Writer Naomi Schafer Riley Continues the War Against Cultural Studies

BlogHer Original Post

In the past year, pundits have written that Black women are undesirable, Black youth would succeed if they'd only work as hard as their white counterparts, and now even Black academics are being attacked as incompetent to study... being Black.

This spring, Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Chronicle) The Most Persuasive Case For Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations. The op-ed drew upon the titles of the dissertations from a handful of Black Ph.D candidates to assert that they were 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.”

She concluded her argument by writing:

“if these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and
end with blame the white man.”

Based on the dissertation titles, she argued that Black Studies departments be shut down.

What was interesting was that four days after the initial op-ed was posted, Schaefer Riley responded to the criticisms and subsequently pushed her foot deeper into her mouth by admitting that she did not read the actual dissertations, saying that it ‘wasn’t her job’ to do so before writing such a scathing critique.

"I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece."

As a Black woman who is planning to apply to graduate school this year -- and whose current and future work includes investigating the experiences of Black women in contemporary society -- this article concerned me. Schaefer Riley’s personal opinions do not factor into my plans to eventually obtain a Ph.D, but they exemplify the problematic attitude that currently surrounds Black cultural-related studies that could prevent that education from being parlayed into vocation that is socially acceptable. I have a number of friends who have recently finished -- are are close to completing -- their doctoral degrees, and they believe that those who share attitudes like Schaefer Riley’s within educational institutions can hinder their livelihood.

Image Credit: Theo Daniels, Flickr

In this particular case, the most troubling aspect is the mindset that she does not even have to substantiate her argument with detailed research. Then again, maybe it's not surprising, given the push to eliminate ethnic studies programs in Arizona -- another example of the dominant culture dismissing the academic study of minority cultures. All she has to do is use her position, make a commentary and people will simply agree with her. From The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Schaefer Riley isn't merely saying she's ignorant of Black Studies (that would be bad.) She is saying she is ignorant of the very evidence she used to condemn black studies and amazingly she says this as though it were somehow evidence in her favor!

And even when ethnic studies are acknowledged as legitimate academic disciplines, people of color may still face discrimination in attaining teaching jobs. While at an academic conference this spring, a colleague told me about overhearing a conversation, in which an older white professor was telling a student to pad his CV with ethnic study courses. That way he would be guaranteed in getting a position, as he felt that white professors are more desirable to teach those courses than professors of color. As in the Arizona case, that professor believed students would be less likely to leave their classes resenting white folks. In light of that story and the amount of white professors teaching similar programs at the conference, I wondered if funding and teaching opportunities were somehow tied to how relevant the professors of these classes were perceived by the students and potential funders.

Within a week approximately 6,000 people signed a petition for Schaefer Riley's resignation and The Chronicle, writing that she “did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles” fired the scholar, who is an affiliate at a conservative think-tank. In addition to the hostile tone of her article, it was also pointed out that while Schaefer Riley is an accomplished writer and author, she was criticizing black female scholars who had an advanced degree - something in which she does not.

The usual complaints of the denial of ‘free speech’ and favoritism towards liberals were rolled out when a conservative writer makes racially-insensitive comments. From the National Review:

That’s it. Just uncongenial (she critiqued the doctoral theses of candidates in black studies). Not “offensive.” Not even that weasel word “insensitive” —  far less “racist.” This represents a profound corruption of the principles that should animate academia and a free society generally.

The graduate students mentioned her article responded via The Chronicle:

Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in... Finally, shame on The Chronicle of Higher Education. As students we welcome the vigorous interrogation and examination of our work that comes with life in the academy. We do not welcome smug attacks by lazy bloggers, in your employment, who resort to racial caricature in a pitiful attempt to drum up controversy and interest in an otherwise underwhelming and pedestrian career.

Critics fail to understand how teaching racially or ethnically-specific courses can aid in the intellectual development and promote understanding among non-black or ethnic students. Because the focus of this research is specific to ethno-cultural communities, it is assumed that it is ‘reverse racism’ and has no relevance to the Anglo community at all. TRESSIEMC talks about her experiences as a Black female graduate student:

You are almost always perceived as crazy and different for doing something few in your family or peer groups would ever consider doing. Even if you are among the best and brightest in college you are somewhat of an oddity in graduate school. You are either the voice of all black people or the voice of no one. You can be, in any combination and at any given moment: an affirmative action case, an overachiever, lazy, aggressive, scary, and your University’s poster child for diversity.

She brings up an important point: One cannot seem to escape from racialized stereotypes. In the response from the graduate students, they mentioned how in their campaigns Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich rolled out racial stereotypes to convince people that Black folks are lazy, welfare recipients who depend on government handout. When the economy is suffering and graduate students have access to grants and other funding opportunities, there is a resentment that money is given to fund projects that are perceived as not benefitting very many people. Schaefer Riley’s post argues that Black graduate students are -- despite obtaining an education and having the grades and intelligence to get to such positions -- are also somehow scamming the government by researching pointless subjects that have no relevance in the larger society.

Freedom ain’t free. Black people, specifically Black women whose dissertations were targeted within the op-ed, should be allowed to study what they want to study, and more importantly, should be free to obtain an education or a career that could benefit their communities and promote education and understanding in the larger communities. There is a resentment found in Schaefer Riley’s post, Satoshi Kanazawa ‘s Psychology Today article that argued that Black women are not desirable and Forbes writer Gene Marks op/ed who felt that as a middle-class white man, he could, in 1,000 words or so give a solution to a problem that in his opinion, Black America could not solve on their own.

Despite the backlash against these three posts, it seems as though op-eds written by non-Black people about Black people are acceptable by mainstream publications who seem to be myopic in their view of how readers will respond, and are so clouded by their White privilege that they assume that their subjective assertions will be widely accepted as ‘fact.’

While The Chronicle and Psychology Today removed Schaefer Riley’s and Kanazawa’s articles and fired them, the question remains: why are these pieces published in reputable publications in the first place?

You can’t win, can you?


Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com


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