Sense and Function

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MAY 3, 2012 7:37PM

No Laughing at the Attack on Black Studies

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On reading this genuinely revolting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I feel compelled to sign this petition challenging the CHE at least to withdraw the article, and at most, to discipline its author. The author, Naomi Schaefer Riley, was responding to a feature article on the dissertations of the first cohort of Black Studies PhDs from Northwestern. She reads brief summaries of five dissertations and makes snarky, derisive and alarmingly uninformed remarks dismissing these dissertations and Black Studies in general.

I want to laugh it off. But I can't. It appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it purports to examine the fruits of Black Studies departments and argue that they should not exist.

The main problem is that she does not so much criticize as dismiss. There is no self-questioning in her tone, no sense that the dissertations might actually be about meaningful topics that she wasn't able to grasp by reading the blurb. Anyone familiar with higher education knows that you can't communicate a dissertation and why it matters in 25 words. This alone makes her "criticisms" largely irrelevant. In fact, it makes them into slander. 

But this is not the only reason her objections are largely irrelevant. I'll give three examples: 

  1. In a dissertation that examines black women's experience of childbirth, our reviewer responds: "How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is?" She dismisses the existence of the topic, and this without reading any of the dissertation, which, as a matter of course, would justify the topic in the introduction. This dismissal is racist, since it is precisely by presuming that the white person's experience is the norm that other people's experience is devalued. 
  2. In response to a dissertation that examines how racism affected housing market problems before and after the crash, she responds "Not much of a surprise since the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race. Shhhh. Don’t tell them about the black president!" There is too much wrong with this to mention everything: she says this as though she understands the whole field of Black Studies today, but more interestingly, as though the fact of a black president undermines the rationale for Black Studies. This latter claim seems to depend on two ideas: that Black Studies is about racism, and that having a black President means that racism has declined or disappeared. Neither is true.
  3. One dissertation examines what it calls an assault on civil rights, arguing that it was in a significant way perpetrated by some black conservative politicians and judges. The author's response: dismiss the idea by speculating wildly about what evidence the student was using, and what the dissertation argued about it: "The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?"

The Chronicle of Higher Education is an academic news source. It is entirely inappropriate, especially, but not only in academic discourse, to dismiss someone using derision, to dismiss someone’s arguments before listening to their reasons and evidence, to put words in the mouth of your opponent (a straw man argument), and finally, to deride and dismiss an entire discipline based on five dissertation blurbs.

Yet, in a follow-up post responding to critics she actually says "it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them." I would say it is not her job, except when she's about to commit libel, and especially when the issue is as sensitive and as important as race.

Here are some things that I think she gets wrong, which leads her into this world of trouble. These remarks are somewhat speculative, of course, but perhaps helpful:

  1. She makes the (false) assumption that everything in black studies departments is going to be no more nor less than an attempt to prove that there is racism and to blame white people for it. But there's more to black people than racism! 
  2. She also makes the (false) assumption there is no sound evidence to back up claims of racism in these cases. In fact, she seems to argue that racism doesn't exist, or isn't a problem ("Shhhh. Don't tell them about the black president!"), and that because of this, Black Studies programs are founded on counter-racism. It's as though she is saying, "as far as I can see, counter-racism is the only racism in the room." But this is itself a form of racism, to say that the person who brings up the problem is the one creating the problem.
  3. Finally, she makes the (false) assumption that every claim that racism exists is neither more nor less than an accusation that white individuals are expressing unadulterated cruelty and hatred. Racism takes many forms, and that is only one of them: racism is the pattern by which companies who release toxic pollution overwhelmingly exploit the lack of political and media power of poor black neighborhoods to resist so that they can build their industries there, or since poor and desperate people (black and white!) will take more risks to make money, they are easier lead to crime, and then you can also make TV shows which identify black people or black culture with violence or crime or sex or poverty.

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I’ll agree, up to a point, with your criticisms of the critic. Your subsequent post disclosed her termination. Therefore, it appears that, after an examination of the evidence by others, her flaws were significant, as you suspected.

However, you also wrote:

“Anyone familiar with higher education knows that you can't communicate a dissertation and why it matters in 25 words.”

This may not always be true. My experience suggests that significant issues and problems don’t require many words to describe or to relate to significant outcomes. On the other hand, unimportant, imaginary, or irrelevant evils seem to require many words to define and to connect to major influences.

Perhaps there are no metrics with which to determine whether my theory might fit available data. However, there seems much anecdotal evidence here on OS to suggest that such an inverse relationship might exist.