Black Studies Doctoral Theses Under Attack – WHAT NEXT?

By Linda Tarrant-Reid

When Naomi Schaefer Riley penned her post “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies?  Just Read the Dissertations.,” I thought to myself, “what on earth is she thinking?”  In the piece which ran in The Chronicle for Higher Education’s Brainstorm blogon April 30, 2012, Schaefer Riley, who is White and 30-something, breezily dismisses the topics selected by five Black Northwestern University Ph.D. candidates as “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.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley, the former blogger for the The Chronicle of Higher Education, questioned the relevancy of black studies doctoral programs.

Schaefer Riley’s post was in reaction to Stacey Patton’s Chronicle of Higher Education article in an earlier edition, “Black Studies:  Swaggering Into the Future.”  The article discussed the topics and methodology of the 21st century Northwestern University Black Studies scholars who use an interdisciplinary approach for their theses on the history, culture and politics of race.  They are among the first group of Black Studies doctoral candidates in the Northwestern University program which began in 2006.

The Ph.D. candidates’ dissertation topics run the gamut from Black mid-wifery to Black Republicanism to the Black housing crisis.  All of which struck the conservative-leaning Ms. Schaefer Riley as “irrelevant and partisan.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (left) and La TaSha Levy (right) are students in Northwestern U.’s black-studies doctoral program. Their work includes examinations of sexuality, class, religion, and global views of blackness. (Photo: Simone Bonde for The Chronicle)

Black Studies programs were established at colleges and universities in the U.S. in the late 60s in response to the call, in the form of protests, by African American students for courses relevant to the African American experience.  The first Black Studies program began at San Francisco State in 1968 headed by sociologist Nathan Hare.

I was at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) when the students, like so many across the country, protested.  At Hampton, we demanded student representation on the Administrative Council, the Board of Trustees, and the expansion of the curriculum to include courses on the Black experience.  Our collective voices were heard when we occupied the President’s Office for a few days.

President Barack Obama delivers Commencement Address at Hampton University in May 2010.

After threats of sending in the local police, we vacated the building and the administration closed school and cancelled graduation leaving students scrambling.

The amazing thing about Schaefer Riley’s post was that she admitted that she had only read the titles of the dissertations and blurbs on each, and based her unsubstantiated blog harangue on that little bit of research.  As for her rationale for not delving deeper into the material, and I quote, “it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. 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.”

The blogosphere lit up with arguments involving respected scholars, annoying  bandwagon jumpers-on, and folks who just like to read their own posts about whether or not Schaefer Riley was a racist, just plain ignorant or exercising her right to scholarly critique.   After a lot of back and forth, the Editor of The Chronicle, who initially invited readers to debate the post, subsequently fired Naomi Schaefer Riley after 6,500 signatures were collected on an Internet petition calling for her dismissal.  The Chronicle stated in an email that Schaefer Riley did “not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.”

The importance of the Naomi Schaefer Riley brouhaha is that it is an indicator of a larger trend that is happening not only in higher education, but in other aspects of our culture, to diminish the African American experience or make it irrelevant.  The campaign to suppress voters’ rights by states is reminiscent of the poll taxes and literacy tests instituted by states to prevent Blacks from voting in the 50s and 60s.

Protest against poll taxes.

The increase in racial profiling incidents, especially in the ‘stop and frisk’ operations by local police, is a reminder of the days when the enslaved were required to carry a pass to leave the plantation unless accompanied by the slave master or overseer.  The abandon with which some media members stir the embers of racial dis-ease by providing a platform for the crazy bigots is an indicator of a revised narrative on the horizon similar to the narrative that was constructed during slavery that labeled African Americans as ignorant, lazy and dangerous.

History does repeat itself, but it doesn’t have to if we remind folks when they start up that road again to injustice, inequality and just plain ignorance, that we have traveled that road before and we have changed that story.  So, we must be vigilant of the Naomis of the world and hold their feet to the fire when they ridicule and question the legitimacy of Black Studies, and by extension our history.  We have to query their credentials and their motives.  But most of all, the Schaefer Rileys need to be held to a higher standard when they put themselves out there as arbiters of critical analysis on any topic.  Shoddy research on a topic that is so important should not be tolerated and because folks were paying attention, it wasn’t tolerated.

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5 Responses to Black Studies Doctoral Theses Under Attack – WHAT NEXT?

  1. PAC House Theater says:

    Nice work Linda!

