A Black-Studies Critic’s Willful Ignorance

Ignorance can be so loud and in your face. That much we know; it is a common feature of American public debate these days. Just turn on Fox News or listen to talk radio. But when it is willful ignorance — that is, a deliberate refusal to assess evidence that contradicts ready-at-hand assumptions — it is beyond annoying and irritating. It leaves me angry — especially when crude and harmful views are hiding behind the ignorance.

Recently, Naomi Schaefer Riley penned a screed about the state of black studies. In a rather mindless blog she dismissed the entire field, based on a cursory glance at the dissertation titles of four graduate students mentioned in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She described the general thrust of their work as “left-wing victimization claptrap,” concluded that the scholarship of black studies was stuck in 1963 (a rather arbitrary date) and that its primary mode of analysis, at least as evidenced in the work of these students, was to “blame the white man.” (Perhaps she just finished reading Patrick Buchanan.)

Obviously, titles aren’t the sole criteria to judge the quality of someone’s work. I suspect, given her commitment to “serious” reflection, that if Riley were to take a close look at some of the titles of the dissertations written, say, in the fields of English and American Studies, she would be quick to dismiss those disciplines as well.

Maybe not … because behind Riley’s mean-spirited engagement with the work of these aspiring young scholars lies a troublesome racial politics — and black studies stands as its proxy.

For example, she mentions the dissertation of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on federal housing policy in the 1970s. Taylor, like many of us, links her historical analysis to contemporary realities. But Riley finds this offensive: that somehow any attempt to think about possible historical continuities and the current housing crisis represents a refusal to recognize the substantive differences between the moments — that Taylor claims that nothing has changed in America since slavery or Jim Crow. And to bring the point home she reminds us (with an added exclamation point) that we have a black president. Matters, obviously, have truly changed!

I suppose President Obama’s presence in the White House obliterates histories of racism in this country as well as the need for serious contextualization of persistent racial inequality. Apparently, Riley would have us believe, we are better off with accounts that begin with “some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people” than with practices that short-circuit the life chances of people precisely because of their color.

I disagree. Black studies has an extraordinary bibliography, with a wide range of scholarly views that help us understand the complexity of the human endeavor from the vantage point of African-descended people. Its reach is global; its analysis has opened up pathways of inquiry that have changed the very face of American higher education.

Riley should state up front her conservative politics. She likes black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, Clarence Thomas and others who talk about race matters in particular ways. And she finds black studies wanting because much of the scholarship that animates the field consistently calls such views into question.

If she disagrees with the substance of what we do, then make the argument. Don’t retreat into a condescending mode of speech about what is legitimate, when you don’t cede legitimacy to the field in the first place. In short, keep your ignorance to yourself.