Commentary: Latest Assault on Black Studies Reaffirms Its Relevance

In April, Naomi Schaefer Riley penned two controversial blogs about eliminating Black studies programs. She wrote a blog post about abolishing Black studies for, of all things, poorly-written and irrelevant dissertations. What she did not let her readers know is that is the case for nearly all dissertations. The first offering of a doctoral candidate is often a hodge-podge of sound and fury, only signifying that the candidate can take feedback and psychological pain well and, under that duress, write anything that pleases the three people on the committee. There are exceptions, but I would dare to venture that most of the outstanding dissertations are from people with full fellowships or who work at the university full-time. As William Germano wrote in his 2005 book, From Dissertation to Book, “what makes a dissertation outstanding to a publisher isn’t exactly the same thing that makes it outstanding to the scholarly community.”

Black issues are not designed to help White people feel safer. Black studies were not designed to focus on White people’s interests, but to discuss issues of relevance to the Black community. Schaefer Riley asserts that Blacks fail to acknowledge any progress over the last 50 years, pointing to the election of the nation’s first Black president as evidence to the contrary. The reason the Black scholars may be stuck in 1963 is because the problems have become worse since Dr. King died, especially in the area of education.

One step forward with integration has equaled two steps back in education and economics for Blacks, and no conservative or liberal policy has done much to change that. Four hundred years of momentum of White supremacist policy via COINTELPRO, Jim Crow laws, and slavery vs. 40 years of “progress” is a hard arc to bend towards justice.

Black people are a perceived liability, yet we actually have the highest levels of education via continental African immigrants of first or second generations in the U.S. We are in the midst of a holocaust of the mind via gang violence and poverty, and we experience disproportionate incarceration numbers. Sure, having a Black president has some benefits, but for even powerful Black people, they have yet to fully materialize. Minority populations, such as Hispanics and Blacks, are even less likely to access the health care system.

The lack of critical attention to the needs of all Americans — not just those that support the conservative cause — obscures the ability of some to see how studying ways to make the lives of Black people better may actually help all people. There are different ways of thinking besides about and for Euro-American interests. The ignorant mentality that suggests that the election of the nation’s first Black president represents significant progress is the same that underscores the continued need for Black studies programs.

If the Africana studies or Black studies department dies while fighting, like the Civil Rights martyrs of the 1960s, they will at least inspire people to open their eyes. It is incredible that opponents of Black studies programs come at graduate students with a vengeance, unprovoked, like Bull Connor with dogs and hoses attacking defenseless people. It is ironic that the most privileged Blacks can catch some of the most hell for not staying in line. Sorry, but you don’t get to pick our heroes or villains, let alone give us advice.

The three major complaints Schaefer Riley cites in rebuttal, following the huge public outcry and her firing from her position with the Chronicle of Higher Education, are the facts that she is not Black and is therefore perceived as a racist, the idea that she is picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves and the fact that she is not qualified to comment on the subject matter at all, given her lack of a Ph.D. She is right in saying these complaints are irrelevant. Calling her racist does nothing for me or for Black people, but doing something about actual racism does. I let White people of good will who do not fear a Black planet or losing their privilege deal with her as a racist. Her not having a Ph.D. might actually help her in this case, because she knows nothing of the pain and submission that people have to go through in order to earn a Ph.D.

It must be noted that Black studies programs have as many challenges as any other department in a university. Black studies scholars need to get off of their Ph.D. statues and do more in the community. I am all the more convinced they should move all the Black studies programs to independent Black universities, not state-run schools. Either way, Africana and Black studies faculty, please stand your ground and fight for Africana and Black studies departments.

— Brandon E. Gamble, Ed.D., is an assistant professor within the school psychology program at California State University Long Beach.