Commentary: A Raging Debate About Black Studies

A commentator who called Black studies “irrelevant” on a blog post has been fired. But was her firing warranted?

Posted: 05/09/2012 06:29 PM EDT

There’s been a big hubbub of late over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, a normally uncontroversial journal for academics and people in academia.


It all started when writer Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a blog post called “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” In it, Riley scoffed at Black studies dissertations as “left-wing victimization claptrap.”


She then added, “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”


Riley might have had a point if she’d actually read the dissertations she was criticizing and then pointed out important flaws in logic or fact. She did not. She simply read their abstract descriptions and based her entire angry rant on them.


For instance, here’s what she has to say about graduate student Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “So I Could Be Easeful: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth”:


"It began because she 'noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical Black midwifery.' How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in 'natural birth literature,' whatever the heck that is?”


There’s actually nothing at all wrong with a Black woman studying the dearth of African-American stories in the natural birth literature canon. But apparently Riley doesn’t find the topic important enough, which makes it worthless to her.


Riley went on to attack Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the student who wrote “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s”:


"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! But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today."


Riley was fired from the Chronicle soon after her blog post went live, a decision about which she complained openly in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal: “My longtime familiarity with the absurdities of higher education did not, I confess, prepare me for this most absurd of results,” said Riley.


But what she seems to not understand is that she wasn’t fired for her opinion. If she’d actually had an opinion outside of I think this is stupid and that Black people are whiney, perhaps she should have kept her job. But rather than critiquing Black studies and those dissertations with actual facts and considered points, she attacked them as “irrelevant” with no evidence whatsoever.


I hate to break it to Riley, but if you ask the right person, you might find that every topic of study is irrelevant to someone. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean everyone else should abandon researching it. It’s the diversity of academia that makes it so beautiful, and it’s a reason people operating with closed minds, like Riley, shouldn’t be critiquing academia.



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