Crashing the Pity Party

If you’re genuinely interested in a critique of Black Studies (or similarly constructed interdisciplinary or identity-based programs of study), don’t give into the temptation of making a martyr out of a blogger whose real mistake was a lack of intellectual rigor or standards and then a proud defense of lacking intellectual rigor or standards. I shouldn’t have to tell social conservatives in particular to avoid playing the victim card. Do the time if you really think that critique is necessary, useful or important: read the work (short and long) that will let you have some substantive ownership over that critique. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work a bit, I think you’ll find that there are important criticisms of Black Studies as field within the field and outside of it, by white authors and black authors alike.

Some suggestions for the person who is genuinely seeking well-considered, ambitious criticisms:

Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity.
Michaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home

Challenging critiques of identity politics and the academic study of identity from a broadly leftward direction–but that should be as interesting and useful a resource for conservatives as anyone else.

Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa
Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism

I would definitely get some flack from colleagues for suggesting the former book, but as long as you understand that Lefkowitz is primarily criticizing a specific branch of thought within Black Studies (Afrocentrism, and specifically forms of Afrocentric scholarship from the 1980s and early 1990s), I think it’s an interesting and important critique. Howe’s critically-focused intellectual history of Afrocentrism will help put the sharp exchanges between Lefkowitz and her critics in a longer and wider perspective.

Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House
Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity
Paul Gilroy, Against Race
Hazel Carby, Race Men
Henry Louis Gates Jr., Colored People: A Memoir

I think these authors would not describe these works as rejecting the political project of Black Studies–indeed, they’re all taught and read as part of the canon in the field. But I think it’s possible to read these books as criticizing some prominent aspects of or ideas about identity and blackness, including how the study of those topics has been institutionalized in academic institutions. (Appiah’s dialogue with Amy Gutman in Color Conscious may also be of interest in this vein.)

Stanley Crouch, pretty much all of his non-fiction that isn’t about jazz, but especially The All-American Skin Game
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Race Experts
John McWhorter, Losing the Race

Sharp, contrarian critiques of the institutionalization of identity politics, among other things.

Scott Malcolmsen, One Drop of Blood
Leon Wynter, American Skin
Jacob Dlamini, Native Nostalgia
Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together
Clarence Walker, Mongrel Nation

All indirectly or directly raising big questions about whether the black or African (or other fixedly racial) subject is the wrong thing to be studying.

More? I can supply it. The point is, you don’t need a shallow, proudly uninformed rejection of Black Studies to participate in a critical evaluation of the field or of scholars within it. This isn’t a critique that somehow just now needs to get started: it’s a long-running, ongoing conversation. If you want to join the conversation, there are plenty of points of entry. Don’t excuse the inexcusable on the grounds that it’s a breath of fresh air. That’s like standing in the middle of a cesspool and wondering why you can’t feel the breeze on your face. It’s your problem if you don’t want to go where there’s the air is clean and the wind is blowing.

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10 Responses to Crashing the Pity Party

  1. Nord says:

    ug, that seems like A LOT of reading, and A LOT of work …

  2. concernMole says:

    Ug, too much work for the average conservative ditto-head? Why learn when you already “know” everything you think you need to know*?

    I will add, however, that at some time in my former life I encountered a display at a prominent Black Studies department claiming that the famous Olmec Heads were of Africans, and not the chiefs of the native Amer-Indian peoples living in the area. The claim was based principally on features said to be, ummm, characteristic of Africans, something about noses and chins, and stuff. What did I take away from this? Profound disappointment and sadness to see that in seeking to dignify their own history, they stole it from someone else. Not that this sort of thing isn’t done everywhere already (is Jesus white? or black? or oh yeah… a Jew). But did I jump off the wagon and start shouting that Black Studies is illegitimate. How could I, when I’ve attended lectures in Critical Theory?

    *I put /know/ in scare-quotes, out of deference for what philosophers think they mean when they someone /knows/ something.

  3. concernMole says:

    Actually, just let me add this: if we look at social and cultural movements related to identity, we frequently find a great deal of mythologizing, an appropriating of the past to fashion an ideologically appealing narrative, a kind of creation myth for ethnic identity. I think that this first became clearest to me as I was reading Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s painstakingly researched The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935. Goodrick-Clarke goes into great detail how archeology, mythology, history, etc. were put into use to formulate a German ethnic identity

  4. tressie says:


  5. Paul Landau says:

    I see you got Clarence Walker in there. Good.

    You know, I still would not have fired the columnist, Naomi Schaefer Riley. It makes her a martyr. Better I think is to publish ripostes. But, first let us admit the slipshod nature of Riley’s critique:

    “Then there is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.” Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government’s promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s. Single family homes! The audacity! But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today . . . ”

    As my colleague David Freund has conclusively shown, the redlining of whole neighborhoods by realtors conforming to the government’s refusal to guarantee loans to African Americans wishing to live in neighborhoods that were not “historically” African American, resulted directly in a kind of white paradise of suburbia, with individual home ownership; and on the other side, housing projects that crammed thousands of people together with nowhere for children to play in a structured environment. If there were attempts to ameliorate this vast injustice, by accelerating African American home ownership in the 1970s, it would not be extraordinary to see the effort permeated by the trailing elements of the same forces that curtailed integration previously, and so remade in the still toxic environment of iniquitous and hierarchical racial coding. But then:

    “(Not much of a surprise since the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race. Shhhh. Don’t tell them about the black president!)”

