Race is such a potent issue, it can even make the Chronicle of Higher Education seem exciting. In May, Naomi Scharfer Riley, a paid blogger for the magazine, wrote a post calling for the end of black studies programs and concluded that the whole program consists of “a collection of left-wing victimization clap-trap.” The 500-word post not only got Riley dropped from the Chronicle; it’s reignited old arguments over academic issues and political correctness. Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson, an associate professor of art history at McGill University and editor of the book Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada, says that after Riley’s post came out, “my academic friends, especially black ones, were sending it to each other, because it’s so disturbing to us.”
Riley, who tells Maclean’s that many university fields “have become political causes rather than academic disciplines,” set her sights on an article about black studies up-and-comers at Northwestern University, saying that they offer “solutions that begin and end with ‘blame the white man.’ ” Her method of demonstrating this was to mock the titles of some of their dissertations—including “So I could be easeful: Black women’s authoritative knowledge on childbirth,” and, “Race for profit: Black housing and the urban crisis of the 1970s”—dissertations which, she admitted in a follow-up post, she hadn’t read: “There are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.”
“She didn’t even pretend to be interested enough to provide real arguments about why they’re problematic,” Nelson says, explaining why the post got so many people upset. “She dismissed it because it’s black studies.” “My view is that she’s entitled to her opinion,” adds Pablo Idahosa, who coordinates the African studies program at York University. “But like anything else, you have to substantiate these opinions. If you draw from a sample of academic writing, why do you pick on those?” That was the take on Riley’s post that predominated in over 1,500 comments, and in a petition for her dismissal that attracted over 6,500 signatures. In a response, three of the authors of the dissertations decried “smug attacks by lazy bloggers” who “resort to racial caricature in a pitiful attempt to drum up controversy and interest in an otherwise underwhelming and pedestrian career.”
The controversy may, in fact, help Riley’s career, because it’s made her a hero among conservative commentators. The Wall Street Journal, where Riley used to be an editor, invited her to write a piece on her firing called “The academic mob rules,” where she wrote that the best academic work on the black experience “rarely comes out of black studies departments.” Cathy Young, a columnist for publications such as Reason magazine, says that “the climate of ‘political correctness’ on campuses hasn’t changed much in the past 20-25 years in terms of ideological rigidity.” Reason, the Wall Street Journal, and other conservative outlets have pointed to the firing as an example of what they consider to be politically correct censorship.
Others, though, think that black studies scholars are more likely to face repercussions for the things they say, and that Riley’s mockery was an example of what they go through. Nelson says academics “who work on so-called ‘black’ subjects” have to deal with criticism other disciplines don’t face: “When you talk to a white professor who works on white people all the time, they’re never accused of being biased racially.” For Riley’s critics, she’s the one expressing the politically correct view.
The controversy has given these issues more publicity than at any time since the late ’80s and early ’90s, when books like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind were popular. With a flood of recent stories about the tougher future for university graduates, Riley’s post may not be the last shot in the wars over what students are learning—and academics might have to defend their work more often to people who may not have read it. “Any academic might be concerned that the public might think of a given area as arcane, or obscure, or silly,” Idahosa says.“But they’re not.”