Black Studies 101
A newcomer discovers what he’s been missing

John McWhorter


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.

June 25, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 12

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Michael Knox Beran reviews Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss.
  • Joseph Postell reviews It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein.
  • Amir Taheri reviews Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup, by Christopher de Bellaigue.
  • Claire Berlinski reviews How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), by David P. Goldman.
  • Ryan T. Anderson reviews Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition, by Justin Buckley Dyer.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .