What is a black professor in America allowed to say?

The long read: Tommy J Curry thought forcing a public discussion about race and violence was part of his job. It turned out that people didnt want to hear it

One Thursday morning in May, Tommy J Curry walked through the offices of the philosophy department at Texas A&M University with a police officer at his side and violence on his mind. The threats had started a few days earlier. Since you said white people need to be killed Im in fear of my life, one person had written via email. The next time I see you on campus I might just have to pre-emptively defend myself you dumb fat nigger. You are done. Curry didnt know if that person was lurking on the university grounds. But Texas is a gun-friendly state, and Texas A&M is a gun-friendly campus, and he took the threat seriously.

Curry supports the right to bear arms. It was part of how he ended up in this situation. In 2012 he had appeared on a satellite radio show and delivered a five-minute talk on how uneasy white people are with the idea of black people talking about owning guns and using them to combat racist forces. When a recording of the talk resurfaced in May, people thought the tenured professor was telling black people to kill white people. This idea swept through conservative media and into the fever swamps of Reddit forums and racist message boards. The threats followed.

Anonymous bigots werent the only ones making Curry feel unwanted. Michael K Young, the president of Texas A&M, had called the professors comments disturbing and contrary to the values of the university. Curry was taken aback. His remarks on the radio were not a regrettable slip of the tongue. They were part of why the university had hired him.

A police officer met Curry inside his academic building and rode with him in the elevator to the philosophy department, on the third floor. In a hallway, the professor pointed to photos of his graduate students so the police officer would know who was supposed to be there. The officer told him to keep an eye out for unfamiliar faces. Curry picked up his mail. There were a few angry letters, and also an envelope marked with a Texas A&M logo. He put the hate mail into a folder and carried the whole bundle downstairs. Back in the car with his wife, he opened the university envelope. Inside was a copy of a letter from a campus official that he had received a few days earlier by email before his inbox was flooded with racist messages.

I am delighted to offer my congratulations on your promotion to Professor at Texas A&M University effective September 1, 2017, said the letter. This measure of your achievement is an indicator of the very high esteem in which you are held by your peers. We are honored to have you on our faculty.

As the car pulled away from the campus, Curry reread the letter and rolled his eyes. He has not been back since.


The drama that unfolded at Texas A&M is about a scholar who was welcomed by a public university because of his unusual perspective, and who became estranged from the university for the same reason. It is a story about what a university values, how it expresses those values under pressure, and how that pressure works. It is about freedom and control, reason and fear, good faith and bad. Mostly, it is a story about a black man in America who did exactly what he said he set out to do, and who became a cautionary tale.

It starts in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Curry grew up in the 1980s and 90s. His family lived in a mostly black neighbourhood on the east side of the city. The white folks lived on the other side of the highway. At the Woolworth store downtown, he saw the faded outline of letters that remained visible on the window glass: No Coloreds. Currys father sold insurance. He told his son stories about how white people used to break into black peoples homes and terrorise them. The family kept a shotgun behind the couch, and Tommy Sr owned a pistol as well. He constantly told us that there is a very real threat of white violence, said Curry. The idea of black people having a right to defend themselves is just something I grew up with.

The
The Texas A&M University campus. Photograph: Spencer Selvidge/Reuters

His mother, a social worker, told him to arm himself with an education. Curry was a serious child who hoarded information. He joined his high schools debate team, where he learned how to arrange information into arguments and recite them at breakneck speed. He became accustomed to being the only black voice in the room, although he occasionally met other black boys in the debating scene. One was Rob Redding, a preachers son from Atlanta who was going to college in Lake Charles. Redding, who was a few years older, was struck by the high-schoolers confidence. I remember him coming to the debate room, and a lot of people thinking he was very bright, but maybe a little too self-confident, too self-assured, said Redding. Even some black people, who should know better, would think he was too cocky.

Curry used debate scholarships to attend Southern Illinois University, where he won an award for his prowess as a cross-examiner. After getting his masters degree in Chicago, he went back to Southern Illinois to work on a doctorate in philosophy. He showed little deference to the canon, often challenging the universal claims that western philosophers made in their work. That annoyed a lot of people in the department, but Currys adviser, Kenneth Stikkers, considered Curry a model student who inhaled the texts he recommended, reading them closely even if he disagreed with them. It was always a delight when hed come to see me, said Stikkers, because I was always going to learn something.

