Black Studies and the Totalitarian Mind

The academy takes another turn toward Saudi Arabia.

[](/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/05/nriley.gif)There’s the academy, and then there’s the real world.  The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is the academy’s weekly newspaper of record, has long seemed interested in keeping, if not one foot, then at least a toe or two in the real world, publishing articles that are written in lively, non-academic prose and even, from time to time, in the name of intellectual diversity, running pieces that take a less than entirely reverential view of higher education’s left-wing orthodoxies.  It’s a delicate balance – how much heresy can you allow into the tabernacle without outraging the faithful?

The Chronicle’s editor, Liz McMillen, found out the answer to that question other day when one of her regular bloggers, Naomi Schaefer Riley, as reported here recently by Arnold Ahlert, reacted online to a Chronicle piece entitled “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering Into the Future.” The piece, which celebrated an up-and-coming generation of Black Studies scholars who are “rewriting the history of race,” included descriptions of five supposedly exemplary dissertations produced by students in Northwestern University’s recently instituted Ph.D. Program in Black Studies.

What was the gist of these brilliant, pioneering scholarly works?  Well, one of them linked the subprime lending crisis to white racism.  Another argued, essentially, that black conservatives like Thomas Sowell are the tools of white racists.  A third celebrated Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm for confronting racism – and sexism, to boot.  A fourth assailed racial profiling – which, of course, is racism set in system.  Riley quite sensibly dismissed it all as “left-wing victimization claptrap.”  Her post unleashed a firestorm.  Hundreds of academics posted comments savaging her as a racist and accusing her of “hate speech.”  (Incidentally, Riley’s husband is black.)  Several thousand signed an online petition demanding her dismissal.  After holding tough for a few days, McMillen capitulated, firing Riley and posting a pathetic mea culpa in which she assured Riley’s critics that she understood she had made a mistake.

“We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles,” McMillen wrote.  “I realize we have made mistakes. We will thoroughly review our editorial practices…and strengthen our guidelines for bloggers.”  McMillen apologized, additionally, for an Editor’s Note in which, by inviting readers to debate Riley’s post, she had “seemed to elevate it to the level of informed opinion, which it was not.”  She even expressed regret for a tweet of hers which, she now realized, “did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message.”  As if she had not already made perfectly clear her absolute, utter, and cringing contrition, McMillen concluded as follows:

I sincerely apologize for the distress these incidents have caused our readers and appreciate that so many of you have made your sentiments known to us.

One theme many of you have sounded is that you felt betrayed by what we published; that you welcome healthy informed debate, but that in this case, we did not live up to the expectations of the community of readers we serve.

You told us we can do better, and we agree.

As Riley noted in a follow-up piece in the Wall Street Journal, McMillen’s apology read “like a confession at a re-education camp.”  Which is only appropriate, given that the humanities and social sciences departments of American colleges today are indeed, to an alarming extent, precisely that: re-education camps.  The principal objective isn’t to teach young people facts or to train them to think; it’s to indoctrinate them with a rigid, well-nigh cartoonish set of left-wing certitudes about the evils of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, and about the intrinsic association of these evils with the West (especially with the United States) and with the villainous figure of the white male, whose historical oppression of certain groups – chief among them women and people of color – certifies members of those groups as official victims.  (As the case of Elizabeth Warren has reminded us, American Indians are near the top of the list of those academically certified groups.)

This focus on group victimhood is especially intense in the so-called “identity studies” – an increasingly long list of disciplines (including, for example, Fat Studies) of which Women’s Studies and Black Studies are the oldest, largest, and most sacrosanct.  By any serious academic measure, to be sure, these “studies” aren’t really studies at all, because the “conclusions” of the “research” carried out by the “scholars” in these fields are almost invariably foreordained.  In the case of Women’s Studies, all roads lead to patriarchy; in Black Studies, all roads lead to racism.

There’s no good reason, of course, for the institutional study of black American history and culture – which is, after all, an important subject – to take such a form.  For generations, the historically black colleges taught serious, academically respectable courses in “Negro history,” “Negro music,” and the like.  But when the Black Power movement came along, its leaders mocked those sober curricula as “bourgeois.”  They wanted a different kind of discipline – one rooted in rage and obsessed with racism, and victimhood.  And they got just what they wanted.  At one university after another, within a brief period around 1970, radicals terrorized administrators into instituting Black Studies programs on campuses across America.

And when I say terrorized, I mean terrorized: there were bombings, beatings, and Black Panthers aplenty.  Indeed, as Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon acknowledge in their widely used textbook A Companion to African-American Studies, the influence of the Black Panthers – and their goal of “decolonizing the minds of black people” – was crucial to the formation of the discipline, which they describe as “an intrinsically politicized unit of the academy” that seeks to defeat the “false consciousness” created by “white supremacy.”

Forty years have passed, and Black Studies has sought to acquire a respectable veneer.  But beneath the surface it’s all still about racism and victimhood – and to question any of it, as Naomi Schaefer Riley did, is to be perceived by its practitioners as a racist and victimizer.  In their reply to Riley’s piece, the Northwestern graduate students described themselves, and Black Studies generally, as “[l]iberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework” – the implication being that Riley, by criticizing their work, was attempting to reverse that “liberation” and reimpose that “framework.”

The university is supposed to be a setting in which young people learn to think critically, to exchange and dispute ideas, and to learn to engage with people who think differently than they do: this is the very essence of true education.  But in the humanities and social sciences today, with few exceptions – and this is particularly true of identity studies – any hint of dissent is verboten. It is a sad illustration of the state of affairs in the academy today that the overwhelming majority of people who posted comments about Riley’s article didn’t respond to her intelligently, answering her ideas with their own ideas, in a spirit of mature debate; no, they called her names – and called for her head.  McMillen’s implicit characterization of the Chronicle’s readers in her apology speaks volumes: they’re not free individuals who accept the idea of open disagreement; they’re members of a “community” that is apparently so lockstep in its devotion to a shared ideology that any variance therefrom is experienced as a “betray[al]” that causes “distress” – and needs to be snuffed out.

I’m writing this just after attending the closing event of this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum – a presentation of awards to three international human-rights heroes.  One of the presenters was the heroic Russian dissident Garry Kasparov, who – apropos of one of the winners, Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested in her native country, Saudi Arabia, for driving a car – observed that in closed societies, the slightest challenge to the system is likely to be met with what would seem, in open societies, like an outrageously disproportionate response.  The reason is that totalitarian regimes recognize that _any _violation, unless swiftly and brutally punished, may well lead to even greater, and more menacing, challenges to those in power.  That’s what we’re dealing with in American colleges today: closed societies run by people who think like totalitarians.  The good thing is that they’re just teaching courses and not running countries; the bad thing is that they’re shaping the minds of people who will govern the world someday.

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