Putting the black studies debate into perspective (essay)

Intellectual Affairs

For a week now, friends have been sending me links from a heated exchange over the status and value of black studies. It started among bloggers, then spilled over into Twitter, which always makes things better. I'm not going to rehash the debate, which, after all, is always the same. As with any other field, black studies (or African-American studies, or, in the most cosmopolitan variant, Africana studies) could only benefit from serious, tough-minded, and ruthlessly intelligent critique. I would be glad to live to see that happen.

But maybe the rancor will create some new readers for a book published five years ago, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (Johns Hopkins University Press) by Fabio Rojas, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. Someone glancing at the cover in a bookstore might take the subtitle to mean it's another one of those denunciations of academia as a vast liberal-fascist indoctrination camp for recruits to the New World Order Gestapo. I don't know whether that was the sales department's idea; if so, it was worth a shot. Anyway, there the resemblance ends. Rojas wrote an intelligent, informed treatment of black studies, looking at it through the lens of sociological analysis of organizational development, and with luck the anti-black-studies diatribalists will read it by mistake and accidentally learn something about the field they are so keen to destroy. (Spell-check insists that “diatribalists” is not a word, but it ought to be.)

Black studies was undeniably a product of radical activism in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Administrators established courses only as a concession to student protesters who had a strongly politicized notion of the field’s purpose. “From 1969 to 1974,” Rojas writes, “approximately 120 degree programs were created,” along with “dozens of other black studies units, such as research centers and nondegree programs,” plus professional organizations and journals devoted to the field.

But to regard black studies as a matter of academe becoming politicized (as though the earlier state of comprehensive neglect wasn’t politicized) misses the other side of the process: “The growth of black studies,” Rojas suggests, “can be fruitfully viewed as a bureaucratic response to a social movement.” By the late 1970s, the African-American sociologist St. Clair Drake (co-author of Black Metropolis, a classic study of Chicago to which Richard Wright contributed an introduction) was writing that black studies had become institutionalized “in the sense that it had moved from the conflict phase into adjustment to the existing educational system, with some of its values accepted by that system…. A trade-off was involved. Black studies became depoliticized and deradicalized.”

That, too, is something of an overstatement -- but it is far closer to the truth than denunciations of black-studies programs, which treat them as politically volatile, yet also as well-entrenched bastions of power and privilege. As of 2007, only about 9 percent of four-year colleges and universities had a black studies unit, few of them with a graduate program. Rojas estimates that “the average black studies program employs only seven professors, many of whom are courtesy or joint appointments with limited involvement in the program” -- while in some cases a program is run by “a single professor who organizes cross-listed courses taught by professors with appointments in other departments.”

The field “has extremely porous boundaries,” with scholars who have been trained in fields “from history to religious studies to food science.” Rojas found from a survey that 88 percent of black studies instructors had doctoral degrees. Those who didn’t “are often writers, artists, and musicians who have secured a position teaching their art within a department of black studies.”

As for faculty working primarily or exclusively in black studies, Rojas writes that “the entire population of tenured and tenure-track black studies professors -- 855 individuals -- is smaller than the full-time faculty of my own institution.” In short, black studies is both a small part of higher education in the United States and a field connected by countless threads to other forms of scholarship. The impetus for its creation came from African-American social and political movements. But its continued existence and development has meant adaptation to, and hybridization with, modes of enquiry from long-established disciplines.

Such interdisciplinary research and teaching is necessary and justified because (what I am about to say will be very bold and very controversial, and you may wish to sit down before reading further) it is impossible to understand American life, or modernity itself, without a deep engagement with African-American history, music, literature, institutions, folklore, political movements, etc.

In a nice bit of paradox, that is why C.L.R. James was so dubious about black studies when it began in the 1960s. As author of The Black Jacobins and The History of Negro Revolt, among other classic works, he was one of the figures students wanted to be made visiting professor when they demanded black studies courses. But when he accepted, it was only with ambivalence. "I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies," he told an audience in 1969. "...I only know, the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain social setting, and, particularly, the last two hundred years. It's impossible for me to separate black studies and white studies in any theoretical point of view."

Clearly James's perspective has nothing in common with the usual denunciations of the field. The notion that black studies is just some kind of reverse-racist victimology, rigged up to provide employment for "kill whitey" demagogues, is the product of malice. But it also expresses a certain banality of mind -- not an inability to learn, but a refusal to do so. For some people, pride in knowing nothing about a subject will always suffice as proof that it must be worthless.

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Essay on impact of vanderbilt policies on catholic students

Religion and academia have never had an easy relationship. 

American conservatives often think of college professors as wildly left-wing, politically agitating atheists bent on undermining American, Western, and otherwise Judeo-Christian values.  Right wing radio shock jocks frequently bemoan the university as a hotbed of liberal propaganda, spinning it as a battleground in the “war on religion” that the left is supposedly waging. 

