Should Black Studies Be Eliminated By Colorblindness?

The contretemps over Naomi Shaefer Riley’s call for the elimination of black studies has brought up all sorts of defensiveness and anger. It has bought up some important questions that deserve some further consideration.

One, is the mere act of calling for the elimination of black studies racist? And two, are people who claim that they are color blind (because they believe race no longer matters) racist?

Let me start with the first. It seems perfectly reasonable to imagine that black studies is no longer as useful an academic discipline as a more generalized field like critical race studies. No doubt there are some people in black-studies departments who consider changing the name to something that would neither appear to stabilize the term black nor leave whiteness unexamined. Reformulating black studies into critical race studies comes from the same impulse that motivates women’s studies programs to become gender-studies programs and gay and lesbian studies to become sexuality studies.

I must admit that I find some of the arguments for moving beyond the original academic discipline to something that includes all of us in its view appeals to me even as I have serious doubts that it’s actually a good idea. After all, it’s not like patriarchy disappeared and so all of a sudden the original need for women’s studies is no longer obvious . This is why long and complicated compromise names like womens, gender, and sexuality studies get cobbled together, whereby the desire to make the invisible (e.g. women) visible happens alongside the desire to make the unmarked (e.g. men) marked. Of course, who wants to put a department with a name that long on a business card? And the original tension–between the particular and the universal–is hardly resolved by these compromises. Still, the pursuit of knowledge requires the acknowledgment of  tension and, yes, probably even contradictions.

So there may be good reasons for eliminating black studies (as well as good reasons for keeping it since racism has hardly disappeared), but to call for its elimination because it’s  ”victimization claptrap” or because racial discrimination ended in 1963, which Schaefer Riley did, does not strike me as a respectful invitation to dialog.

Which leads me to the second question: Is believing that structural racism no longer exists in and of itself racist? This question also relies on unresolvable tension for an answer. On the one hand, there is actual and overt racism and we know it when we see it: driving while black, unfair drug sentencing for young blacks compared to young whites, job discrimination against black candidates. But then there is a different kind of stance that insists that race no longer matters and that we live in a colorblind society. This is what Darryl Enck-Wanzer calls “neoliberal anti-racialism” (not to be confused with anti-racism).

According to Enck Wanzer,

racial neoliberalism is marked,  first and foremost, by an active suppression of ‘race’ as a legitimate topic or term of public discourse and public policy. … It is within this conceptual terrain that programs designed to remedy racism (affirmative action, social services, desegregation, etc.) become the objects of critique, drawing cries of ‘reverse racism.’… The  significance and relevance of racism are rejected as antiquated concepts in the post-civil rights era.”

This is why Glenn Beck could appropriate Martin Luther King for the “civil rights” of an overwhelmingly white Tea Party. It is also why Schaefer Riley could dismiss black studies as a completely irrelevant field.

Anti-racialism is in direct opposition to anti-racism. Anti-racism confronts the historical and contemporary inequities between black and white Americans, inequities that remain so entrenched that a former New York Times corresponded recently described race in the U.S. as a caste system. Anti-racialism insists that any and all mention of race as a vector of power be suppressed as “ideological” or even “ridiculous” since racism is imagined as “in the past.”

Is such anti-racialism racist? Perhaps the question should be phrased differently: Is such anti-racialism in search of justice? Does it imagine itself as helping to create a better world wherein black and white Americans have similar opportunities? That is a more difficult question to answer, but for the sake of discussion let us admit that anti-racialists might have the greater good in their heart and on their minds. But if this is the case, why such complete and utter dismissal of race and all who believe it still structures our lives? Why the call for the elimination of even considering the question, as black studies does? Why not call, instead, for new and other paradigms for viewing poverty or housing or the prison industrial complex? Why not even call for such consideration within black studies itself?

In some ways, we can only be judged by our actions. If anti-racialists are really not racist, then perhaps it is time for them to approach the matter with curiosity rather than anger. After all, it is through true collegiality and respect for the expertise of others, especially when we disagree, that something like knowledge can get produced.


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