Washington State Rising

Marc Arsell Robinson’s “Washington State Rising:Black Power on Campus in the Pacific Northwest” (NYU Press August 2023) is an academic study of the rise of Black Student Union’s in the 1960s at two of Washington State’s public universities: the University of Washington (Seattle) and Washing State University (Pullman). As Robinson states, these institutions exist in very different spaces – even today – one urban and the other rural. By choosing these two different institutions, Robinson is able to tell a contrasting story – one that also shows the very different populations and politics of the two sides of the Cascades. I grew up in Washington State – born in Seattle, we moved to the “Tri-Cities” in Eastern Washington when I was very young. It was a move from green and rain and people to desert and empty spaces and fewer people. As I read Robinson’s study I felt memory shift and rise to the fore. A white girl growing up in a white space I was more aware of difference of poverty than race but I was told by a half-Asian classmate not to play with the “Indian” kids at our school. I didn’t listen – it was hard enough to find kids to play with. I was – as is the case with many white kids – unaware of the racist oppression all around me other than what I heard from my politically progressive parents. The town we lived in had been a “sundown town” until the mid-1960s and I never met a Black person until we moved back West of the mountains. Reading Robinson’s detailed account of the racist harassment and attacks enacted on Black students in Pullman came as no surprise. What was surprising was the history of the rise of the Black Student Union at WSU – a school that even today has some 800 Black students versus 18,000 white students. These seems to tell a narrative that at WSU at least, the work of the BSU (Black Student Union) was unsuccessful but the demographics may have more to do with WSU’s location. On the border with Idaho, WSU still has the reputation of being an “Ag” school full of locals who are mostly white. Coming back to Robinson’s text – I was disappointed in the failure to move beyond the rote academic structure and language into what could be a very powerful history of the BSUs role in changing how we teach and what we learn. To be fair, this is an academic monograph and not written as a work of popular history – though of course I think it should be! One of the key points in Robinson’s history is a highlighting of the BSUs as critical loci of Black Panther organizing – rather than simply being student offshoots of the Panthers. Two of the platform points for the BSUs were the demand for a Black Studies curriculum and to increase Black faculty and student populations. Robinson also points out that rather than being a backwater of civil rights work, Seattle and the BSU at UofWA was a significant node in the larger movement. By reaching out to the surrounding community in Seattle, the BSU @ UofWA was able to achieve significant reforms. Robinson also brings forward the history of the “Jim Crow North” – exemplified, to me, by the sundown town I lived in as a small child. Over 168 pages and five chapters, Robinson presents a relatively unknown but important history of the battle against white supremacy in the Pacific Northwest as it played out on two college campuses. It’s a history we could all do well to reflect on in these oppressive times when white supremacists work to dismantle the work of truth-telling by those who came before – the dismantling of the white supremacist myth of “one” history that center whiteness. As Robinson states, “racism in much of the West was neither binary nor stable, but multiple, malleable, and shifting.” Although Robinson fails to address (aside from a few sentences) the settler colonialism and genocide that defines “the West,” he does provide a window into a relatively unknown history of Washington State that we can all learn from.







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