Saturday, October 3, 2009

Even The Left Worries About Black Studies

Have you wondered over the years if only conservatives think that Black Studies (or its variant form, Ethnic Studies) is an undisciplined, seriously-flawed academic program, you are not alone. Even some liberals question its efficacy, though usually only after praising its original good intentions and conceptual verities. One of those is New Republic writer James McWhorter (pictured).

In a current online article at The New Republic, McWhorter does a yeoman's job of discussing the many failings and peregrinations of Black Studies, from its first manifestation at San Francisco State University forty years ago in response to the Black Students Riots (which he more gently calls the "black student unrest"). Take my word for it. I was there working on my master's degree while the unrest was going on--they were riots in all the classical meanings of "riots."

S. I. Hayakawa, President of the [then] San Francisco State College, an academic purist and former professor himself, and later one-term Senator from California, had refused to consider starting a new department for Black Studies, and had very reasonably offered to add a sub-major ("discipline") within either the history or political science department. Hayakawa held multiple degrees, including two doctorates, in psychology, linguistics, semantics and English. His most notable work was Language in Thought and Action (which I read and critiqued in my undergraduate studies at Berkeley). That work specifically addressed the danger in mixing propaganda, ethnic purity and academics. He was writing about the Nazi era, but he saw the potential for danger in creating any ethnically-specific academic course of study as a stand-alone course.

But his offer was not good enough for the radicals. And the fun began. Occupation of student and academic buildings. Burning of furniture. Assault and battery. Finally, out of exhaustion, the school administration gave in, figuring the department wouldn't last long and would soon become a footnote to history. San Francisco State became the first school to have a Black Studies Department. Instead of dying a natural death, it became a rallying point for race-baiting academic radicals, and spread like a virulent cancer to campuses nationwide, where it remains, in several different forms today.

McWhorter asks the question: "Has what they teach forty-one fall semesters later evolved with the march of time?" He first addresses the underlying thinking at the time of the original academic creation. Blacks were penned into segregated districts and then factory jobs available to modestly educated men. Those factories have now moved to China, India and elsewhere in the world, and blacks are no longer confined to ghettoes if they choose not to be. Still, he says: "The typical African-American Studies department holds front and center a particular lesson: that racism is more influential in American life at present than one might initially think, and always has been. Radicalism was at its most influential when it spoke truth to power, but was it the source of most black success?" McWhorter doesn't think so.

And then he states: "Is that all we are? Is that all we have been? Is it irrelevant to cover how black people have triumphed against the obstacles? Especially since so many have that today there are more middle-class black people than poor ones? Is the main relevance of the fact that we have a black President--ahem!!!!--that his election didn't mean, as if anyone thought it did, that there did not remain some racist idiots here and there?"

"It's time that African-American Studies departments let go of the sixties imperative to defend blacks as eternal victims of racism. Black people can do their best even under imperfect conditions--and if that reality is irrelevant to an African-American Studies curriculum, then we must question the value of said curricula to those whom they purport to speak up for; real people in this real world. This real world which will never be perfect--even for descendants of African slaves."

"In 2009, the study of blackness must be the study of a race most of whose members are now victors, not victims. Certainly the victims must be studied--but only within a genuine commitment to saving them, not chronicling them as helpless until America turns upside down in a fashion no one could seriously imagine will ever happen."

What a wonderful breath of fresh air. I quoted more extensively than I normally do because it's what I would say except that it has the added impact of being written by a successful black man. I believe, as did Hayakawa over forty years ago, that academia had given short shrift to Africa and African-Americans in the overview of world history. But to give this topic an individual life of its own, outside the context of world history, was to commit the same mistake in reverse. McWhorter states specifically that he does not want to eliminate African-American Studies. But his description of the discipline itself sounds like a distinction without a genuine difference, an academic quibble between two very similar schools of thought.

"This piece is simply a call for a true African-American Studies paradigm: a study of black people entire, with ample room for views from all sides. Black conservatives should be read alongside Du Bois and Baldwin, with no clucking and hedging. Any hovering consensus that leftist positions are 'truth' should be a mark of failure."

