Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why the Naomi Schaefer Riley/CHE Media Storm Has Nothing to do with Black Studies

The hubbub that brewed in the aftermath of Naomi Schaefer Riley's blog post slamming Black Studies proves why news, commentary, and facts - information itself - in the digital, internet age is, at best, shadowy and shallow. At worst, they are nonexistent. Welcome to the new normal.

One writer does a decent but still somewhat stereotypical piece on the current state of Black Studies - stereotypical insofar as Stacey Patton can't help but situate this academic field in a one-dimensional understanding of the "swaggering" political context of the 1960s. The PhD students Patton profiled are different from their predecessors in Black Studies, she opens, because these new scholars were "not baptized in the fire of racial politics." To be fair to Patton, there is much more to her original article than cliches about dashikis and identity politics. She actually does research and interviews some of the top scholars in the field, namely Kahlil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center; Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African American Studies at Duke; Darlene Clark Hine, one of the Deans of African American History; and Martha Biondi, whose book on the 1960s-era, student rebellion origins of Black Studies academic programs is due out this summer. Overall, Patton gives readers a dynamic portrait of some of the exciting new scholarship coming out of Black Studies. Still, the article is slightly flawed because it can't help positing the contemporary scholarship as a progression, indeed a maturation, away from highly politicized 1960s era from which Black Studies supposedly originated.

Colleges and universities - correction, historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) - may have developed what we now call Black Studies (Africana Studies, African American Studies) after the late-1960s, and PhD programs grew in the decades that followed, but Black Colleges and Universities and Black scholars have been engaged in an academic field of that is easily recognizable as "Black Studies" for many, many years. George Washington Williams published the pioneering history of people of African descent in the 1880s. Journalist activist Ida B Wells conducted investigative reporting in the late-nineteenth century that overturned arguments about Black male licentiousness, challenged myths about Black rapists, and indicted America mores that justified lynch law. Carter G. Woodson started the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History, and the Journal of Negro History, in the 1910s. W.E.B. DuBois initiated a series of studies of Black life from his position at Atlanta University. John Hope Franklin's book, From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, made the African American experience central to US history. Dozens of other examples of Black Studies existing before the 1960s exist. And yet the story often still begins with campus take overs and nationalists and identity politics. As Martha Biondi, Ibram Rogers, Peniel Joseph and others have shown, cultural nationalism was an important part of the late-1960s political, intellectual and artistic movements, but Black Power was about much more than an Afro pick.

As well-intentioned as Patton's article was, I am not surprised that Naomi Schafer Riley, the latest right-wing wunderkind to become a leading voice slamming liberal arts education, tenured professors, and everything to the Left of Ronald Reagan, used it as fodder for her own conservative claptrap. In Riley's CHE blog post, she uses Patton's PhD students to take aim at the entire field of Black Studies, calling it everything but a child of God. Now, after a groundswell of outrage from the PhD students themselves to Black pundits like Melissa Harris Perry, the CHE has fired Riley, Riley has shot back from the protective conservative cover of the Wall Street Journal, and round and round the brouhaha goes. By next week, people will have moved on to the next controversy, wracking up tweets, hits, blog posts, and a whole lot of smoke with very little intellectual fire.

As a professor in an Africana Studies program at a liberal arts college, these conversations (if you can really call them that) irk me to no end. First, they are often initiated by people who know very little or nothing about Black Studies. Patton's piece came from a good place, but is it really newsworthy to write about PhD students defending their dissertation? If the CHE wanted to highlight a significant story about academic work on Black Studies, isn't there something out there to cover more substantial, more advanced than dissertations that are just-out-the-printer? Riley's blog post had absolutely nothing to do with Black Studies, and everything to do with her own personal axe grinding. While Riley's rant generates a lot of buzz, if people really want to know and discuss and debate the merits and deficiencies of Black Studies - which is certainly a worthy debate to have - Riley's water-cooler diatribe is a poor way to go about that. Second, when media outlets privilege blog traffic and tweets above comprehensive investigations and deeper frameworks for informative stories, than intelligent debate and knowledge about a subject are very difficult if not impossible to generate. If the CHE wanted to do an informed piece on Black Studies there are a dozen scholars who are also good writers, some of whom work in Black Studies and some of whom do not, who could have written that piece. Or perhaps the CHE could have given Patton more time, space, and resources to produce a more comprehensive, well-rounded portrayal of the past, present and future of Black Studies programs. Instead, Patton's piece centered on one side of Black Studies - its political origins as an academic field - and gave readers nothing about its other sides - its long standing position as an intellectual critique and field of study rooted in Western, modern thought. When Riley saw Patton's piece, as a smarter, more polished Anne Coulter, she couldn't help but write something incendiary and ignorant.

Riley is not a racist. She should not be pilloried for picking on graduate students. I do think it is sloppy that she commented vehemently about things she did not even read, but that is not totally her fault. Riley's blog piece should be attacked as a simplistic, cartoonish critique of Black Studies, but Riley was just responding to another piece that had its own minor problems with superficiality. When one reads Patton's original piece, though, given her interviews and variety of comments from contemporary leaders in the field of Black Studies, it raises the question: did Riley even read that piece in its entirety, or did she stop at the dissertation titles and load up her right-wing six-shooters, go to her laptop, and blaze away at symbols of her imaginary liberal-Left cancer destroying intellectual life?

The real danger here is media outlets and editors who care more about speed and sensationalism and less about thorough, smart, well-worked stories. The CHE should seriously rethink how it reports stories. It should not cut corners and stoop low if its mission is to spark debate about higher education. 

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