Northwestern U. Scholars Mobilized in Countering Blog Attack on Black Studies

In five hastily conceived paragraphs, a White conservative blogger threw cold water on the warmly received dissertations presented by three African-American Ph.D. candidates at an academic conference last month.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, an affiliate scholar of the Institute for American Values, a New York-based conservative think tank, ripped into the scholarly research of the Northwestern University doctoral students after reading summaries of their work in story by a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter. Calling the dissertations “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,” Riley, then a contributor to the Chronicle’s “Brainstorm” blog, cited them as evidence that the entire Black studies discipline should be eliminated.

The three students’ research was presented at “A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes — A Summit of Doctoral Programs,” put on by Northwestern University’s Department of African American Studies in mid-April.

 Almost immediately, other scholars, supporters and, indeed, the entire Department of African American Studies faculty at Northwestern responded to the post, coming to the defense of the students.

In a letter to the Chronicle, the Northwestern faculty said they rejected “the amateurish attack by Ms. Riley” on its students. “To write such disparaging comments about young scholars and their expressions of intellectual curiosity is cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, the outpouring of support grew, with an online petition demanding that the Chronicle fire Riley. Within several days, the petition collected more than 6,600 signatures.

Keeanaga-Yamahtta Taylor, a fifth-year doctoral student at Northwestern, whose dissertation, “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s,” was cited in the post, said that “right-wingers are always going after Black studies.” Yet what disturbed Taylor most was “the level of vitriol that was written by someone who had not even bothered to read” the dissertations, which are still works in progress.

Even so, Riley, who’s considered a scholar herself, did not take the time to contact Taylor or the other two doctoral students: La TaSha B. Levy and Ruth Hays. (One illustration of Schaefer Riley’s hastiness was the misspelling of Hays’ name in her post.)

“Part of the fallout around this has somehow created the image that we’re all hypersensitive,” said Taylor, who’s also a commentator and housing activist in Chicago. “That we can’t handle critique both as individuals and as a discipline. That African-American or ethnic studies are all off-limits to criticism. For people who are involved in the academy, criticism is the name of the name. You’d hope that criticism would be informed.”

Taylor noted that Riley’s critique distorted the point of her work. Riley brought up the subprime lending crisis, when Taylor’s work actually examined how the federal government and private interests joined forces to promote single-family homeownership after the 1960s riots. “Part of the problem is that the actual content of the work we’re doing is distorted,” Taylor said.

Responding to outcry from faculty, petitioners and comments generated through social media, the Chronicle dismissed Riley last week as a contributor.

“We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said,” Chronicle editor Liz McMillen wrote in a note to readers posted online. “We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet the Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.”

A day later, Riley hit back in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. African-American “course and department descriptions often appear to be a series of axes that faculty members would like to grind,” Riley wrote.

Dr. Martha Biondi, director of Northwestern’s African American Studies program and one of Taylor’s advisers, said Riley was looking for a target to go after. Her criticism “lacked any substance, any knowledge, and any proximity to the field.”

Now that the tempest in the ivory tower has subsided, Biondi said, “We’ve rebounded. In the end, we really reasserted the legitimacy of the field.”