Magazine June 25, 2012, Issue

Black Studies 101

A newcomer discovers what he’s been missing

Back in May, conservative writer Naomi Schaefer Riley managed to get herself fired from The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle had run a cover story about black-studies Ph.D. students at Northwestern University (my alma mater, as it happens). Continuing with that theme, Riley wrote a blog post on the Chronicle’s website entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations” — though as critics soon pointed out, she had not, in fact, read the dissertations.

Instead, she dismissed their topics as self-evidently absurd, much the way a judge might throw out a weak case before the trial starts. She briefly described the students’ essays, including one about how black experiences are neglected in the natural-birth literature, one about how black conservatives are betraying the civil-rights movement, and one about how the federal government’s subsidizing of single-family homes for blacks in the 1970s was secretly racist. Riley found these ideas to range from “irrelevant” to “liberal hackery”: “What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.” In the resulting outcry, thousands signed a petition to get Riley fired, and the Chronicle obliged.

As Riley later noted, the offending post totaled a mere 500 words, and was meant mostly as a conversation-starter. But was she right? Should black studies be eliminated?

It would be impossible to make a thorough, convincing case to that effect, and perhaps equally hard to make a case against it. There are hundreds of black-studies departments throughout the country, and they serve a variety of purposes, of varying merit. Then there is the question of whether the work of black-studies departments could or should take place in other fields. Further complicating matters, research has found that students who study their own ethnicity are less likely to interact with members of other racial groups. If college administrators are serious about “diversity,” they should see this as a problem, given that a clear majority of the field’s students are themselves black. How should schools weigh this factor against the academic value of black studies?

But one thing is clear: Most black-studies departments could be much better than they are. Whatever the merits of the particular dissertations Riley criticized — I wasn’t able to read them either, because they are not finished yet — she was correct in her two main assertions: There isn’t much useful work coming out of black-studies departments, and the discipline is fixated on proving that everything and everyone is racist. Black studies is nominally a multidisciplinary field — it’s supposed to be combining the methods of economics, sociology, criminology, history, literature, and other subjects, and using them to explain black life. Instead, for the most part, it’s wallowing in its own obsessions.

When I first encountered Riley’s claim that black studies is not producing valuable work, it rang true. I’ve been closely following academic debates over race and racism for about a decade, first as a college student and then as a journalist. I’ve read countless studies, I’ve reviewed books about race for National Review and other publications, and I spent a year-long journalism fellowship looking at race. Yet as I set out to write this piece, I struggled to think of a single black-studies professor whose academic work I paid attention to.

It’s not as though I keep myself in some kind of conservative bubble or refuse to read black-studies work simply because it’s black studies. In fact, I’ve read lots of liberal-leaning academic material on race, much of which I find convincing. Ian Ayres (economics and law), Devah Pager (sociology), and Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan (economics) have conducted experiments showing that racial bias still exists when Americans do things such as hail cabs, buy cars, and apply for jobs. Bruce Western (sociology) and Glenn C. Loury (economics) have written insightfully about the overrepresentation of black defendants in the criminal-justice system. Claude Steele (psychology) has made a valiant attempt, with debatable success, to show that standardized tests are racially biased. Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald (psychology) have developed a test that, in my opinion, establishes that most white people subconsciously harbor negative thoughts about blacks. Thomas J. Espenshade (sociology) has rigorously analyzed the effects of affirmative action.

#page#Not a black-studies professor in the bunch. If I wanted to cheat a little I could have counted the famed William Julius Wilson, who today is affiliated with the black-studies department at Harvard in addition to the sociology one. Otherwise, I have encountered black-studies professors primarily through the popular media — Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes opinion articles on a regular basis and hosts TV shows in which he uses DNA tests to track people’s ancestry; Princeton’s Cornel West was in two of the Matrix movies, released a notoriously awful spoken-word album a few years back, and recently had a cameo on 30 Rock.

So I made an effort to see what black studies has to offer. And in fairness, there is good work to be found. The Condemnation of Blackness, by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, is an in-depth study of how social scientists analyzed racial crime statistics after the Civil War. (High crime rates among European immigrants were seen as a result of economic pressures; high crime rates among blacks were seen as a racial problem.) The New Welfare Bureaucrats, by Northwestern’s Celeste Watkins-Hayes, is a fascinating account of how welfare caseworkers interact with their clients, and in particular of how the race and class of the caseworkers influence the decisions they make. The Journal of Black Studies and the Journal of African American Studies often include useful material; recent issues have featured an analysis of why black males drop out of two-year colleges, a look at how the media covered the court case that overturned anti-miscegenation laws, and an essay about what members of black sororities think about homosexuality. A conservative reader will find much to disagree with in these works. Some are weighed down by ridiculous jargon and unstated leftist assumptions, but there’s no denying that they provide interesting perspectives and introduce new facts into the discussion.

But it’s also not hard to see where Riley was coming from when she dismissed some black-studies work as irrelevant without reading it — when I went through journals looking for the best papers to read, I skipped over an awful lot without thinking twice, simply because they were about topics that almost no one cares about. To pick just one example, the ways in which Africans resisted white colonialism are undoubtedly worthy of study, and I would have no objection if an essay mentioned that Zimbabweans came up with derogatory nicknames for whites — but I have no interest whatsoever in reading an entire paper called “Nicknaming as a Mode of Black Resistance: Reflections on Black Indigenous People’s Nicknaming of Colonial White Farmers in Zimbabwe.”

Then there’s what Loury, in an online discussion of black studies with the linguist and right-of-center political commentator John McWhorter, called “this racism, racism, racism stuff.” In Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch, a Northwestern black-studies scholar makes the case that Abercrombie — the famous maker of preppy, expensive clothing — is not merely a company that serves a primarily white customer base, but an oppressor of blacks. Also racist, according to various black-studies journals, are “limited government values,” which are a way for whites to enact anti-black policies; the media’s coverage of Venus and Serena Williams, which constitutes a form of racial “surveillance”; and race-neutral policies in public contracting, which are actually “colorblind racism.”

The racism obsession extends beyond research and into teaching. Several years ago, McWhorter (who’s black) went through the curricula and syllabi used in numerous black-studies departments, the central message of which he found to be that “racism and disadvantage are the most important things to note and study about being black.” An astounding number of courses focus solely on how racism affects this or that corner of American life, and many of the curricula teach students the details of black radical politics without touching on black conservative thinkers. McWhorter suggested a curriculum that includes a more diverse set of perspectives — adding not just conservative ideas, but also analysis of non-political aspects of life, such as music.

McWhorter’s goal is worth pursuing. Black studies is unlikely to be eliminated as an academic discipline, but black-studies scholars might be persuaded to broaden their field of inquiry. Their departments do not need more professors crying racism. They need professors who make a more thorough effort to study black life.

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