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A Question of Academic Integrity

A Question of Academic Integrity
One scholar challenges the scholarship of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson
By Dr. Paul R. Griffin

After reading Ronald Roach’s interview (see Black Issues In Higher Education, Aug. 11, 2005) with Dr. Michael Dyson concerning Dyson’s latest book — Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has The Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?) — my first impulse was to do what I have done for years now; grit my teeth and simply ignore Dyson. But after watching him on a recent edition of Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” I can no longer remain silent. Far too much is at stake here, especially for African-American scholars and Black studies programs.

What is this great risk? That there will be further disparagement of the academic integrity of Black scholars by those who have long questioned their professional competence. Over the past decade, Dyson has become one of the major voices in the African-American academic experience. He has written 10 books; appeared on numerous network and cable programs; lectured at a number of colleges, seminaries and universities; and held teaching positions at six major universities. These are remarkable accomplishments that few scholars, even the most insightful ones, ever achieve.

What then is the problem with Dyson? Anyone who reviews his record will discern a serious disconnect between these mighty achievements and his scholarship. Despite his impressive credentials, Dyson’s writings and public speeches expose him as little more than an “exciting” interloper who has crashed the gates of scholarship, knocking aside even its minimum expectations. Through his books, Dyson proclaims himself to be an expert on Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur, Marvin Gaye and, most recently, Bill Cosby. But there is a huge gulf between his claim and reality.

None of his writings suggest more than a passing mastery of his subjects or their issues. Instead, they disrobe him as attempting to win readers to his side by playing to their passions rather than informing their minds. For example, attempting to sway readers against Bill Cosby, Dyson claims that although it had not made “the papers,” Cosby had made a statement [about the Black poor] that “left people aghast.”

According to Dyson, Cosby had wrongly attacked the Black poor by telling them that “pretty soon you’re going to have to have a DNA card in the ghetto to determine if you’re making love to your grandmother because she has a baby at 12, the baby has a baby at 14, she’s 26 years old — you [at 12] may be trying to have sex with your grandmother and a DNA card is necessary.” Dyson claims that these kinds of statements “more accurately characterize the tone and tenor of Mr. Cosby’s assault [on the Black poor] than the few critical remarks that made it in the press.”

This is “exciting” scholarship at its worst. If we listen to Dyson, the problem here is the “tone and tenor” of Cosby’s words, not their accuracy. Instead of questioning the truth of Cosby’s argument, Dyson tries to arouse readers against him by portraying him as an enemy and unfair critic of the Black poor.

Those of us who take our work seriously must not only be concerned that another pretender has emerged in our midst; we must be concerned about how he has emerged. He, like others before him, has emerged primarily because of two reasons. First, Black scholars who take their work seriously have not risen up to challenge his “exciting-type” scholarship — a scholarship not rooted in the search for truth, but in cunning lies and garbage.

Unwilling to publicly confront some of our misguided Black colleagues, we endorse by our silence their pseudo-scholarship. The upshot of our silence is that it provides the enemies of our fields yet another opportunity to miscast our work as sub-par. Those of us who have published and had our writings reviewed by the academy know that some Whites delight in degrading our work as belonging to the genre of a jeremiad.

Second, since Black studies first emerged in the early 1960s, some publishers have made fortunes off Black publications. Disturbingly, some of these publishers have printed Black writings that they know are dishonest, but they publish them anyway because they have an “exciting” element that will sell. The fact that he has been able to produce 10 books in 10 years while moving from one teaching post to another suggests that Dyson knows this game very well.

Dyson says: “I didn’t get a Ph.D. to simply write for other scholars. I ultimately got a Ph.D. in order to render intellectual service to my people and to become the best scholar I could, and the most insightful intellectual I could for the nation at large.”

Brutal arrogance marks these words. If there is any refuge for Dyson, it would be that he is not a trained historian, sociologist, political scientist, theologian or psychologist. He says his training is in communication. His verboseness testifies that he does communicate well, even though inaccurately and sometimes outright dishonestly.

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