    Eric Woodlin

    Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2012 14:24:22 +0000 To: ericwoodlin@hotmail.com

  2. Barbara D'Alleva says:

    This article made the hair on the back of my neck stand up! To think that in the 21st century, when Black Studies are finally being taken seriously, or so I thought, I am confronted with the likes of Ms. Schaefer Riley, who claims to be qualified to critique Ph.D. theses on various topics pertaing to Black History, but says there isn’t enough money in the world to make her read one!! I am so thankful that the Chronicle kicked her to the curb after a huge statement via petition etc. to get her dismissed. What you say is very true, I feel that the vibe of Jim Crow is welling up once again in the form of voter suppression. Suddenly, predominantly people of color, who have never had to provide photo identification before, and voted for years, now have to provide photo ID. These are mostly elderly people who view the right to vote as something sacred that they fought long and hard for. Suddenly, many states are attempting to rob them of this hard won right. I wouldn’t know how to go about obtaining a photo ID if I had to. Many older folks do not drive, therefore they do not have licenses with their pictures on them. What other form of photo ID is available to people? Where do you have to go to get one and how do you get there if you have no access to a vehicle or transportation? It is very clear to me that there is a political faction out there who are determined to make President Obama a one term president, by any means necessary. Since poll taxes and literacy tests are no longer applicable, they have come up wiith this new method of keeping mostly African Americans from voting. Voter suppression must be prevented by any means necessary. Thank you for your enlightening articles Linda. I’m looking forward to reading your book. Barb D’Alleva

  3. They old axiom that history repeats itself is looming in our future. It is very important that we are aware of campaigns, legislation and laws that are put in place to curtail our civil rights, especially our hard fought right to vote. Petitions, marches and legal action are the tools we used to ensure our rights, these methods still work today, we can’t let them turn back the clock!

    • Barbara D'Alleva says:

      Absolutely!! I just don’t know where to begin in the one-horse town we live in. I’m going to send you a heinous photograph of a float in our local annual Spencer Picnic Parade. This is a yearly event and has been going on for 102 yrs. It is supposed to be a family/children oriented event with floats made by locals and children. We don’t go anymore – been there, done that, but that evening I received this photo and a post on Facebook from a friend of my son’s who was there and saw this float – I’m actually ashamed to even tell you/show you about it. There were two men, one with a black mask on, obviously intended to be President Obama, and a white masked man, driving the tractor that was pulling the manure spreader that the man in the black mask was sitting on. The sign over the top of the float said, “Spread the Wealth.” It was horrifying! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were young children lining the parade route as they toss candy from the floats. These cowardly racists didn’t even have the stones to show their faces, and rightfully so. There were so many people who contacted me when I posted the pictures on Facebook and told me I should send copies of the photos to the Governor. After moving here 27 yrs. ago to raise our young children outside the city, I never imagined that the climate in this town – a very small rural town, would turn so vicious. We moved to Ithaca as there is a very diverse population there. I worked in the Ithaca City Schools and the student population was quite diverse there as well since Cornell University and Ithaca College are there, but there were always racial tensions in school – city kids vs. rural kids, that type of thing, but nothing as dispicable as what was on that float in the Spencer Picnic Parade. I am ashamed to live in a town where racism is getting way too overt for me. I’m so thankful that my children’s youngest years were spent in NYC, growing up with among many different races and ethnic groups. When we moved here, there were literally two African-American students in my kids classes. We moved out here as we could not afford to buy in Ithaca where the cost of buying a home is quite high due to the academic community there. As I am handicapped, I now vote via a ballot sent to my home. I have to be sure to check on the status of my registration in case they plan on asking me for photo ID. The same old Republican ladies man the polls and they all know who is what – Republican or Democrat. I’ve seen them give me the fish-eye when I used to go to the polls to vote when I was able. I seriously am concerned that somehow my right to vote via mail in ballot will be revoked or I’ll be asked to present photo ID. I’ve got to start now as who knows how long they will draw out their attempts to curtail our right to vote. This attempt by the Republican Party to purge the voter rolls of African-Americans, Latinos, the elderly, students and anyone they feel will impede their access to the White House cannot be allowed to happen. If you are involved in any type of action or group that is attempting to stop these extremists from controlling voter’s rights, please let me know how I can contribute and be involved. Thank you for all the wonderful articles and information you send out. I pass them on to all my friends who are with us in this fight. Be well my friend. Barb

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