A Black-Studies Critic’s Willful Ignorance

A blogger's screed is about politics, not scholarship, says a Princeton professor.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.; Naomi Schaefer Riley
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.; Naomi Schaefer Riley

Ignorance can be so loud and in your face. That much we know; it is a common feature of American public debate these days. Just turn on Fox News or listen to talk radio. But when it is willful ignorance — that is, a deliberate refusal to assess evidence that contradicts ready-at-hand assumptions — it is beyond annoying and irritating. It leaves me angry — especially when crude and harmful views are hiding behind the ignorance.

Recently, Naomi Schaefer Riley penned a screed about the state of black studies. In a rather mindless blog she dismissed the entire field, based on a cursory glance at the dissertation titles of four graduate students mentioned in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She described the general thrust of their work as “left-wing victimization claptrap,” concluded that the scholarship of black studies was stuck in 1963 (a rather arbitrary date) and that its primary mode of analysis, at least as evidenced in the work of these students, was to “blame the white man.” (Perhaps she just finished reading Patrick Buchanan.)

Obviously, titles aren’t the sole criteria to judge the quality of someone’s work. I suspect, given her commitment to “serious” reflection, that if Riley were to take a close look at some of the titles of the dissertations written, say, in the fields of English and American Studies, she would be quick to dismiss those disciplines as well. 

Maybe not … because behind Riley’s mean-spirited engagement with the work of these aspiring young scholars lies a troublesome racial politics — and black studies stands as its proxy.