Stikkers, who is white, understood that not everybody would find Currys iconoclasm as energising as he did. Philosophers consider themselves open-minded, he said, but the department was still a white neighbourhood with expectations of how a black guest should behave. Curry was not interested in playing that game. In comments on Currys papers, Stikkers found himself repeating a refrain: Dont unnecessarily antagonise your audience. Currys patience for that advice was limited. He would say at times that he liked nothing more than pissing white people off, said Stikkers. I think he did get a certain thrill from that.


In 2004, while Curry was studying at Southern Illinois, the people of that state elected a young, mixed-race law professor to the US Senate. Liberals at the university had high hopes for Barack Obama as a unifying political figure, and a symbol of how far US race relations had come. Curry did not share their optimism. In the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he heard that the police had opened fire on a group of unarmed black families on the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans. It would take years for courts to determine the guilt of the officers, but Curry didnt need an official judgment to convince him it was true. The aftermath of the hurricane bolstered his belief that anti-black racism in the US was a storm that would never end.

The evidence of the last 50 years has convincingly demonstrated the failure of multicultural coalitions, civil rights legislation and integration, he wrote in a 2007 paper. The current task of radical Black thought now rests in the development of alternatives in light of this disappointment. Those alternatives might include violence: Historically, the use of violence has been a serious option in the liberation of African people from the cultural tyranny of whiteness, he wrote, and should again be investigated as a plausible and in some sense necessary political option.

It was a provocative thesis, and Curry knew it. He did not consider himself a violent person. Even when he was a teenage socialist, his revolutionary vision had been passive: white capitalism would collapse under its own weight, and black unionists would help build a more egalitarian society in its ruins. Anyway, philosophy was supposed to be about asking hard questions without fear or prejudice, and Curry was not interested in steering clear of topics just because they made his white colleagues uneasy.

Stikkers urged him to pre-emptively defend himself against charges that he wanted to incite violence. In the paper, Curry explained that he wanted to raise violent resistance in the context of US racism not as a call to arms, but as an open-ended political question. Still, the young philosopher knew he was treading on dangerous ground. To some, he wrote, for a black scholar to even ask if violence should be used to combat racism is a career faux pas.

The paper was published in Radical Philosophy Today, and Curry put it on his curriculum vitae. Two years later, he earned his doctorate from Southern Illinois, and Texas A&M brought him on as a diversity hire, he said. The universitys philosophy department, like philosophy departments everywhere, was all white. They sold it to me based on the idea that they were trying to change, he said.

Black philosophers are rare in academe. In 2013 a study counted 141 black professors, instructors and graduate students working at US colleges, accounting for about 1% of the field. At Texas A&M, Curry turned heads almost immediately. In 2010 he taught a course that used hip-hop as a lens for philosophical ideas. The rapper 50 Cent was on the syllabus alongside Thomas Hobbes.

Curry didnt want to confine his teaching to the classroom. In 2012 he reconnected with Redding, the acquaintance from his debating days in Lake Charles, who had gone on to become a radio host. His show, the Redding News Review, played online and was broadcast in several cities. Redding began featuring Curry in a segment called Talking Tough With Tommy. Every Thursday the professor would call in and lecture about race, fear and complacency during the Obama years. He warned listeners of what might happen as white America began to feel the levers of power slipping from its grasp. We despise black people who are pessimistic about the political situation, he said in one episode, as if history hasnt already borne out what happens when black people make progress, even if its illusory.

Earlier that year, grim news from a Florida suburb had reminded the nation of how precarious the political situation was, no matter who was in the White House. Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, had been stalked and killed in a gated community where his fathers girlfriend lived. George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer, had seen Martin and assumed he was up to no good. He grabbed his gun and followed Martin. There was a confrontation. Martin broke Zimmermans nose and injured the back of his head; Zimmerman then shot Martin in the chest. The case brought attention to stand-your-ground laws, which gave the residents of some states, including Florida, the right to use lethal force rather than retreat if they fear they might be in serious danger. (In court, Zimmerman was later acquitted.)

That December, Django Unchained was released in cinemas. The film starred Jamie Foxx as a black gunslinger in the antebellum south who frees his wife and murders her white slavers. In a Saturday Night Live monologue, Foxx joked about how great it was that he got to kill all the white people in the movie, prompting some white pundits to accuse him of racism.

