While in Jacksonville attending my cousin's graduation from Edward Waters College, the oldest historically black college in Florida, I thought about the rumpus over Naomi Schaefer Riley's dismissal from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Riley's recent blog post rejecting black studies as "claptrap" was deemed insensitive at best, and racist at worst. I agree it was offensive, but not surprising.
As one of only two African-American faculty members at my college, my presence is often paradoxically cited as both proof and denial of racism in education. The relationship between African-Americans and education has always been politicized. After slavery, freedom was linked to education. Schools nurtured black efforts to defy discrimination.
As 20th-century activism challenged segregation, academic research contested racism. Today, as tension over racism persists, Riley's comments remind us that black studies is a challenge or affirmation — for both conservative and liberal voices.
Despite disdain, academia's effort to incorporate diverse perspectives remains crucial. For advocates of black studies, the hope is to promote an inclusive national narrative and correct longstanding patterns of exclusion. But these efforts become fodder for ideologues searching for tools to undermine the opposing perspective.
Riley's comments fall neatly into this paradigm. Her comments were intended to assert that the country's problems are linked to individual failings more than structural inequality. She uses African-American scholarship as a signifier of radicalism and dismisses it for failing to address values she believes more important. It is easy to mock her critique. In her zeal to belittle black students' perspectives, she rejected the historical significance of midwives, failed to acknowledge research linking race and the foreclosure crisis, and ignored the intersection of identity and politics in political history since the 1960s.
None of that matters because her real aim was to undermine an outlook more than the substance of the scholarship. Riley represents a model of commentary designed to discredit and contain using race, class and gender as proxies.
For Riley, black studies merely serves as a signifier of ruin, a sad reminder of how racial symbolism affects the public dialogue.
My cousin was the second member of our family to graduate from college. As I watched, Riley's comments were a stark reminder that black educational endeavors are still sorely needed.
Julian Chambliss is an associate professor of history at Rollins College.