Are Black Studies a Great Failure?

Now that the world of higher education’s twitter (or is that now tweeter?) over Elizabeth Warren’s keen sense of her own Cherokee-ness is dying down, the two leading monitors of academic fads have each recently  found and amplified new interest in black studies.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently published two pieces glorifying the field,  “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering Into The Future‘” and “A New Generation of Black-Studies Ph.D.’s,” as well as a blog post by Naomi Schaefer Riley that has ignited a firestorm of controversy in the comments, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” For its part Inside Higher Ed has a rather fawning  interview with Ibram H. Rogers, an assistant professor history at  SUNY Oneonta and author of a celebratory new book on The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.

‘Left-Wing Victimization Claptrap’

The first two Chronicle pieces highlight the Department of African Studies at Northwestern, which hosted a recent conference celebrating the contributions of the eleven universities that currently offer PhDs in Black Studies along with what is described (often by its authors) as a new generation of black scholarship that is more highly “nuanced” than its predecessors. Naomi Schaefer Riley’s Chronicle blog post takes a look at the dissertations by the five Northwestern graduate students featured in the “New Generation” article and doesn’t find much nuance. In fact, she finds them lacking in everything but ideological tendentiousness. “If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline” of Black Studies, she writes, these “dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.”

“Blind arrogance,” “prejudice,” “racism,” “snide” are about the nicest descriptions of Riley in the comments to her post. In my view the problem with the dissertations featured in the Chronicle and derided by Ms. Riley is not their politics — which, after all, are prominently and pervasively on display in mainstream departments these days, not just Black Studies — but the monotonous uniformity of their politics. Consider:

  • Zinga A. Fraser’s claim that “[w]e need to look at the issues impacting black women: the aggressive politics of poverty and reproductive health and how the demonization of black women”;
  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s view that “the federal government’s role promoting single-family ownership in low-income black communities … highlighted the profitability of racism”;
  • La TaSha B. Levy’s argument that black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and John McWhorter have “played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them,” enabled by “patronage from what she calls white conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation” that enabled them “to legitimize a larger discourse around racial progress that delegitimizes civil-rights policies.”

Generic ‘Diversity’ Prose

What is noteworthy here is not the “left-wing claptrap” of these dissertations, though that it is indeed very familiar. These arguments do not share any culturally distinct blackness; they could have been by “progressives” of any color. They do not, in short, require virtually segregated racial hothouse academic departments in which to thrive. And what is both noteworthy and odd is that these little academic islands of ideological uniformity are defended and justified in the name of “diversity.” (On the other hand, given the current working definition of “diverse,” i.e., black, then the Northwestern Department of African American Studies seems almost perfectly diverse.)

Ask Prof. Ibram H. Rogers, author of the new book celebrating the Black Campus Movement, to name its most important legacy, and he will tell you, as he told the Inside Higher Ed interviewer, that its “principal legacy” is that “more than 1,000 institutions introduced black studies, and hundreds of black, multicultural and diversity centers and offices were established.” He laments, however, that these departments have not become spaces “to foment black liberation” and that they are widely viewed as “separatist, mediocre, uniquely subjective and political,” a mistaken view he blames on “[t]he conservative and to a certain extent liberal academic champions of the mirages of colorblindness, race-neutrality, assimilation and post-racialization.”

“The original black studies departments were designed to be places for black scholars to explore black issues with black students,” the IHE interviewer reverentially observed, and asked whether it is “a positive development” that now “many students and some faculty in these departments aren’t black”? No, Rogers replied. “[f]rom the standpoint of the founders of black studies … , it may not be a positive development,”
just as “the founders of women’s studies and queer studies probably do not see it as a positive development where men and heterosexuals, respectively, control those programs and departments.”

“Moreover,” he continued,

it is not a positive development to see the growing number of students and scholars … who are unaware of or refuse to act on the founding mission of the discipline. (Many instead enter black studies as paternalists, seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or to receive social or economic capital.) Nor is it a positive development at institutions where non-black scholars and students decide to enter black studies since it is the only counter-whiteness, progressive academic space on campus. It is better to have other spaces. Fortunately, in the late 1960s and early 1970s taking inspiration from and in some case partnering with the BCM, Chicano, Native American, Latino and Asian students initiated their own campus movements and now have their burgeoning studies programs, departments and disciplines. In addition, in the last 20 years we have witnessed the rise of whiteness studies, which gives primarily white scholars a long-needed space to discuss racism, white privilege, white identity and the historical and current disposition whiteness.

For some reason I suspect that Rogers’s book will not dissuade those who view black studies as “separatist” and uniquely political. Indeed, from his perspective “diversity” and “multiculturalism” seem to require a university with departments of black studies concentrating on the oppression and liberation of blacks, “Chicano, Native American, Latino and Asian” programs each concentrating on their oppression by whites, and now “whiteness studies” programs where whites can concentrate on their racism. Even American Studies, as I argue in some detail in “The Inscrutable Americans,” has largely followed this path, becoming rife with separatist, anti-American views.

In Grutter Justice O’Connor accepted the University of Michigan’s arguments “that when a critical mass of underrepresented minority students is present, racial stereotypes lose their force because nonminority students learn there is no ‘minority viewpoint’ but rather a variety of viewpoints among minority students” and that “[t]he Law School does not premise its need for critical mass on ‘any belief that minority students always (or even consistently) express some characteristic minority viewpoint on any issue.'”

If the Supreme Court decides to revisit the “critical mass” justification for racial preference when it hears Fisher v. University of Texas next fall, a close look at the striking lack of “a variety of viewpoints” in the plethora of black studies programs might well  convince a majority of Justice O’Connor’s utter credulity.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

3 thoughts on “Are Black Studies a Great Failure?

  1. The Soviet Union called Marxist sympathizers in the West “useful idiots”–idiots because they actually believed Communism’s Big Lie, and useful because they were helping overthrow the foundations of Western civilization, thereby preparing for Communist domination of themselves and the world.
    In the current case, Black Studies appears to worthy of the label of just “idiots”–destroying all the positive inheritance of the civil rights movement and using whatever capital they obtain to raise a young generation of black pseudo-intellectuals who are just as much of a failure at engaging larger society as are black street gangs. That’s about as useless as I can imagine.
    Is it a Great Failure? Worse than that–it’s useless.

  2. One of the effects of black, women’s, gender, et al. programs is to strictly segregate the faculty and students along racial and ideological lines. The segregation is so severe that members of these programs have little or no interaction with people outside their walls, and people outside the walls can, and do, ignore them. If the programs have any impact on racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes it is to reinforce them.
    One has to wonder if this is a good thing. The wholesale repudiation of Martin Luther King’s Dream by the left (including his own family) is one of the striking developments in American history. We are becoming a country of Tribes, much like the countries in the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia. Will we eventually have Tribal political parties and strict quota systems?

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