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The Wrong Reviewer

Leading history journal apologizes for assigning review of book on inequality and urban education issues to a professor viewed by many as a white supremacist.

April 18, 2017
 

American Historical Review, a flagship journal in history, has apologized for assigning a book about inequality and urban education to a professor who has been criticized by many as a white supremacist.

Many historians say that the review -- in criticizing the book's author for not focusing on "sociobiology" -- was effectively criticizing her for not endorsing widely discredited views about race and intelligence. The journal is commissioning a new review of the book but is not retracting the review that it published.

The book in question is Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (University of Chicago Press), by Ansley T. Erickson, assistant professor of history and education at Teachers College of Columbia University. The book was published last year, to positive reviews.

The book focuses on Nashville, Tenn., and examines how various decisions by public school systems and the forces that govern the school systems promote inequality along racial and economic lines. The book acknowledges the role of racism in American society and in the development of public school systems and policy.

The reviewer selected by AHR, as the journal is widely known, was Raymond Wolters, professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware. Wolters has published a series of articles in American Renaissance, a publication that urges a focus on "white identity."

One of his articles is "Why Have We Unlearned What We Knew in 1900?" In the article, Wolters laments that, after World War II, the United States and its allies "decided to put as much distance as possible between their nations and Nazism, which they came to define as refusal to accept diversity. In retrospect, we can see that this set the stage for dismantling the existing particularisms in Western societies."

He goes on to suggest that immigration to the United States and Europe from "non-whites" could "ultimately destroy the victors of World War II." Wolters also criticizes "culturism" for controlling American higher education and trying "to silence those who give Darwinian or biological explanations for race and sex differences in achievement." And Wolters praises the late J. Philippe Rushton, whose work on race and intelligence has been widely condemned by scientists as racist.

Wolters did not respond to email messages seeking comment for this article.

A series of letters in the new issue of AHR blast the journal for assigning the review to Wolters and for publishing it. They said it was unfair to Erickson and a disservice to history to let this review appear.

"Many experts in the field, tonight, have begun openly questioning the broad editorial quality of the American Historical Review," wrote N. D. B. Connolly, Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. "History as a discipline lies diminished under such questioning. This is not about academic freedom. This is not about freedom of speech. This is not about creating room for debate. This is about whether the AHR remains a place where professional historians can still safely expect professional handling of their work. In an age of salacious news and clickbait, no serious scholar should expect as bad-faith a review in such an important professional venue as what I read this evening."

Zoe Burkholder, associate professor of educational foundations at Montclair State University, cited two reasons why the journal should not have published the review. "First, it is inappropriate and unfair that you selected a white supremacist who believes in black racial inferiority to review a civil rights history book," she wrote. "Wolters’s views are no secret -- in fact, they are well-known among historians of education."

Burkholder added, "Second, it is an act of both racism and sexism to publish this review without editorial comment. It is racist because this review implies there is a science of racial difference that Erickson legitimately did not take into account, when you know perfectly well that is not true. It is sexist because you handed over a published book of a junior, untenured female faculty member to a white, male, senior scholar in the field to review when there was plenty of available evidence that he would not be able to offer an accurate and fair review. His review is biased and unfair, yet it is published in our discipline’s most prestigious journal. Female scholars have enough trouble getting tenure and advancing in academia without the added burden of prejudicial book reviews, a burden you just placed on Erickson."

Robert A. Schneider, interim editor of AHR and professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington, published an apology at the end of the letters.

His statement, in full: "The AHR deeply regrets both the choice of the reviewer and aspects of the review itself. As for the choice of the reviewer, I have reviewed the process by which he was placed on our 'pick list' of potential reviewers, and I have been reassured that we were not aware of his publicly aired and published views when he was selected. His university webpage reveals him to be a legitimate scholar with a fairly long and solid publication record; our database also confirmed his status as an academic who has published in credible scholarly venues. It is absolutely true, of course, that a little more digging would have turned up evidence that would have -- and has -- discredited him as a legitimate scholar.

"Regrettably, we did not dig further. Worse yet, we did not investigate his views even when his review was flagged for my perusal. This is entirely on me. I recall lingering over that last sentence where he mentions sociobiology, wondering whether it was appropriate. In retrospect I should have lingered longer. As well, this sentence should have prompted me to look into his recent publications, which would certainly have convinced me to pull the review. Alas, I did neither, for which I owe both Professor Erickson and our readers an apology. We will be commissioning another review of her book."

Via email Schneider said that the journal was reviewing procedures to prevent anything like this from happening again.

Many of the critical letters to the journal have called for the review by Wolters to be retracted. Schneider said the journal is in the process of placing a statement about the review before it in the digital editions of the journal.

But he said that there would be no retraction. "We did indeed consider retraction as an option but, in consultation with the [American Historical Association, which sponsors the journal] and Oxford University Press, we decided not to go this route," he said. "There were several considerations, but one in particular speaks to a fundamental principle: in a sense, it would be 'convenient' for us to retract this clearly egregious review -- everyone would like to go back and eliminate their mistakes. However, this would not only be self-serving, it would also amount to effacing evidence -- something historians especially are loath to do -- of an error."

Erickson, via email, said, "I appreciate the apology and the plans for a new review. A retraction would be largely symbolic. The original text would continue to circulate in print and digitally. And as it does, it serves as a useful reminder of the AHR's participation in this problem. I care more about the actions that come next. For the AHR and other scholarly journals who have published false assertions of 'sociobiology,' this episode is a clear prompt to scrutinize their book-review processes (and their broader editorial and peer-review processes). They must identify and work to change the mechanisms -- including the underrepresentation of people of color in the profession -- that produce spaces where racism can be moved along through the pipeline rather than be recognized and interrupted."

She has been discussing the review on Twitter.

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