Thanks to my good friend Cyn at K-12 News Network and her Facebook posts, I’ve been following what I consider to be a fairly amazing series of events involving a blogger, a post, racism, and her ongoing effort to defend the indefensible. If this were just an ordinary blog like this one where one is as likely to post something thoughtful as a picture of a pug rolling around on the grass, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But it is a big deal, and it’s one that I see all the time whenever conservatives write about race or race and higher education. They’re not particularly huge fans of either one, at least when higher education might illuminate others about racial issues.
Blogger vs. Black Studies
The blog in question is published on Chronicle.com — the Chronicle of Higher Education — and is widely read by academics and others on a regular basis. The bloggers aren’t just no-name bloggers, but highly respected academic types with positions at major universities around the country and until this week, one of them was a writer by the name of Naomi Schaeffer Riley. Ms. Riley claims to be a journalist writing about higher education for the past 15 years, has been published in many major newspapers, and wrote a post last week declaring that Black Studies at universities should be eliminated on the basis of the titles of a few of them.
Hey, she’s entitled to her opinion, but that’s beside the point. Her thesis is objectionable on its face, but her delivery was awful. For example, this:
You’ll have to forgive the lateness but I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. 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.
That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.
Riley’s remarks really show her own cluelessness in this area. While I don’t want to refute her snark point by point, I do want to illustrate the danger of making a judgement about someone’s research based upon a title. As it turns out, the role of black midwives is a pretty pivotal one. I found this article from 2007 on Mothering.com discussing the history of black midwives and their legacy. Here’s some pretty key information:
Part of Monroe’s mission is to teach African Americans their history. She wants midwives of all cultures to remember the important position they once held in community health care—a place she feels they should hold again. It was midwives who kept communities together, serving every aspect of health and every member of a family. For Monroe, being a midwife—particularly for the African-American community—means playing a key role in educating black women about their health, reducing infant mortality, and showing women how to raise healthy children with tenderness and attention. These are goals to which Monroe—she won’t give her age, but seems to have more dynamism and energy than most teenagers—has dedicated her life. She hopes that, through ICTC, other African-American midwives will carry on the tradition after she’s gone.
I don’t have to hold a master’s degree or PhD to understand from a simple Google search that black midwifery is steeped in tradition and community, something we all could use a little more of these days. It seems to me like it’s a worthwhile area of study on that basis alone, but just in case there’s still doubt on anyone’s part, this statistic ought to pull people up short:
ICTC is one of the few organizations in the country dedicated to educating and training black midwives. Any doubt about the need for such training is quickly dissipated by a glance at the statistics: Overall, the US has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the developed world, and the rate for African Americans is almost twice that: 13.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to a National Vital Statistics Report.2 The reasons for this are intrinsic to the system we live in, says Monroe, who adds that training and supporting midwives is part of the answer.
Read that statistic while hearing Riley’s voice ask how we could possibly overlook the nonwhite experience in natural birth literature and ask yourself whether or not she bothered to consider how it would be received by people concerned with poverty and health issues in this country, and whether or not it is, on its face, a racist remark.
Later in her post, Riley went after a young scholar by the name of TaSha B. Levy, who is writing a dissertation on African-American Republicans and how conservatives have assaulted the same civil rights legacy they benefited from. Riley’s response?
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?
Another scholar is studying the impact of the 2007-2008 housing crisis on African-Americans, who lost the most in the meltdown. One doesn’t have to look far to discover that the gap in wealth between whites and blacks doubled, with the median wealth of white households being 20 times that of black households. Further, a popular right-wing talking point is the claim that all those loans to minorities by Fannie and Freddie crashed the housing market, when in fact, that is simply not the case. Minorities were exploited badly by unscrupulous lenders who told them they could reach that goal of home ownership even if they couldn’t really afford it. Ms. Levy’s thesis includes a study of the “profitability of racism in the housing market.” Indeed, they were profitable, giving up nearly half their accumulated wealth to the crash and putting a greater number of blacks into poverty than whites. Riley’s response? “Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess.”
