Paul R. Lehman, Naomi Schaefer Riley’s comments show a need for African American Studies

January 1, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Posted in Affirmative Action, African American, American Bigotry, American Racism, black midwifery, blacks, Democrats, desegregation, Disrespect, Equal Opportunity, equality, Ethnicity in America, European American, fairness, Good Times, justice, minority, Prejudice, Public housing, Race in America, segregation, Slavery, the Republican Party, whites | Leave a comment
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Back in April 30, 2012, a former writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Naomi Schaefer Riley, wrote a blog article entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertation.” The blog caused considerable debate because of statements to the effect that Black Studies no longer served any useful purpose and should be discontinued as an academic discipline. Shortly after the blog’s publication a controversy ensued and Ms. Riley was fired. Anyone with a working knowledge of American History would have detected a number of defects in Riley’s comments as well as an attitude akin to arrogant ignorance. The article displayed a lack of knowledge and understanding of American History, African American History, and an attitude of biased superiority.

Most educated people today realize that the only difference between American History and African American History is the point of view; both are American History. The fact that the discipline is known as “Black Studies” places a stigma on it as not being of equal value as other traditional subjects. The stigma comes from the negative value and the lack of information relative to the experiences of African American presented through education as well as because of some people’s conception of the “Black American ‘experience” which most history books and classes over-looks. Riley’s comments relative to the choice of topics of the graduate students for their dissertations showed her lack of knowledge of general American History when she labels all three “so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.” When we looked at the subjects, we got a different reaction.

The first dissertation subject Riley commented on was one by Ruth Hayes: “’So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” Hayes’ study looked into the history of African American midwifery because she found that “nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature.” According to Riley, “How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in ‘natural birth literature,’ whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.”Obviously, Riley has no idea or concept of what life was like on the slave plantations nor the role African/African American women played in midwifery to both the females in the master’s household as well as the female slaves. Although Riley might not want to learn about some of those experiences, her ignorance indicates a lack of knowledge of its importance historically. Even after slavery, many African American women continued to serve as midwives to both the European American and African American community. My grand mother was such a person, and the one who helped facilitate my entry into this world.

The next dissertation topic Riley selected to denigrate was one written by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor entitled: “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.”  Riley shows her complete ignorance of contemporary American History with her comment relative to Taylor’s study: “Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government’s promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s. Single family homes! The audacity!” Unfortunately, Riley adds insult to her ignorance when she states: “But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today. (Not much of a surprise since the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race.” Her ignorance is compounded when she states 😦 “Shhhh. Don’t tell them about the black president!”) Riley shows complete ignorance of government sponsored segregation and discrimination in public housing. This blog discussed this very same topic in two recent publications, one dealing with “Good Times,” and the other with “All in the Family.” Evidently, Riley’s education has not served her very well.

The third dissertation Riley selected to discredit was written by La TaSha B. Levy and dealt with the topic of “Black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan.”Riley adds that “Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’”What Riley fails to grasp in this work is the fact that these men mentioned are African Americans who having benefited from the opportunities afforded them through civil rights advances, now want to undo those advantages for others. In essence, the benefits were fine for them, but not for other African Americans. This topic was also treated recently in this blog and underscored the fact that most African American republicans today belong to that party for personal attention and gain, not for what the party offers the African American community. The fact that many African Americans belong to the Democratic Party is owing to what the party has to offer them in comparison to what the Republican party offers.

So far, Riley has struck out in her assessment of these dissertations as well as her knowledge of American History. Her comments and assessments are proof enough that courses in African American Studies should be required for all students. Her comments and evaluations of these works show a gross lack of information relative to the African American experience in America History as well as a general lack of knowledge that the influence both had on the other. How she managed to write for as long as she did being so ill-equipped is amazing.

What was the final insult to injury in Riley’s blog was the bigoted, better-than-thou attitude of European American superiority she exhibited throughout the piece. In all her splendid ignorance, she felt secure and comfortable in denigrating the work and scholarship of graduate students and simultaneously saying to their institution and mentoring professors that they were all illegitimate scholars. She alone had the intelligence to pass judgment on what should be considered quality academic work based, it seems, on the color of her skin. Rather than dismissing these works as “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,“ Riley should have consulted with someone more knowledgeable in the subject-matter. In fact, that is what most people do when they do not know what they are doing.

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