Kellie Carter Jackson, an associate professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College, had never received hate mail before.
Then, in June 2020, she wrote an article about the George Floyd protests, addressing the role of riots in social change, and noting: “Freedom through violence is a privilege possessed only by whites.”
That piece, published in the Atlantic, and Carter Jackson’s appearance on the magazine’s podcast, was enough to land her on the Professor Watchlist, an online list of academics curated by the rightwing Turning Point USA (TPUSA) group, a powerful supporter of Donald Trump and his Republican party allies.
Whether through the list, which has gained fresh attention this week after it was expanded and gained a slick new website, or the article, or the podcast, or a combination of the three, Carter Jackson soon had received plenty of obscene messages.
“There’s a folder that I keep called ‘hate mail’ in my email and I’ve gotten a lot of those: ‘I hope you die’ messages, just crazy, horrible things,” Carter Jackson, author of the book Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, said.
She also received postcards at her office at the Wellesley campus, in Massachusetts. One bore an image that seemed to be inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Carter Jackson, said. Written on the other side was something less artistic.
“It was like: ‘You crazy bitch, I hope you die,’ yada yada yada,” she said.
The list first launched in 2016, as an online catalog of nearly 200 college professors who Turning Point USA had deemed to be pushing “leftist propaganda in the classroom”. This month several academics noticed that the website had been given a slick makeover, with Oleg Urminsky, a professor at the University of Chicago, counting 182 scholars who had been newly added to the list.
The website allows users to search for professors or universities, and offers detailed bios of the academics that Turning Point adjudges to have radical views. According to its website, the Professor Watchlist is “a carefully aggregated list”.
“We only publish profiles on incidents that have been reported and published via a credible source,” the website says, although those sources include the rightwing Daily Caller website and Campus Reform, a news website funded by a conservative group.
Turning Point USA, founded by Charlie Kirk, a talkshow host and conservative activist who has become a prominent source of Covid-19 misinformation and election fraud conspiracies, did not respond to a number of questions about the watchlist.
The group was a key promoter of the 6 January gathering in Washington DC that spilled out into a violent insurrection, offering bus rides and free accommodation, while Kirk himself said he had organized more than 80 buses “full of patriots to DC to fight for this president”.
That backdrop lends a menacing air.
“Sometimes I think a lot of these extremists are all bark and no bite, but at the same time January 6 was very real, and I am hyper-aware there are people who are not above using violence, resorting to violence, in ways that are terrifying,” Carter Jackson said.
“I don’t let it influence everything I do, because I can’t just function in a state of paranoia. But at the same time, I am very much aware of it.”
On Twitter some noticed that the Turning Point list seemed to disproportionately name academics of color compared with white professors. “Only 7.3% of Harvard faculty are black; yet 5 of the 7 professors featured on the ‘Professor Watch List’ for Harvard are black,” Stephen Latham wrote.
Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Stanford, who found out he had been named to the watchlist in early September, said the watchlist was “a shameful attempt to harass faculty into silence, especially faculty of color and those who belong to other historically marginalized groups”.
Jefferson’s bio on the Professor Watchlist is unusually long. Among Jefferson’s “radical” ideas, according to the list, is his assertion that “white Americans and conservatives” led the storming of the US Capitol “because of their inability to accept the election results”.
“Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist is an outfit meant to intimidate faculty who express beliefs that frustrate the status quo and who threaten the maintenance of existing power structures in the United States,” Jefferson said in an email.
“This tactic simply won’t work on me – not even a little bit. I will not be silent in the face of attacks on American democracy that make a mockery of this country’s ideals, nor will I stop speaking honestly and clearly about what is at the root of so much that ails us: many white Americans’ commitment to white supremacy in all its baseless glory.
“Yes, it was this commitment to white supremacy that led many to storm the US Capitol on January 6 and it is this commitment to white supremacy that forms the basis of attacks on core features of democracy, including the right to vote. It is also a commitment to white supremacy that inspires those who run TPUSA’s Professor Watchlist to target scholars like me who believe that the truth is still worth telling.”
Carter Jackson is similarly defiant. She has received far more supportive messages than the hateful ones, and said she will “never stop doing the work”.
“You go back to the 20s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, there’s always been people that will try to malign academics or journalists or activists – people that are trying to speak truth to power,” she said.
“Something about this makes me feel even more empowered. Oftentimes with academics you write something, either a book or an article, and it falls into this void in which no one’s paying attention.”
She added: “This lets me know that people are paying attention, and if anything I think it draws more people to my work than would have looked at it otherwise.”