These sorts of jeremiads against liberal fascism and its beef with belief have tended to huddle within the bastion of conservative rhetoric, generating little interest beyond those who already agree with it.  Recently, however, the issue of religious freedom on campus has drawn the respective hussars out of their fortresses, with April’s news that Vandy Catholic—an organization of 500 Catholic students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee -- will be moving its operation off-campus next year.

The reason for the departure is Vandy Catholic’s opposition to a longstanding nondiscrimination policy that Vanderbilt began to enforce more strictly this year.  The policy, beefed up after reports emerged in 2010 that a gay student was forced out of a Christian fraternity on campus, stipulates that all students are to be eligible for membership in registered student organizations.  (Registered student organizations are eligible for funding from university sources and can use campus meeting rooms for free or at reduced cost, among other benefits). More controversially, it requires that all members in good standing be considered for leadership roles in those organizations, regardless of their personal convictions. 

For Vanderbilt’s Catholic community, the news that they would have to consider non-Catholics as potential leaders -- even though the university guarantees their right to choose their leaders in the end—turned out to be unacceptable.  In late March, Vandy Catholic decided to cut official ties with Vanderbilt and operate as a non-registered student organization, meaning it will no longer be able to include the Vanderbilt name as part of its official identity.   Summarizing the feelings of the group, Rev. John Sims Baker, chaplain of Vandy Catholic, wrote in a recent statement, “Our purpose has always been to share the Gospel and proudly to proclaim our Catholic faith.  What other reason could there be for a Catholic organization at Vanderbilt?  How can we say it is not important that a Catholic lead a Catholic organization?”

The question the Vanderbilt policy has raised among religious conservatives is whether such non-discrimination policies in reality constitute attempts on the part of left-leaning academicians to discourage religious organizations from operating on campus.  For example, the opening lines of a Fox News article on March 29, 2012, read, “Is Vanderbilt University waging a war against religion?  Many of the university’s religious student groups think so.”  Not allowing a religious organization to stipulate who can be a leader would seem tantamount to denying it the freedom to define itself how it chooses. 

Lyzi Diamond of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog site for free speech on college campuses, writes,  “[…] the policy essentially dictates that religious […] organizations cannot determine their leadership based on the very things that make those groups unique: their beliefs and viewpoints.”  Vandy Catholic is a unique organization thanks precisely to the Catholic beliefs and values that its leaders should logically be expected to share.  Yet the university’s administrators say those beliefs cannot figure into whom is given consideration for leadership positions.  In fact, were a leader of Vandy Catholic to change his views while in office, the organization would have no means of removing him. 

Are we dealing with a case of left-leaning, religion-hating powers-that-be using subtle means to give religious organizations the boot?  This is certainly what the shock jocks would have us believe, and their followers are legion. But the real answer lies elsewhere.  Vandy Catholic’s fate has more to do with the culture of politically correct morality that has ruled college campuses since the 1980s, and less to do with the putative “war on God” that has caused religious conservatives to cry foul in recent years.

The bottom line for an institution like Vanderbilt is not extolling the virtues of tolerance and inclusion, despite what the university’s administrators would have us believe.  Social engineering in deference to diversity is a lofty goal, and its realization is rarely within the grasp of a handful of campus bureaucrats and their faculty supporters.   Rather—and much more prosaically—the unspoken goal of such campus nondiscrimination policies is to avoid litigation and the legal nightmares that accompany even the zaniest accusations of discrimination. 

One of the myths of politically correct morality is that it was borne out of a heartfelt yearning for a more tolerant, more inclusive, and more equal society.  This may be true in some limited sense, but if one were really to trace, à la Friedrich Nietzsche, the genealogy of politically correct morals to their source, one would find not a bleeding heart but the fear of lawsuits. Vanderbilt is doing what any powerful institution must do in our society of victimization: covering its hide. Better an injustice than a disorder!

Meanwhile, organizations like Vandy Catholic are left holding the bag.  The group’s right to determine its identity has been superseded by a new set of “rights” stressing inclusion to the point of ridiculousness.  Deciding who may or may not lead an organization is a fundamental part of a group’s process of self-definition. This is especially true of religious organizations, whose sense of identity is rooted in a particular creed.  Religious groups are by definition based on some form of belief- or value-based exclusion, and to accept their existence logically entails accepting their exclusivity. 

Religious freedom is therefore not the only thing suffering on the Vanderbilt campus. Reason suffers with it. Hopefully the university’s administrators will see the error in their ways and produce a policy more in tune with common sense.

Louis Betty received a Ph.D. in French literature from Vanderbilt University in 2011. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.


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