Jamie
Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. Photograph: Allstar/Weinstein Company/Sportsphoto

Curry made plans to talk about Django on Reddings show. He wanted to place the film in the context of Nat Turners slave revolt of 1831, the writings of the civil rights leader Robert F Williams, and the history of black people taking up arms. Once again, conjuring visions of black-on-white violence would be risky. The audience this time was not just the subscribers of Radical Philosophy Today. Currys words would go out on the public airwaves and the internet. He knew that saying that would be controversial, said Redding. They decided the professor should focus on self-defence.

When it came time to record the segment, Curry spoke without a script. When we have this conversation about violence or killing white people, it has to be looked at in these kinds of historical terms, he said. And the fact that weve had no one address, like, how relevant and how solidified this kind of tradition is, for black people saying, Look, in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people may have to die. Ive just been immensely disappointed, because what we look at, week after week, is national catastrophe after catastrophe where black people, black children, are still dying.

White conservatives speak reverently of gun rights, said Curry. But when we turn the conversation back and say, Does the black community ever need to own guns? Does the black community have a need to protect itself? Does the black individual have a need to protect himself from police officers?, we dont have that conversation at all.

The segment aired, and nothing happened. Redding posted Currys piece on YouTube in December 2012 with the title Dr. Tommy Curry on killing whites, then forgot about it.

Until Rod Dreher found it.


Dreher, too, is from Louisiana. Born 12 years before Curry, he grew up in St Francisville, a small town 160 miles north-east of Lake Charles. Only a few years before he was born, white vigilantes there had stalked and terrorised black men who had tried to register to vote in the town. In 1963, a tenant farmer named James Payne told a justice department official that a white mob had showed up at his house a day later. The intruders disarmed him, threatened to burn his family alive, and fired a bullet from his own pistol into the ground between his legs.

Dreher had a fling with progressive politics during his college years, at Louisiana State University, but his ideology took a right turn and he moved to the north-east, where he became a writer, cultivating an urbane Christian conservatism. Personal experience made him wary of vigilantism. In a 2001 column for the New York Post, Dreher bemoaned an elaborate funeral procession that black mourners had arranged for Aaliyah, the 22-year-old R&B artist who had died in a plane crash. A traffic-snarling, horse-drawn cortege in honor of a pop singer most people have never heard of? he wrote. Give us a break!

Dreher has vivid memories of what happened next. Callers flooded his voice mailbox with messages. They cursed him out, hurled antisemitic slurs (Dreher was raised Methodist and had converted to Catholicism), called him racist and said he should be fired. All of the callers had black accents, he later recalled. Dreher tried to brush it off. He recorded a cheeky voicemail greeting that instructed his critics to press 1 to leave a death threat, 2 to leave a bomb threat, 3 to get him fired, and so on. Still, the outrage scared him. Every time a black man got within 10 feet of me, I thought: Could this be one of the people who made the death threat? he wrote in a blogpost years later.

Dreher came to regret the Aaliyah column, admitting that it was insensitive, but he nevertheless saw himself as a victim of racial venom coursing through parochial networks. He blamed black radio hosts for using their influence to mark him as the enemy of a race. He eventually moved back to Louisiana and cultivated an online following as a blogger for The American Conservative magazine. His take on the Trayvon Martin case was that Martin had overreacted to Zimmerman confronting him with a gun, and that black people had overreacted to Zimmermans just acquittal. Dreher didnt see Django Unchained, he said, because revenge fantasies were corrupting. His audience eventually grew to about a million readers a month.

By the time Dreher learned about Curry earlier this year, he was writing regularly about campus politics, which he thought had grown more toxic since he was in college. The racial terrorism of the 1960s was in the past, as far as he was concerned, but the social-justice warriors remained on the warpath. Worse, college administrators indulged those students petty outrages.

In spring, a reader sent Dreher an email, telling him that a black professor at Texas A&M was saying racist things about white people, and the university was letting it happen. (The tipster used a pseudonym, according to Dreher, but he guessed it was a student.) He Googled Curry and soon found the killing white people YouTube clip that Redding had posted. He also found the professors 2007 paper on violence against whiteness. To his ears, Curry sounded like a bully. That rat-a-tat-tat way of talking reminded me of people Ive encountered in the past who are so busy talking at you that they dont actually listen, said Dreher. He reminded me of political and religious extremists Ive run across in my life in that way. That stuff sets me on edge.

So he decided to expose Curry on his blog. Dreher embedded the YouTube clip and quoted from other radio appearances in which the professor had talked about how white people would never voluntarily surrender their advantages. What does any of this racist bilge mean? wrote Dreher. To prove his own human worth to Tommy Curry, a white person has to despise himself? Good luck with that, Tommy Curry.

