The Chronicle’s firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley was shocking, but no surprise. If you value your job in any position connected with higher education, it is probably wise to avoid being critical of “diversity,” affirmative action and, especially, Black Studies. I learned this lesson in 1997 when, as a Regent of the University of California (UC), I criticized Ethnic Studies programs at UC.
Consequences are most dire when the criticism is leveled against Black Studies. The reason is that the faculty of Black Studies, nationwide, view the attack on their field of study as a personal attack against them, while criticisms against the pursuit of diversity and affirmative action are viewed as more general in nature. In addition, the faculty of Black Studies programs fully expects – and receives – the full support of their university administrators and others throughout the academic infrastructure.
The incident involving Ms. Riley has focused, rightly, on the intolerance and political correctness of her former employer while, in fact, the substance of her argument has gotten lost in the discussion. “Black Studies” is an academic dinosaur. Of questionable merit from the outset, this field of study is hard to justify under current circumstances.
Black Studies originated within American universities in the immediate aftermath of the “Civil Rights Movement” of the 1960s, and was part of the agenda of the “Black Power” Movement. Recognizing their long history of segregation and prejudice, as well as that of the nation, many leading institutions of higher education pursued a vigorous effort to integrate the faculties and student bodies of their institutions.
Unfortunately, they were immediately confronted by the fact that there was an inadequate supply of blacks qualified to be hired for faculty positions within then-existing fields of study. As a result, a new course of study – Black Studies – was created, and it was built around the “skill” set of many of those who were protesting in favor of increased black integration; namely, black activism. It is no coincidence that many of those hired for Black Studies curricula were in the mold of black activist Angela Davis, who was hired by the University of California.
Not only was there a shortage of qualified faculty, there was also a shortage of black students to fill the number of slots that most select universities considered appropriate to achieve a “critical mass.” The solution to the student problem was also the solution to the faculty problem: Black Studies, which were a sort of set-aside program for black students and black faculty.
On June 16, 1998, I raised questions as a Regent of the University of California about the educational value of ethnic studies programs. My concerns were detailed in a June 17, 1998 column. From that day forward, the faculty of ethnic studies programs, nationally, and the students of Gay Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, led by the faculty of Black Studies, circled the academic wagons to defend their disciplines and to try to make my life miserable. That experience taught me a valuable lesson about what amounts to the sanctity of Black Studies.
What I learned in 1997 about these programs was that they taught black students that America is a racist nation in which white males are uniquely “privileged.” I concluded that the discipline was far more political and ideological than scholarly. Those who majored in “BS” invariably became embittered by “white privilege” and “institutional racism.” Their anger directed at white males was all consuming. Black and Chicano Studies classes were an easy way to spend time protesting emoting and fighting race causes that involved perceived injustices.
It also became apparent to me that Black Studies presented very limited career options to those who chose this field of study for their future. This, I believe, is a major offense of this field of study. As preparation for a career, BS is a dead-end and universities should be roundly faulted for not conveying this reality to their students.
What should be done about Black Studies? First, it is important that universities include in their history curricula some concentration on events that are relevant to the history of America and specific demographic groups. Entire departments need not be established and maintained to accomplish this objective. Sometimes, departments for Black Studies may consist of very few classes and very few faculty members. Eliminating the bureaucracy and folding such classes into other departments would appear to be a more logical and efficient way to handle such programs. Moreover, by folding such classes into American history, the symbolism of this programmatic integration would likely spill over beyond academic pursuits.
A larger issue for American universities is recognition of the central role that they have played in contributing to a separatist black society largely built around the rationale of “diversity.” Most Black Americans, despite the undeniable economic progress and growth in interracial marriages, are otherwise socially and politically isolated and living in separate and distinct universes. Their voting patterns are radically different, their connection with the larger society is minimal and the media and a significant segment of American life treat them according to a different standard.
To be certain, Black Studies is not directly and solely responsible for all of these circumstances, but the pattern of separation has been heavily influenced by activities created and fostered on our college campuses. It is unfortunate that most of our campuses have been engines for separation and racial bitterness rather than drivers of integration. And Black Studies have been prominent in this sordid history. Let us hope that it comes to an end. If so, we will owe a debt of profound gratitude to Naomi Schaefer Riley.