When Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and author of “Between the World and Me,” came to Temple earlier in the semester to speak about race, inequality and contemporary oppression, he left us with a lot to think about.
In response to a question about the Oct. 21 mob attacks on Temple students, which occurred just a few days before the author came to speak, Coates asked the audience an important question: “What is the relationship with the community?”
Perhaps, the university’s relationship is best defined through a term that Coates writes about: plunder.
“I see [plunder] as the systemic consumption and destruction of bodies,” said Linda Chavers, an Intellectual Heritage professor who teaches about plunder and assigns Coates’ book as a required reading. “And how themes, ideas are used, recycled, reused, subverted in order to exercise power, steal power.”
In his talk, Coates used the word “plunder” to describe the institutions of racism that have severely impacted the lives of people of color. He defines plunder as a process of exploiting bodies and populations, often with a racial motivation.
Students and the university need to recognize how Temple commits plunder in the form of gentrification in the North Philadelphia community. Only through this recognition can systems of plunder be reversed. Programming in both the IH program and history department will include courses focused specifically on plunder in Spring 2017, and I think that’s a step in the right direction.
“What we want to do is take a set of classes that will loosely fit in the notion of plunder, and let students run with it,” said Bryant Simon, a history professor, who helped create the seven-course series related to plunder.
As members of the Temple community, we need to acknowledge the plunder we are complicit in as rapid university development continues, and tensions remained strained between students and residents.
“We need to acknowledge plunder,” said Elizabeth Alvarez, an IH professor. “It is present in our society, whether we are trying to close our eyes to it or not.”
Residents are pushed out of homes they have lived in due to rising property values, and houses that may have once been available to families are rented out to college students.
“To some extent, by being displaced, by being physically moved out, ultimately that’s where you get into gentrification issues,” said Conrad Weiler, an associate professor of political science. “It’s been happening in [North Philly] for the past 50 years.”
For those who can afford to remain in the community, they must deal with raising children and living in areas dominated by college students, who are not always the most considerate of their neighbors.
“In some ways, I can see how students would see Temple as their own site to plunder,” Chavers said. “Because the message from the university is to come here, get your degree and be out.”
And the proposed on-campus stadium is the university’s most recent intent of plunder, which would cause more concerns for residents, like the presence of traffic, trash and rowdy fans in their neighborhoods.
This type of large-scale development benefits the student population at the expense of the surrounding community. Temple continually treats the surrounding neighborhood as a source of an intrusion and works to separate itself from the community.
“If Temple University were to build a wall so that they can actually reflect how they act when it comes to its relationship with the community, then they should,” Chavers said. “Because that would at least be more honest and transparent.”
For students to better communicate with North Philadelphia residents and fight systems of plunder, they need to learn about plunder in the classroom.
“It’s definitely not enough to teach plunder in Mosaics,” Alvarez said. “That will not be sufficient for really grappling plunder. That needs to happen in other classes.”
Students need to learn about the role of plunder in our nation’s history and society before they are able to recognize the hyperlocal plunder that exists around them.
It’s time for Temple to acknowledge the plunder that’s happening at our very doorstep and give students of all majors the tools to understand and reverse systems of plunder in our community.
Alex Voisine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.