He published it on Monday 8 May at 8.30am.


Drehers post sent the professors words racing across a network primed for racial outrage. The internets rightwing news belt had expanded during the Obama presidency. Websites such as Infowars and Breitbart, once on the fringe, had found a champion in Donald Trump, who seemed passionate about defending white Americas borders and voting rolls from usurpers such as Muslim refugees, undocumented Latinos and poor blacks.

One of the first online hubs to notice Drehers article about Curry was a Reddit forum devoted to the lionisation of President Trump. When Is It OK To Kill Whites? somebody wrote there, posting a link to Drehers article on The American Conservative. THE HELL?!?! This guy teaches at Texas A&M!! Liberalism at Universities as [sic] gotten completely out of hand!! Cristina Laila, a writer for The Gateway Pundit, a blog devoted to exposing the wickedness of the left, also saw Drehers post about Curry. This is more proof that rasicsm [sic] is ok, she wrote, as long as the attacks are against whites.

Infowars was next. Then, on 10 May, somebody posted a link on the neo-Nazi website Stormfront. Some of the people who responded seemed to welcome the thought of a race war. They liked their chances. My West Point and 82nd Airborne cousins are more than happy to accommodate those of us who may need a little help in just such an emergency, wrote one person. So please, oh pretty please, do TRY to initiate hostilities sooner rather than later.

Curry had succeeded in getting people across the country to talk about racial violence in the name of self-defence. Now they were talking about how Texas A&M University needed to defend itself from Curry. To hundreds of people on the forums of TexAgs, an A&M community site, the answer was clear. Can we not fire him? wrote one person. What an embarrassment to Texas A&M, wrote another. Waiting on a response from President Young, knowing it will never come.

Michael Young, a lawyer, was hired to run Texas A&M in 2015 after a four-year stint as president of the University of Washington. At his new university, Young had swiftly earned a reputation as an able navigator of public-relations crises relating to racism. In 2016, white students had taunted a group of black and Latino high-school students who were visiting the campus from a Dallas preparatory school. One A&M student reportedly asked the prospective students what they thought of her Confederate flag earrings; other students told the high-school visitors to go back where they came from.

Michael
Michael K Young, president of Texas A&M University. Photograph: Youtube/Texas A&M

Young responded by announcing an investigation and then travelling to Dallas to personally apologise to the students who had been harassed. He was later praised widely for making a heartfelt response without rushing to judgment.

Kneejerk responses have to be avoided at all costs, Young said a few weeks after the incident. The key to beating the outrage machine, he said, is to know exactly what your university stands for. If you do that, even if it doesnt play out the way the Twitter world initially thinks it should, you never have to back away or apologise.

Texas A&M officials quickly realised that Drehers article might become a problem. Amy Smith, senior vice president for marketing and communications, advised the head of the philosophy department, Theodore George, on how to respond to inquiries about Curry. Barring direct threats by him to others, Dr Curry has a first-amendment right to offer his personal views on this subject, she advised him to say, no matter how incendiary and inappropriate others may consider them to be.

It soon became clear that would not be enough.


Even before Currys comments were covered in the mainstream press, Porter Garner III, head of the Texas A&M Association of Former Students, an influential fundraising body, began receiving angry calls from donors. They thought Curry was encouraging violence against white people. Many of the callers might not have been fully informed of the context of Currys words, said Garner, but some of them were longtime donors, volunteers, and friends of the university, and their concerns were pretty rational and very respectful.

Young said he disagreed with the idea that Curry was inciting violence. But as president of the university, he felt an obligation to take the concerns seriously. Public outrage can be perilous for a public university, especially when race is involved. After black students and their allies caused a national stir by protesting racism at the University of Missouri in 2015, the universitys fundraising efforts took a big hit, and it became a punching bag for the conservative state legislature. Two years later, freshman enrolment has dropped by 35%, and the university has temporarily shuttered seven dormitories.

Young said that finances were not on his mind as he weighed what to do about Curry, but also that he acknowledged the importance of staying in the good graces of constituencies beyond the campus. People send their children to A&M, and students come to A&M, because its a very special place, he said in an interview. I didnt want anybody to doubt what they believe it stands for is what it stands for.

