A Black-Studies Critic's Willful Ignorance
A blogger's screed is about politics, not scholarship, says a Princeton professor.
For example, she mentions the dissertation of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on federal housing policy in the 1970s. Taylor, like many of us, links her historical analysis to contemporary realities. But Riley finds this offensive: that somehow any attempt to think about possible historical continuities and the current housing crisis represents a refusal to recognize the substantive differences between the moments -- that Taylor claims that nothing has changed in America since slavery or Jim Crow. And to bring the point home she reminds us (with an added exclamation point) that we have a black president. Matters, obviously, have truly changed!
I suppose President Obama's presence in the White House obliterates histories of racism in this country as well as the need for serious contextualization of persistent racial inequality. Apparently, Riley would have us believe, we are better off with accounts that begin with "some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people" than with practices that short-circuit the life chances of people precisely because of their color.
I disagree. Black studies has an extraordinary bibliography, with a wide range of scholarly views that help us understand the complexity of the human endeavor from the vantage point of African-descended people. Its reach is global; its analysis has opened up pathways of inquiry that have changed the very face of American higher education.
Riley should state up front her conservative politics. She likes black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, Clarence Thomas and others who talk about race matters in particular ways. And she finds black studies wanting because much of the scholarship that animates the field consistently calls such views into question.
If she disagrees with the substance of what we do, then make the argument. Don't retreat into a condescending mode of speech about what is legitimate, when you don't cede legitimacy to the field in the first place. In short, keep your ignorance to yourself.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies in the Department of Religion of Princeton University, and the chair of the school's Center for African American Studies.