid activists had an easy target in university endowments and an issue of racial injustice that Americans could relate to. Last, while campus activism is often the way young people engage with activism, it should not be considered synonymous to youth activism as a whole, and there have cases of international issues mobilizing large numbers of young people without being campus-focused, like Save Darfur and Kony 2012 (successful in terms of its mobilization, not its atrocious marketing and policies). STAND, the organization I am heavily involved with, has engaged in both campus activism and broader youth activism.

When looking at the potential avenues for campus activism to pursue international issues, endowment spending is the most likely target. As fossil fuel divestment and BDS grow there will certainly be more extensive conversations about when it is appropriate to use endowment spending for social good, but divestment is a tried and trusted strategy of campus activism that can be adapted to a wide range of causes. Invited speakers, campus monuments and naming decisions, curricula, and research relationships with outside actors also all provide platforms to examine broader international issues, though they will inevitably run into questions of academic freedom and free speech. One issue that seems strategically promising is that of the military-industrial complex. Universities have policies that can be targeted, especially through endowment spending.  Furthermore, similarly to the issue of climate change and fossil fuel divestment, the consequences fall primarily on people outside the U.S., but the massive military spending that is then unavailable for domestic issues give students a personal stake in the issue.

Still, many international issues are simply going to be more difficult to pursue through campus activism than domestic ones, but this does not mean activists should not make the extra effort. I think it is rarely productive to argue which causes are more worthy than others, yet in a world where a mindboggling number of people live in poverty, tens of millions are affected by brutal violent conflicts, and much of the world- particularly women- lack their most basic human rights, international issues undoubtedly deserve a seat at the table. It is true that the scale of a problem is rarely proportional to our (in this case meaning college students) ability to solve it, and in many ways we have more influence over domestic issues than international ones. However, given the enormous scale of injustices beyond American borders and the fact that we certainly do have influence, especially given Western implication in many of these injustices, the efforts of campus activists on international issues can certainly play a significant role in limiting injustice, though activists should take caution of the risks of causing unintentional consequences.

And while the good that can be done by campus activists achieving their direct targets is significant, there are two indirect benefits of campus activism that are arguably even more important. First, as seen by the glut of thinkpieces on free speech and political correctness on campuses, campus activism attracts significant coverage from the national media, and this attention is just as much about the underlying social and political issues as the campaigns themselves. By bringing these debates to national attention, campus activism forces discussions and progress that would not otherwise take place. Coverage of the Missouri protests focused far more on racism and issues such as microaggressions than Timothy Wolfe, fossil fuel divestment is aimed at creating broader political will for addressing climate change, and attention on campus sexual assault has played a central role in creating norms of consent that stretch well beyond the college adjudication processes activism tends to focus on. We need to have these national discussions on international issues, too. Second, campus activists can have influence long after they have left college. For most it is as more informed and active citizens, but focusing on a cause in a particularly formative time means that many go on to have careers in the field. Fossil fuel divestment is already having this effect, with many activists going on to careers related to climate change and the environment and where they will be more educated on the issue, motivated to create change, and skilled as activists. We need students who will go on to fight against excessively aggressive and militaristic foreign policy, unfair trade, genocide and mass atrocities, and many more issues affecting huge segments of humanity. The people suffering from these injustices might be distant from American colleges, but that doesn’t mean they should be left off the agenda.