Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ideological Diversity and Africana Studies

Ideological bias has become a significant topic of discussion in academic circles and in the media.  Fox News recently ran a story about the ideological bias at liberal arts colleges.  The study was based on a report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS),which was authored by Professor Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College.  NAS surveyed 5,197 tenure track professors from 51 liberal arts colleges.  The sample consisted of professors from a range of academic disciplines, and NAS “could not find a single Republican with an exclusive appointment to fields like gender studies, Africana studies, and peace studies.”  The report stated that these disciplines are the “most ideological” fields of study—implying that they are not ideologically diverse.  However, the NAS study does not give a picture of ideological diversity in these disciplines.  As my main interest here is in Africana studies, I use that as an example.

Professor Langbert’s framing of ideological division is narrow and does not capture the nuances of a field like Africana Studies.  His ideological dichotomy is very conventional and reflects White mainstream discourse which is far less applicable in a field like Africana Studies.  Any implication that the field is somehow ideologically homogenous is off-base: it is full of vigorous intellectual debate.  But Democrat vs. Republican, or even liberal vs. conservative in the conventional sense, [1] are not the major debates within Africana Studies. 

In my experience, the major debates in Africana Studies has centered on the tension between Black Nationalism and integrationist ideals. [2] Professor Langbert cites Fabio Rojas and correctly notes that Africana studies began with the emergence of “ideologically motivated political movements in the 1960s and 1970s.”  The Black Power Movement and Pan-Africanism, both rooted in Black Nationalist ideas, were indeed the foundations of Africana studies.  But there has always been a tension between integration and nationalism among African American scholars and activists.  This manifested itself most famously during the Civil Rights Era, in the different perspectives of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  In earlier eras, we saw debates between W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey; and between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.  The debates between nationalist and integrationist sentiments continue to exist to this day. [3] Many African Americans subscribe to both ideologies to one degree or another, and they balance the two when developing their political views.  This was famously articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of “double-consciousness” in Souls of Black Folk:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”  --W.E.B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk--

Africana Studies intersects with history, sociology, literature, and other disciplines to explore different aspects of this debate.  It also considers policy issues that stem from the integration vs. nationalism debate, such as the efficacy of African-centered charter schools and of historically Black colleges and universities.  In fact, there is an inherent ideological tension along these lines within Africana Studies departments and programs, because many of them exist at predominantly White institutions.

Additionally, Africana Studies actually does have an intellectual current that parallels some conservative ideals.  Most Black voters feel alienated by the Republican Party’s history of appeals to racism: the Southern Strategy, dog whistle politics, and more recent overtures to White supremacists by Donald Trump.  Nevertheless, Black Nationalism has long emphasized Black self-help, paralleling ideas now espoused by many White conservatives. [4] There are differences in the degree and kind of self-help that are advocated by Black Nationalism as compared to White conservatism.  But that is also a rich source of ideological debates in the realm of Africana Studies.

Most White Americans and others who are not Black have not shown much interest in these debates.  But more than any other race-related dialogue, White interest and knowledge of Africana Studies and the debates therein would improve race relations in America.  It would give White Americans a more nuanced perspective on Black identity and political perspectives. [5]  Unfortunately, such engagement is uncommon inside or outside of academia. 

The debates that stem from Africana Studies can also inform other disciplines.  One of my fields, constitutional law, provides a notable example--thanks to my mentor, the late Professor Derrick Bell.  On this 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, it is fitting to remember Professor Bell’s striking challenge to the liberal orthodoxy of integration.  In his classic 1976 Yale Law Journal article, “Serving Two Masters”, Professor Bell contended that desegregation efforts often did not have clients’ interests at heart.  He was met with much criticism from liberals.  Nevertheless, many African Americans had similar sentiments. [6]  They were careful, however, about when and how to express these sentiments: they did not want to promote Jim Crow’s ideology of Black inferiority and detract from a vision of Black equality.  In constitutional law today, the litmus test for a theory of constitutional interpretation is said to be whether it would lead to the correct result in Brown: endorsement of Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling for desegregation.  Ironically, the only prominent dissenter from this view (notwithstanding Wendy Vitter and other Trump judicial nominees) has been Professor Derrick Bell—the most cherished and revered role model of legal academics interested in racial justice. [7]

The lessons here are important, and the homogeneity and bias that NAS brings to attention is not just one of ideology.  It is about the very meaning of ideological diversity—an issue that itself is almost always framed from a mainstream White perspective.  All of us can and should take the time to immerse ourselves in the ideological debates of Africana Studies and other identity-based disciplines.  Rather than criticizing these disciplines, we should appreciate the learning opportunities they can provide for all of us.  Many White Americans (and others who are not Black) are afraid that they would be unwelcome or met with hostility in Africana Studies circles.  I can say that when I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, the few White Americans or other non-Black people I saw attending Africana Studies-related events were always embraced with open arms.  All they had to do was to cede the idea that the issues and debates themselves must be framed from a mainstream White perspective; and to be open to engaging the debates that took place in Africana Studies.  For those who do this, it becomes clear that fields like Africana Studies are as rich in ideological debate as are other disciplines.

[1] Of course, American liberalism and conservatism differ from liberalism and conservatism in Europe and other parts of the world.

[2] Black Nationalism in America itself has a different meaning than most nationalisms around the world.  Its major goal is not to create a separate political space, but rather to mobilize and unify African Americans for political advocacy, community activism, and other causes within the U.S. context, not apart from it.  Although there are Black Nationalist thinkers, dating back to Marcus Garvey and earlier, who have advocated for a separate state, there is not a major political mobilization to this end.

[3] See, e.g., David Love, Little Rock 9: In Seeking School Desegregation Rather than Quality Education, Did Black People Miss the Forest for the Trees? Atlanta Black Star, Sept. 4, 2016.

[4] There has also been some discussion of Justice Clarence Thomas in this vein.  See, e.g. Mark Tushnet, Clarence Thomas's Black Nationalism, 47 Howard Law Journal 323 (2003-4).  Additionally, some libertarians have recently embraced the cause of police brutality, aligning themselves on this issue with #BlackLivesMatter activists.

[5] See my recent article, Vinay Harpalani, “Safe Spaces” and the Educational Benefits of Diversity,13 Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy 117, 153-65 (2017).

[6] One student of mine at Savannah Law School, a Black woman from the South, told me recently about how her grandmother, who staunchly instilled an ethic of Black pride and hard work in her, reacted on the day of the Brown verdict.  She thought it was "the worst day in American history."

[7] In 2002, Professor Jack Balkin of Yale Law School published a book, What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said, where he surveyed eminent constitutional law professors on the question.  Professor Bell’s chapter was the only dissent from the majority opinion.  Having worked closely with Professor Bell, I know that he never wavered from that view, although he invited opposing viewpoints and sought ideological diversity.


I thank Professor Shakira Pleasant and Cherese Handy for their feedback on this post.

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