Education

How Black Studies Avoids Studying Blacks

May 10, 2012


Another day, another person fired from a prestigious writing gig for perceived racism.

This time it’s Naomi Schaefer Riley, who was recently fired from her position at the Chronicle of Higher Education for calling the recent crop of dissertations coming out of Northwestern University’s African American Studies Ph.D. program “€œa collection of left-wing victimization claptrap.”€

Riley’s comments came in response to a Chronicle piece on Northwestern’s program and the journey the academic discipline has made since its birth amid late-1960s campus protests.

Riley’s colleagues, OpEd contributors, commenters, websites, and, as of this writing, 6,157 petitioners have called for her ouster. One of Northwestern’s graduate students wrote that “€œone can only assume that in a bid to not be “€œout-n*******”€ by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on.”€

“€œAfrican American Studies has a leaden foot on the victimhood pedal, and its premise is rarely questioned.”€

Criticisms similar to Riley’s aren”€™t new. Academics have long debated African American Studies”€™ legitimacy and rigor.

John McWhorter, a black academic critical of the discipline, wrote for the Manhattan Institute that the mission of most of these departments “€œis to teach students about the eternal power of racism past and present.”€ He added, “€œhowever, too often the curriculum of African American Studies departments gives the impression that racism and disadvantage are the most important things to note and study about being black.”€

McWhorter has also argued that African American Studies explores the contributions of black intellectuals but largely ignores the contributions of black conservatives.

Naomi Riley pointed to a dissertation written by LaTaSha B. Levy who, the Chronicle said, “€œis interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan.”€ She criticizes black conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and McWhorter for playing “€œone of the most significant roles in the assault on the civil rights legacy that benefited them.”€

Writing in the Encyclopedia of African American Studies under the “€œBlack Conservatism”€ entry, Levy accuses black conservatives of using anecdotes to “€œlegitimize anti-black rhetoric and political stances.”€

African American Studies has a leaden foot on the victimhood pedal, and its premise is rarely questioned.

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