McWhorter has experienced the same phenomenon gone through by almost any white conservative speaking on any topic at a college or university. "Since I started writing and speaking on race in 2000, it has been typical that when I am invited to speak at a university by an African-American Studies department, often I am expected to yield some time to someone assigned to give a riposte--i.e. speak up for the usual leftist line. That is, the inviters pride themselves on being open-minded enough to hear me out, but consider it the duty of good-thinking folk to provide, shall we say, 'balance'." "But then, when 'proper'-thinking black writers are invited to speak, there is no sense that their talk is incomplete without a 'conservative' person spending fifteen minutes having their say." Well said, Mr. McWhorter, and welcome to the skewed world of academia.

McWhorter concludes: "In an African-American Studies department of the kind I suggest, speakers and teachers of all walks would be permitted--note: not just conservative ones--and students would be able to come to their own conclusions. That is, be educated in the true sense. Do African-American Studies departments want to deny their majors an education in the true sense?" I am sorry to say that I think your answer to that question is the same as mine. They do indeed want exactly that, lest they be required to produce rigorous academic work and face serious scrutiny that is no longer free from dissent.

And Cornel West of Princeton is the perfect example. When Larry Summers, then President of Harvard University, called West into his office to explain why he was not publishing properly as required by university standards for full professors, why he was canceling classes to attend political events, and how he considered making a hip-hop CD to be equal to publication of academic material, West stormed out and shopped for a less rigorous place to work. He found it at Princeton.

I found McWhorter's article to be extremely well thought-out. I disagree with him on some minor points, particularly on the efficacy of keeping Black Studies as a separate curriculum. But there is little to dispute academically. McWhorter should have been prepared for the inevitable onslaught of criticism. First the "I've noticed" ploy, followed by the "let's go off-topic" ploy.

His critic online writes: "Here's something I've noticed. Almost all the editors at TNR seem to be white. And the subject of race does not pop up all that frequently here. But when it does, it's almost always from McWhorter.

"Draw your own conclusions,of course, but really: Obama notwithstanding, how much progress on race have we really made in America--even in the punditocracy--when this sort of thing still persists?"

"And you would think that with each passing year [over the past 40] the success of the African-American Studies programs would make it less and less likely they would still be around to remind us of why it is still crucial that they are."

"I've been rereading Nixonland [and I lived through it in any number of radical political organizations] so I know how dramatic things have changed over the past 40 years. But I also know how dramatically they have not. The "race problem." Try to imagine W.E.B. Dubois around today commenting on it. What would he be saying?"

"To Barack Obama for example."

Here's how that follows the leftist attack line against liberal black writers who diverge from radicalism, without calling him an Oreo or an Uncle Tom:

1. I'm very observant, and I noticed the sin of white dominaton.
2. Your publication is tainted because it's populated largely by white people.
3. Your publication is AWOL on race.
4. You are their "token Negro" for writing about race.
5. Draw your own conclusions (but they will be wrong).
6. OK, you made a couple of points, but overall it's as bad or worse than ever.
7. The fact that Black Studies programs still exist is proof of their worthiness.
8. I've been reading a book nobody ever heard of which will prove my point.
9. I concur that some things have changed, but they're still really, really bad.
10. Cite the name of a Black Studies icon, and imply that he would disagree with the author.

Mr. McWhorter, I admire your guts, your honesty, and I hope my summary above helps you recognize in advance how you will always be attacked from the far left. If you ever decide to become a conservative, I guarantee you that the gloves will come off, and the attack won't be nearly so subtle.


MegaTroll said...

It's good to know that even black are beginning to wonder about black studies. When I went to school, you didn't even suggest this was a bad idea or you were going to be in big trouble.

AndrewPrice said...

Fascinating. There are certain naked emperors who do not like to be told that they are naked, and the race/gender studies departments are those emperors. McWhorter better watch out or they're going to see to it that he never works in this town again!

LL said...

Who will hire a graduate with a degree in Black Studies?

Ok, maybe the government or ACORN.

Writer X said...

The same can be said for "Women Studies" programs which are also, larely, leftist. Despite its political leanings, I never really saw the point of either. Both strike me as mostly whiney, "I'm a victim," impractical areas of study. I remember taking a couple of "women studies" type courses in college and, looking back, I think I would have rather stuck forks in my eyes than take those classes again. People, professors, and organizations have become quite successful promoting the notion that these types of programs are necessary. I don't see them going away anytime soon or becoming more enlightened.

