On April 12, Stacey Patton’s article, “Black Studies: Swaggering Into the Future: A new generation of Ph.D.’s advances the discipline,” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Patton is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Rutgers University and a professor at Montclair State University. She has received numerous journalism awards and written for The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, New York Newsday, and Scholastic. Ironically, “Black Studies” begins:
Northwestern University’s first cohort of black-studies Ph.D.’s was not baptized in the fire of racial politics. They are members of a younger generation of scholars who bring 21st-century perspectives to the study of race and new approaches to the field of black studies. The struggle for civil rights and racial integration is not part of their lived experience. They grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, often attended the best colleges, and typically escaped at least some of the racial injustices their elders knew. Raised by parents who have provided more educational opportunities than the generation before, they are scholars who tend not to get hung up on victimization and alienation. Young black-studies scholars, like the five who enrolled in Northwestern’s inaugural Ph.D. class in 2006, are less consumed than their predecessors with the need to validate the field or explain why they are pursuing doctorates in their discipline. They have chosen dissertation topics with clear social relevance to this generation’s ethos and are expanding upon previous studies of race with more nuanced examinations of sexuality, class, religion, performativity of race in day-to-day interactions, and global views about blackness.
On April 30, The Chronicle of Higher Education published Naomi Schaefer Riley’s response to Patton, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” So I say “ironically” because Riley’s blog instances the racial politics that the students’ elders fought so fiercely against and even within the same institutional forum that so many of their struggles were fought.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a graduate from Harvard University in English and Government, is a prolific journalist. She has authored numerous articles for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and is a regular contributor to the Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog. She has also authored several books, including God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For, and co-authored Acculturated.
In “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” Riley writes:
If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the 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. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.
After a vitriolic and dismissive review of three of the five dissertations and their authors, Riley concludes:
Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments. If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.
While taking on Riley’s minimalization of the importance of the work within Black Studies on issues like midwifery, housing, public policy, and race, as well as her targeting of doctoral students, the punch line of Tressiemc’s critique is on The Chronicle’s complicity with it:
… by elevating Schaefer Riley’s racially tinged attack on three emerging scholars, The Chronicle is legitimizing open season on black scholars for doing black studies. That’s racist racism. It does go to prove that black studies remain critical to academe but it also begs the question: with colleagues like The Chronicle and Naomi Schaefer Riley who in the hell needs enemies?
The graduate students respond powerfully and decisively with a critique of the conservative right’s unswerving display of racism towards Black people – most recently on the campaign trails of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
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. Despite her attempts to silence us personally, and indeed the discipline as a whole, her exhortations confirm the need for the vigorous study and investigation of black life in the United States and beyond. Riley describes our work as driven by “conspiracy theories,” “liberal hackery,” and “left-wing victimization claptrap” all in an attempt to deny the persistence of racism in American society…. As black people living in the United States we do not need conspiracy theories or white bogie men to explain the disparities that separate and distinguish the life chances of white people compared to those of African Americans, even with a black president sitting in the White House. We understand that these conditions are driven and shaped by racism and real white men who exercise power and influence in the economic, social and political institutions that govern this nation. Before the dirt has fully come to rest on the grave of Trayvon Martin, black men and women, in the academy or outside of it, have never needed Harvard educated white women to lecture us about the conditions in the communities we live in—and we certainly do not need it now. Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in.
As with Tressiemc, the students conclude by shaming The Chronicle for publishing and so legitimating Riley’s argument.
After such powerful and empowered remarks, you would think Riley’s racism would be tempered by some even modest humility. But instead, on May 3, she issued another blog entry, “Black Studies, Part 2: A Response to Critics” – on The Chronicle’s Brainstorm.
After dissing feminism as offering nothing more than clichéd mantras (“the personal is political”), Riley shores herself up against her critics first by reviewing her credentials (“My qualifications to post on this blog consist of….) and the fact that since “Black studies is now an academic discipline at most universities” she – as a qualified journalist – “get[s] to comment on that too.” She then dismisses as “laughable at best” the idea that she cannot criticize the most privileged of Black people – graduate students – and that in doing so she is “bullying” them. “Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.” In other words, she is qualified but not informed and that is just fine given the time and word-limit constraints of being a blog contributor.
Riley concludes that, “Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.”
The Politics of Erasure
There is nothing unusual or even really all that interesting about Riley’s arguments. She is not saying anything extraordinary, especially if you have been listening to those fiscal and social conservatives who claim to have the public’s best interests at heart — especially but not only when it comes to the question of defunding public education.
The arguments of fiscal conservatives go that the employability of university graduates is thwarted by obscure curriculum that has no “real world” relevance. This is because the curriculum — and the scholarship on which it is based — is far too specialized to be helpful, issued as it is from the highfalutin interdisciplinary fields of critical race, ethnic, gender, sexuality, and disability studies to an ever increasingly narrowed and self-indulgent audience of the same. The result of this intellectual masturbation is evident in the high unemployment rates of graduates, not to mention the ever increasing egotistical delusions and intellectual eccentricities of university faculty and their doctoral students.
When paired with the arguments of social conservatives, we not only get Riley-esque rants about how everything coming from the interdisciplinary fields of critical race, ethnic, gender, sexuality, and disability studies has an “anti-white man” stench to it, but we get Arizona’s ban of ethnic studies curriculum in public schools. The arguments of social conservatives can and do go in all kinds of directions: ethnic studies faculty and students are looking for scapegoats to blame their own personal shortcomings and/or community ills on; ethnic studies curriculum is “advocating ethnic solidarity” against whites, even inciting prejudice, bigotry, and resentment of ethnic groups towards whites; white men are being made over, unfairly, into the grand historical oppressors of everyone else. The result is the same. Legally mitigated censorship, book banning, and defunding.
But in order to make any or all of these arguments, all kinds of erasures are necessary. And those erasures are what enable and perpetuate the laws and policies of censorship, book banning, and defunding.
Erasures such as those of the role of deregulation and tax breaks for transnational corporations and their banks in the economic collapse and loss of jobs for students and everyone else — corporations/banks themselves engaged in shipping jobs and resources oversees while investing their huge profits into executive salaries and shareholder benefits and not, as they claim, into new jobs for graduates.
Erasures such as those of the role of corrupted fraud within congress and bank lending and crediting practices that have left millions homeless or living in unlivable situations while indenturing millions more (and some of the same) to exorbitant interest rates on student and mortgage loans that they will never be able to pay off in their lifetimes.
Erasures such as those of the role of systematic and systemic devastation of lands, rivers, and life that has not only threatened our environmental sustainability but the ability of families and whole communities to house, feed, and cloth themselves. Families and communities whose health — as a direct result of this devastation — will only deteriorate further with their loss of public access to health care.
Erasures such as the fact that “liberal arts” university degrees are often sought and earned by students wanting to become K-12 teachers, who must now contend with insecure careers in underfunded public school systems and against anti-union efforts that threaten their health care and pensions.
Throughout the erasure of these social contexts is the role of racist ideologies and practices aimed not at fiscal responsibility or more moderate textbooks but the continuation of an entire legal and economic system that benefits some at the expense of others. And not just any “some” or any “others.” Those who benefit from the system we live in are those classified and perceived as white, as heterosexual, as citizen, as lawful, as human. Those who do not are non-white, non-heterosexual, non-citizen, non-lawful, and inhuman. Their effort is not to make public education relevant and non-partisan — as people like Riley pretend — but to ensure that education does not pose a viable political opposition or threat to the continuation of these relationships of privilege and suppression. And what better way to do that than to call for its defunding on the pretense of its irrelevance?