Any way you cut it, this post was oozing with racism and intended to be inflammatory. She belittled the writers, the issues they’re studying, and called for a complete end to any scholarly work with regard to African-American, or Black Studies. It offends me, and I’m white. It’s particularly offensive when it’s published for a well-respected publication staffed by academics.
The Chronicle’s editor had a look at what she wrote and the reaction it received and fired her. Good move on their part, and I speak as someone who has written my share of stupid blog posts and tweets that others found offensive. At least I managed to apologize to those I offended, but Riley chose a different route, telling readers that not only was she unapologetic, she had some advice for them:
A word to the wise: If you’re trying to convince the wider world that black people in America are oppressed, I’d skip using the experience of black graduate students as an example.
If at first you don’t succeed…write for the WSJ
Well, thank you for that. With that bit of advice, Riley rode into the sunset at The Chronicle, but only long enough for the sun to rise on her over at Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, where she ripped into higher education overall for, in her words, giving African-Americans a venue in which there are “a series of axes that faculty members would like to grind.”
As evidence for her contention that black studies as an academic endeavor is a dead end, she cites John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute scholar and Fox Business commentator, Hoover Institution Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy Thomas Sowell, Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer and Marxist historian Eugene D. Genovese. All academics, three are black, and all are men. Economists, historians and linguists. Why are they worthy of respect and the targets of Riley’s wrath not? Easy. They weren’t focused in “black studies” departments. In Riley’s view, Economics, History, Linguistics are “real” areas of study. Black studies? Not so much, even though the areas being studied incorporate sociology, economics, history, linguistics, anthropology and other studies necessary to actually look at ways an entire culture situated in an entire country with different demographics has changed and been changed.
If you needed evidence that racism exists and permeates, even in places it shouldn’t, here it is. Riley chose three scholars studying three different areas specific to the African-American experience and tradition — health care, housing and equality — and belittled those studies as irrelevant, self-indulgent and a waste of time.
Taking an even longer view of Riley’s three rants, it would appear that she disapproves of most higher education on general principles, but especially for African-Americans who might dare to focus their research and study on — gasp — African Americans.
Just for fun
I decided to look around at other departments at other universities and see what sorts of studies they were doing on African-Americans. And just for fun, I decided to only read the titles, just like Riley did. Here are some. Tell me if you think they carry more weight because they are sponsored by more, ahem, traditional departments. I offer no commentary whatsoever on whether they are worthy to study. I haven’t read them. All I offer is the department or university where the student is or has researched the topic, and the topic itself. Tell me whether you think they are worthy of study in that context. If they are, why aren’t they worthy of study in the context of black studies?
Liberty University (Conservative Christian):
- A Revitalization and Growth Strategy for the African Methodist Episcopal Churches in the Virginia Conference,
- The Role of Appreciation in Higher Education: The Experience of Online Faculty Members with Instituional Administration
- Church Choirs: An Examination of Relevancy in 21st Century American Churches,
Columbia University (American Studies):
- Charity Fox, “Manifest Mercenaries: Mercenary Narratives in American Popular Culture, 1850-1990”
- Sandra Heard, “The ‘Bad’ Black Consumer: A Study of African-American Consumer Culture in Washington, D.C., 1910s-1930s”
- Cameron Logan, “The Constituent Landscape: History, Race and Real Estate in Washington, D.C., 1950-1990” (Richard Longstreth, Director)
Author’s Note: I do not cite any of the above studies in order to mock them. My question was, and remains, why would any scholarly work be ridiculed simply because it stands outside of the reader’s point of view? This is my primary criticism of Schaeffer. To be clear: Each of the works cited should stand on their own merits as work undertaken as worthy. So too should the work being undertaken by those Schaeffer mocks.