On the morning of 10 May, Curry was asked to meet with university administrators. The professor agreed, but told them he wanted another person of colour in the meeting. He didnt want to feel surrounded by people who didnt get it. At the meeting, Curry said, he got the impression that university officials wanted to draw a distinction between his radio commentary and his work for Texas A&M. But Curry told the university officials there was no difference. Earlier in the year, a panel of judges from the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy had honored Currys radio work by giving him an award for public philosophy. His radio commentary wasnt some offbeat rant, the professor told his bosses. This is part of what you hired me to do.

They backed down a little bit, Curry said. He said they told him to put his defence in writing, so they could use it to respond to people who were contacting the university to complain. Curry wrote in the third person, assuming that his bosses would adopt his voice as their own.

The inflammatory phrase When is it OK to kill white people, he wrote, referring to Drehers headline, deliberately misconstrues Dr Currys distinction between revolutionary violence and self-defense. He continued: Dr Curry, drawing from the Second Amendment tradition, suggests that the laws failure to protect the lives of Black, Latino, and Muslim Americans requires new conversations which may require self-defense and more radical options than protest. In no way does his work promote or incite violence toward whites or any other racial group. The professor sent the text to his department chair that evening. Two hours later, Curry was sitting in his apartment, at his computer, when a message arrived from President Young. It was addressed not to Curry, but to all faculty, staff and students.

As you may know, a podcast interview by one of our professors that took place approximately four-and-a-half years ago resurfaced this week on social media, seen for the first time by many of us, wrote Young. The interview features disturbing comments about race and violence that stand in stark contrast to Aggie [Texas A&M] core values most notably those of respect, excellence, leadership and integrity values that we hold true toward all of humanity.

Curry read the email, the text of which was later posted on the universitys website, with dawning anger. Hes throwing me under the bus, the professor thought. Young continued: As we know, the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects the rights of others to offer their personal views, no matter how reprehensible those views may be. It also protects our right to freedom of speech, which I am exercising now. We stand for equality. We stand against the advocacy of violence, hate and killing. We firmly commit to the success, not the destruction, of each other.

Have no fear, the president assured them: Texas A&Ms core values remained intact.


Smith, the communications vice president, immediately sent Youngs statement to the presidents of all the non-profit organisations that help fund Texas A&M. She felt good about the statement. Fair was fair: in December 2016, when the white nationalist Richard Spencer visited Texas A&M, Young made it clear that the university did not share his values, either. After trying and failing to bar Spencer from speaking on campus, university leaders organised a unity-themed rally in the football stadium. If youre a purveyor of hate and divisiveness, said John C Sharp, the chancellor, and you want to spew that kind of racism, this is the last campus on earth that you want to come to to do that.

In light of the situation with Curry, Smith found herself moved by the chancellors words. It is even more meaningful now, she wrote to the president the next morning, as we articulated our core values again yesterday in a new-but-related situation that shows we mean this equitably.

But the statement did little to slow the momentum of the story. The outrage machine was just warming up. Conservative writers struggled to square their love of free speech with their horror at Currys words. Certainly, no one should be stopped for sharing and debating ideas; the country has seen too many prohibitions of speech in past years, wrote Ron Meyer, editor of Red Alert Politics, a Washington-based blog. However, paying a professor to share radical ideas on behalf of a university has nothing to do with free speech.

Garner, of the Association of Former Students, was still getting calls from alumni who thought Young had not gone far enough. Some said the president should have condemned Curry more forcefully. Others were upset that the professor hadnt been fired. A petition was started encouraging alumni to withhold all donations to Texas A&M and its affiliated fundraisers until the board took action against Curry and Young. The alumni were not the only ones who were upset. Youngs attempt to get ahead of a national story created another outrage closer to home.


To some of Currys colleagues, the statement the president sent out to mollify the professors critics was not an affirmation of the universitys core values. It was a betrayal of the sacred privilege of academic freedom. Joe Feagin, a long-serving sociology professor, wrote to Young the next morning. Michael, he wrote, I wish you had contacted me about the Curry matter. In a separate email to a student newspaper reporter, Feagin argued that Currys 2012 radio piece was, in fact, based on good research.

Nandra Perry, an associate professor of English, also wrote to the president. Previously, she had assumed the university would have her back if anybody used a classroom recording to attack her. Now she wasnt so sure. To call this incident a blow to academic freedom, Perry told Young, doesnt begin to do justice to the chill it will have on my teaching, and indeed the teaching of almost everyone I know.

