Jeopardy: Black studies edition
An EF-5 is brewing over at Brainstorm, the blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
One of its bloggers, Naomi Schaefer Riley, has come under fire for her no-holds barred criticism of Black Studies. Riley’s post came as a response to an article by Stacey Patton which was titled “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering into the Future’” published by The Chronicle. In that piece, Patton focused on the Ph.D. program at Northwestern University which is churning out its first batch of doctorates. The article also focused on the evolution of Black Studies as a discipline and its fight for legitimacy at the university level.
- Stacey Patton’s piece which features profiles and dissertation titles of Northwestern’s Ph.D. candidates
- Naomi Shaefer Riley’s response
- A rebuttal from Northwestern graduate students
- Riley defends her piece
- A rebuttal from Northwestern’s African-American studies faculty
- A response from Chronicle blogger Laurie Essig which suggests that the Chronicle is racist for publishing the piece.
- A defense of Riley by Chronicle blogger Mark Bauerlein
- A response to Bauerlein by Chronicle blogger David Barash
- Finally, a petition which now has over 5,800 signatures asking the Chronicle to fire Riley.
Riley takes to task some of the dissertations highlighted in the original piece. She writes:
If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.
Riley points to a dissertation by Ruth Hayes titled “‘So I could be Easeful’: Black Womens’ Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth” which grapples with the dearth of nonwhite women’s experiences in the natural child birthing literature.
Riley also scoffs at La TaSha B. Levy’s dissertation which examines “the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan.” In her dissertation, Levy argues “that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.”
It seems pretty clear that Riley is criticizing the academic fluffery of Black studies. Also it’s axiomatic leftward bent which indicates that the discipline is not rigorous or critical of itself or its methodology – a quality that should be a crucial element of any niche that wants to be considered a discipline. But Northwestern’s Black studies graduate students read racism in those tea leaves. They responded:
One can only assume that in a bid to not be “out-niggered” by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on.
Northwestern’s faculty and the Chronicle’s Laurie Essig leveled similar charges.
To them, Riley was racist for criticizing something that is self-labeled “Black studies” which also typically drafts black people into its fold. Thus any criticism of the discipline is automatically interpreted by some as a form of racism rather than an honest critic of the legitimacy of the discipline and its methods. Instead of pointing out why it deserves its own discipline, these students and faculty resort to the eternally damaging charge of racism.
For something to be considered an academic discipline – to have its own departments and journals, it’s own bubble away from the larger category of humanities or history or anthropology – it should aim to answer a question. But Black studies – just like Women’s studies, Chicano studies, and Arab studies, etc. – proceeds from an answer. The answer that Black studies provides is that black people are victims in this racist Western white supremacist society. It then asks questions to verify the answer.
If Northwestern’s dissertations are any clue, you’ll never see a Black studies department issue a critique of, say, hip-hop or rap or the embrace of the anti-authoritarian lifestyle which arguably holds many black down. Black studies aims to study the black experience, but it assumes that such an experience can only be crafted by whites and not blacks themselves. Blacks, the group supposedly being studied, are never actually the object of study.
One imagines Alex Trebek’s popular game show: “This group is the victim of white supremacism in the United States” “Who are black people?”
In her original piece, Stacey Patton shows the fundamentally closed-off nature of the discipline. She mentions “scholars on race” which reminds us that blacks make up the bulk of “scholars on race” and that if a non-black person were to obtain the position they’d surely have to hold the leftward bent which is critical of white supremacist society. This would be akin to economics doctorates only being granted to Keynesians.
David Horowitz has also pointed out that there is a discipline called “whiteness studies”. But instead of holding whites as either victims or heroes, the discipline operates from the presumption that “whites are evil”. We also wouldn’t expect a highly-ranked university to grant a doctorate to a white academic who held that whites or white culture are superior to others.
This is reminiscent of the response to a white paper put together by three Duke professors earlier this year. The profs compiled statistics that showed that Duke’s black students had lower GPA than other groups and that they switched from hard science disciplines to humanities more often than other groups. These disciplines are typically viewed as being easier than natural sciences, maths, etc. But the black student union grabbed onto the white paper and suggested that it was a form of racism rather than addressing the argument and the facts presented.