    Gratuitous. And then:

    “She explains that “The subprime lending crisis, if it did nothing else, highlighted the profitability of racism in the housing market.” The subprime lending crisis was about the profitability of racism? Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess.”

    Easy to quote a line out of context. What was the argument? If it is a bad argument, let’s hear it.

    “But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan.”

    With this last, so far no problem, one would think. Then:

    “Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?

    This is simply a political polemic masquerading as criticism. Ms. Levy *argues* that they played this role in assaulting civil rights. She may be wrong, but a lot of work on Sowell (let alone the lesser lights) makes this point. Does that make black studies a farce?

    “Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.”

    This is a criticism about the force behind academic movements and their disconnect with public policy issues. It is easy to make about many, many social science subfields, but even easier to make more broadly about the Humanities — say, Art History. As a criticism it fails to understand what scholars are actually about. To be concise: We do not work for the government.

    Still. This can be looked at from another point of view. If we do not label Riley a “racist,” and accept her as an interlocutor, the trajectory of her remarks can be traced back to a major subset of students and parents and others connected to land-grant universities in this country, whose sentiments are similar. Are they to be ruled out of bounds, hors de combat? Such a ruling looks awfully elitist to me. “Don’t bother us, we are working,” is the meaning of firing Riley. “We are doing important things and need not answer to the likes of you.” I’d rather we encouraged a dialogue — even with an unreliable logician.

  6. I tried that kind of dialogue a few years back with some folks whose approach was similar to Riley’s, to wit:

    a) cherrypick some titles of courses or articles to demonstrate that a particular field, approach or all of academia is worthless, ridiculous, politicized or otherwise dismissable
    b) assert that the titles are sufficient guide to the entirety of the contents (whether pedagogical or scholarly) and moreover that to further investigate the contents would taint the critic.

    That combination is a perfect act of turtling: there is no dialogue to be had, because the critic is never going to come out of the shell. The critic hasn’t just started from a false premise, they’ve defended the false premise as a wholesome and necessary practice. Riley said in her second post (and has since repeated) that there is no incentive, neither argument nor money, that could ever motivate her to take any further interest in the history midwifery as the subject of midwifery is by definition always a waste of time. This is only partly based on what you identify above, a belief that scholars should only study issues of great practical relevance to contemporary public policy debates. (Humanists who take up that responsibility tend to get blasted by critics like Riley for being “political” the moment that they rise to the bait.) In this particular case, there really is something specifically racial going on: the proposition that black people and black communities are primarily only interesting in terms of the managerial problems they present to white people. But I’ve seen other cases of the “dismiss by the titles” approach (mostly but not exclusively from conservative critics) which aren’t about race or even about the idea that scholarly labor should be focused on practical problems. In all cases, the judgment is based also on an unvoiced, unexplained and impossible-to-question “common sense” about the topics or titles being mocked.

    There isn’t any way in, no way to engage. It’s like trying to play checkers with someone who is determined to play mumbly-peg. The only response possible is that this is a violation of a lowest-common denominator standard, a baseline responsibility. That doesn’t stop the person in question from carrying on with their attacks, and the best one can hope for is that anyone who might be influenced will concede that there’s a pretty basic violation of decent behavior going on when you attack something that you refuse to read, understand or gain any further knowledge about.

  7. (But on your last point, Paul, a further thought: rather than answer to Riley or any like her, I’d rather leapfrog entirely and say, ‘This is why all academics need to be prepared to engage and explain what they do to some wider public’–precisely so that there isn’t an empty void in between the conversations that scholars have with each other and the jackanapes populism of someone like Riley.)

  8. Withywindle says:

    I still tend to disagree with you on general principles. I have a longish comment on this specific matter here

  9. Strelnikov says:

    “I think that this first became clearest to me as I was reading Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s painstakingly researched The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935. Goodrick-Clarke goes into great detail how archeology, mythology, history, etc. were put into use to formulate a German ethnic identity.”

    I own that book and Goodrick-Clarke’s other book “Black Sun” which is about all the neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist loons who have some links to occultic or esoteric thought (and there are a bunch of them.) They are an invaluable resource in understanding that Hitler did not come from nowhere; he was prefigured for years by these Germano-Austrian groups who wanted a national leader to bring a form of Greatness to the Germanic world, and after Naziism burned Europe to a cinder, how similar people were desperately trying to fill a Hitler-shaped hole in their lives because the changes in the postwar world were too much to take.

  10. Miriam says:

    Wilson Moses’ Afrotopia would also fit on your list, I think (and as I recall, it’s rather more historically aware than Howe’s book).

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