Perhaps the most scathing rebuke to the president came in a letter signed by every faculty member in the Africana Studies department, where Curry also holds a faculty appointment. The history of black thought, they said, includes more than Martin Luther King Jrs crossover hits. By dismissing Currys comments on violent resistance as personal views, they said, Young had delegitimised the professors expertise and dismissed centuries of history.

Blacks in the United States live with the daily fear that a traffic stop, or a trip to the store or the park, could be the end of their lives, wrote the professors. Yet we cannot talk about black resistance? Historically or contemporaneously? They demanded an apology.

When Dreher heard that Curry was getting death threats, he wrote a follow-up blogpost. Anyone threatening violence against Curry, he said, should be ashamed and, if possible, arrested. I hope Dr Curry is armed, he added, so that if anybody shows up at his house threatening him, he defends his home and family by any means necessary. Still, Dreher stuck by his interpretation of Currys 2012 radio commentary. I dont believe Tommy Curry is encouraging black people to go out today and cut throats, he wrote. I think he is entertaining dangerous thoughts here, same as far-right white radicals. (He later would write a third post, which was removed, comparing the professor to Emperor Palpatine, the Star Wars villain who encourages morally complex characters to give in to the dark side.)

An
An anti-racist rally at the University of Missouri in 2015. Photograph: Michael B Thomas/Getty Images

Curry read the second blogpost somewhat differently from how Dreher had meant it. That evening the professor wrote an email to Young with a headline that was provocative, if a bit misleading: Rod Dreher retracts.

The president decided to make another statement, and his advisers spent several days discussing how to thread the needle. On 17 May, a week after Young had put out his statement about Texas A&Ms values, he put out a new one. He said he was committed to academic freedom. He acknowledged that scholars often find their work oversimplified or misunderstood. He reiterated the universitys position that racial violence is always bad. He did not, however, offer a personal apology to Curry.

Despite the title of Currys email to Young, Dreher has not changed his views on Currys ideas. Dreher believes the only practical solution to racial resentment is the power of forgiveness. In 2015, Dreher marvelled at the Christ-like love of the teenage children of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, one of the nine black parishioners killed by the white supremacist Dylann Roof at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof shot her five times. The next night, at a vigil for their mother, Chris and Camryn Coleman-Singleton told an interviewer that they had already forgiven Roof.

Dreher saw their gesture as both inspiring and necessary. There will always be haters, of all kinds, and sometimes those haters will murder in service of the hate that consumes them, he wrote at the time. But to deny that things have changed for the better, and can change for the better if we work at it, is to deny to ourselves the hope that inspired Martin Luther King and the civil rights heroes.

Curry is no hero, Dreher said. He thinks the professors talk of racial violence is reckless, and that he should cut it out before he inspires somebody to do real harm. Tommy Currys big fat radical mouth gets to me, he wrote in an email, because of the consequences of the things he believes and says. Its not a joke.


Back in America, Curry was more worried about the consequences of what Dreher believed and said about him. For two weeks, Curry rarely left his apartment, as messages arrived by email warning him of what might happen if he did. You and your entire family of low-IQ, affirmative-action herpes-infected african monkeys might need to be put to death. There were dozens like that. The professor forwarded them to the campus police department. Curry said a detective told him some of the messages appeared to have been sent from within the county. Police officers made a point of regularly driving past his apartment building for several weeks. But Curry worried about whether his six-year-old was safe at her elementary school. Driving her home at the end of the day, he would circle the block a few times to make sure they had not been followed.

Nobody came to his door, knocked him down, disarmed him, fired a bullet between his legs or made him beg for his life. The mob that came for Curry was digital and diffuse, everywhere and nowhere. The goal, however, was the same as ever: fear. And it worked. The Currys left town. They had already been planning to move, but Curry and his wife decided to leave early to stay with family. His daughters thought they were going on vacation. He does not plan to bring them when he returns to Texas A&M in the autumn.

In the course of his life, Curry has embodied both the promise of racial progress and its limitations. He was able to study at an integrated school, but his hometown remained divided by the legacy of segregation. He was hired by a university that wanted more black professors, then was mocked by conservative students who assumed his insight was worthless. He earned honours from his colleagues, then anger from strangers and a tepid defence from his bosses.

If thats the American dream, said Curry, then Id hate to see what the actual nightmare is. He plans to return to Texas A&M in the fall as a full professor. He knows there are people there who want him gone. He no longer trusts the university to defend him. He only hopes he can defend himself.

Main photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/03/what-is-a-black-professor-in-america-allowed-to-say-tommy-j-curry