LawHawkSF said...

MegaTroll: I think that Black Studies is as resistant as affirmative action, if not more so. Both are destructive to the black community.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: The New Republic is one of the last holdouts of relatively reasonable liberal thought. But I really wonder how long they'll hold out against the criticism that will build against McWhorter.

LawHawkSF said...

LL: Outside ACORN and adademia, Black Studies is one of the most completely useless majors imaginable. Of course, there's always politics, if the grad lives in the right neighborhood.

LawHawkSF said...

WriterX: Womens studies had at least one saving grace. Once you got past the man-hating crap, there were lessons on how to compete in a "man's world." Black studies doesn't even do that. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. It doesn't even encourage black entrepeneurship, since that's too much like "acting white."

StanH said...

Hyphenated names along with the intentional Balkanization of the American melting pot are a danger to this great Republic. “Divide and conquer” …to what ends? The result of Black Studies at universities are abysmal. The catch phrase “diversity,” for the sake of diversity is useless. It’s good to see McWhorter taking it on, even if it’s just at the edges. In my mind to finally rid this country of the racial victim hood that has decimated the black community it needs to be done with the Walter Williams, Thomas Sowells, Herman Cains, etc. of the world (all brilliant black men) with a sledge hammer. To finally rid this country of the race industry, where a person is judged by the content of their character as opposed to the color of their skin. Great article Lawhawk, we need more McWhorters.

LawHawkSF said...

The best summation I've heard on the issue is "respect diversity, celebrate unity." As I mentioned in the article, I have no problem with African history taught within the overarching topic of world history. But to isolate it from the rest of world history is to to what all the other liberal nostrums have done--separate blacks from the rest of society. It goes from black studies to black superiority and hatred of whites very quickly. There's no future, just the re-hash of a victimized past.

LL said...

If you're an egotistical bigot with a big chip on your shoulder, you could find Black Studies works for you.

Perhaps get a job at Harvard...

LawHawkSF said...

LL: Yep. Then you can teach "Cop-Baiting 101." When a police officer acts reasonably while trying to protect you and your neighbors, call him racist names and go outside to make sure everyone in the neighborhood will hear.

Mike Kriskey said...

Is McWhorter considered a liberal? I've read a few of his books and agreed with most of what he had to say.

Except for his defense of rap music.

HamiltonsGhost said...

I remember that back in the day, before political correctness, we studied Western Civilization as part of the core curriculum, but I don't remember it being "white studies," and there was plenty of negative information about religious wars, imperialism and racial superiority theories. But it was balanced. And if you wanted your specialty to be in "African-American studies, or Asian studies," or "women's studies," etc.), you then had a strong foundation to build your studies on. When you haven't studied Western Civilization, how do you have any context for seeing the silliness of "black history" such as "Black Athena," positing that all western thought and science were stolen by the Greeks from black people?

LawHawkSF said...

HamiltonsGhost: Once "Western Civilization" was demonized as "white supremacy" or the more popular "Eurocentrism," it was a dead duck on most campuses. Stanford did a "two-fer." It dropped the Indians as their school mascot and dumped Western Civ. Today, a black studies major from Stanford is just as ignorant as a black studies graduate from Possum Grease State College, but is better dressed.

CalFederalist said...

Lawhawk--I remember Western Civilization being very, very inclusive. It certainly didn't start with the Greeks. First you learned about Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, and then expanded into Egypt. The Greeks didn't even come along until your sophomore year, and as you have said, you had context. The Greeks and the Romans were great admirers of the Egyptians and earlier civilizations.

LawHawkSF said...

CalFederalist: And another of those "horrible Eurocentric" things we studied was the Crusades. It was not taught, contrary to the current leftist line, as good Christians against bad Muslims. But however accurate the instruction was (and it was very hard on the Crusaders), it wouldn't be sufficiently anti-Europe and anti-Christian to satisfy today's leftists. At least we knew that it wasn't the Christians who took the Holy Land away from the Muslims. It was the other way around, and the Crusades were only a short respite from that fact.

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