An Attack on Black Studies and Black Scholars

Yesterday, one of my former African-American Ph.D. students, Valerie Lundy Wagner, sent me an e-mail message asking if I had seen a post by Naomi Schaefer Riley, a blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Valerie is now an assistant professor and faculty fellow at New York University and was a Ford Fellow while a doctoral student. Valerie does work related to racial and ethnic minorities and college achievement. She was deeply offended by Riley’s blog post, which ridiculed black scholars and made light of their research, based on no evidence, and wanted to know my take on the matter.

As someone who cherishes my affiliation with the Center for Africana Studies at Penn, I am also deeply offended by Naomi Schaefer Riley’s uninformed, dismissive, and downright racist portrayal of the work of black-studies scholars as well as her commentary on the specific black graduate students at Northwestern. Obviously, Riley has never had the pleasure of serving with faculty working in black studies nor of advising African-American doctoral students. I have. These faculty members and students do important research and teach classes that are vital to understanding culture, history, politics, literature, and American racism and that is relevant both in and outside the academy. In addition, they highlight the achievements and accomplishments of blacks in the United States and beyond. I wish that Riley had taken more black-studies classes as she might possess a less vile attitude toward African-American scholars if she had. It’s Riley’s tone that makes her essay particularly difficult to stomach.

In her commentary on newly minted black-studies scholars, Riley dismisses the importance of their work (without reading their full dissertations), dismisses their intellect, and ends her commentary with a call for these scholars to focus on African-American incarceration rates, teen pregnancies, and low graduation rates instead of pursuing their research of choice. If Riley were familiar with the work of countless black-studies scholars, she would know that the kind of research she is recommending is being done in full.

Riley is dismissive of these young black scholars’ work related to housing, childbirth, civil rights, and politics. Unfortunately, she seems unfamiliar with American history (including African-American history), knows little about the history of black-studies programs and how important they have been and are to the experiences of black students and black scholars (and everyone else for that matter), and has little knowledge of the deep disparities in terms of wealth, health care, and education in this nation.

Moreover, Riley does not understand that dissertations are a mere snapshot of a scholar’s larger research interests. Reading a short description does not provide the socio-cultural context for the work nor an understanding of the scholar’s larger interests and field of study. While Riley is correct that some research is esoteric, this critique is not limited to black-studies programs and in fact, is much more prevalent in other disciplines. However, she doesn’t discount research in more “traditional” disciplines.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about Riley’s attack on black studies and black scholars is that she doesn’t understand how damaging her words are on multiple levels. Colleges and universities have dismal numbers of black faculty members and Riley’s words devalue the young scholars who are working their way into the academy. We need to empower these talented young scholars and add their voices to classrooms and research. This is not only the right thing to do, but there is evidence that having black faculty in the classroom leads to increased satisfaction among black students and greater learning. Having African-American mentors empowers African-American students and adds to the diverse learning experiences of all students.

I hope that the leaders of some of our prominent majority institutions speak out on the importance of black-studies programs and the scholars they produce. More informed scholars and voices need to make sure that young, talented, black scholars are supported and championed not dismissed and ridiculed by uninformed critics.

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