Race Matters in New Harvard Journal
But given the diversity of Black studies programs, will the publication be
inclusive enough, asks a scholar
By Ronald Roach
In an academic publishing venture that seeks to honor the intellectual legacy of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, political scientist Dr. Michael Dawson and sociologist Dr. Lawrence Bobo, both of the Harvard University African and African American Studies Department, have launched the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race. The review, published for the first time by the Cambridge University Press this past spring, is a bi-annual academic journal that showcases interdisciplinary research on race.
While the publication draws upon Du Bois’ reputation as a gifted scholar whose accomplishments in history, sociology, literature and political advocacy in connection to the African American experience proved legendary, it attaches that legacy to a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary examination of race rather than to the exclusive focus on a particular racial or ethnic group, according to Bobo and Dawson, who serve as publication co-editors.
“In the very first issue… we were delighted to publish a paper that dealt with Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba to signal the fully diasporic scope with respect to those of African ancestry. We had a serious essay of work dealing with relations between African Americans and Asian Americans in the essay ‘Beyond Black and White’,” says Bobo, who is the Norman Tishman and Charles M. Diker professor of sociology and of African and African American studies.
“The next issue should take even stronger steps in that direction to make it clear to people that we pivot off the African American experience but are definitely not setting that as the limit of our interests. It’s a starting point for branching out into how race and ethnicity have shaped the human experience at large,” Bobo adds.
The move to publish the Du Bois Review resulted largely from discussions between Harvard colleagues Bobo and Dawson that began after Dawson joined the Black studies department in 2002. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair of the department and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, agreed to back the journal with nearly $50,000 in startup funding and the endorsement of the institute.
The colleagues say the journal is filling a void by providing a forum in which social science scholars can publish their race-focused research, a subject area the editors say is growing. The multi-racial complexion of the United States has motivated many scholars to examine race in ways that were not possible in the past, the editors contend.
“Probably the central idea was that increasingly the work on race is multi-disciplinary in nature. We thought it was a very good time to produce an extremely high-level journal that will pull together the best empirical work across disciplines on races and at the same time provide a forum for both discussion of trends in a discipline and trends in the study of race,” says Dawson, who is a professor of government and of African and African American studies.
Bobo explains that making the journal that highlights interdisciplinary work is in keeping with the character of the research being done on race. He says that traditional, discipline-based academic journals have not been eager to publish race studies.
“There are two types of problems. Some resistance (comes) especially from the very top journals in the disciplines of publishing work that really puts race in the foreground, especially if it’s offering a critical and challenging perspective… Second, a lot of work on race has an interdisciplinary quality to it that sometimes will result in the work having more ambiguous grounding in a single discipline so that those major journals will go, ‘maybe you should be sending this to the psychologists rather than the sociologists or maybe this should be going to the political scientists rather than to the economics journals,'” Bobo says.
Scholars, citing the presence of African American-focused social science journals that explore race, say that a challenge for the Du Bois Review as it claims the Du Bois legacy is whether it will have a broad impact upon public understanding of complex issues and influence public policy.
“Is this journal going to be able to expand the popular understanding with scholarly work? Will the social science (research) link to public policy solutions?” asks Dr. Scot Brown, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Brown says publications, such as the Journal of Black Political Economy, have long featured social science research on race, but they have had difficulty developing and sustaining the readership able to push for significant changes in the communities on which research has been conducted. He says the Du Bois Review will be held to high expectations given that it should be able to command considerable resources coming from Harvard as well as it by carrying the Du Bois name.
Dr. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore, expresses skepticism that a journal coming out of the Gates-led Du Bois Institute will be inclusive enough, particularly with the diversity among Black studies programs, to present an effective critique of White supremacy and White racism.
“I think it’s good that we have another journal about race, but it’s not the first one,” Winbush says.
He adds that he believes the scholarship and popular work produced by scholars affiliated with the Du Bois Institute and the African and African American studies department have presented too soft of a critique of White racism. “It’s a polite view of racism and White supremacy,” he says.
“The real test of this journal is whether it’s going to include Molefi Asante, Maulana Karenga, and Na’im Akbar, scholars who articulate an African-centered point-of-view. Will Black nationalists be represented; will Afrocentrists be there; or will even White nationalists be included?” Winbush asks, noting that a diverse group of Black scholars writing for the journal would enable it to have a stronger critique of White-dominated societies.
This past spring, the launch of the Du Bois Review was celebrated at a Harvard reception and at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Bobo says the journal has gotten a positive response from university libraries and academic departments, and that Cambridge University Press is optimistic the publication will turn a profit as it finds a readership.
“Down the road, we hope that we transform how scholars and indeed how the world is thinking about and dealing with what Du Bois identified is the problem of the color line. I’d like to think we’ve already had some small effect. I think we will see some of the core disciplinary journals take a somewhat more favorable posture towards papers they might not have been so ready to look at in the past,” Bobo says.
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