“What we do, how well we do it… does it even matter?”
From the very moment I heard that question presented to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character in the Red Tails movie preview released so many months ago, it resonated with me. Clearly, perseverance through struggle and critical perception and assessment of that “perseverance” are nothing new for African-Americans. To echo the sentiment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the concept of “second-class citizenship,” of being good but not quite good enough in America, isn’t new for Blacks, either. African-Americans continue to work hard and apply themselves to being the best they possibly can be in spite of the circumstances.
But that “good but not quite good enough” specter is ever looming over Black Americans in the form of “privilege” – the concept that minimizes and plays upon the downplay of one group to more highly elevate another. It is this idea of privilege that serves as the immediate counterargument to the “post-racial America” that many people legitimately – if a little foolishly – believe was instituted once Barack Hussein Obama was elected president back in November 2008. Most recently, we find privilege emerging in the field of academia.
It was only by way of a chance “retweet” on twitter, that I stumbled onto Tressie McMillan Cottom’s guest article for racialicious, “The Inferiority of Blackness as a Subject.” In 1,420 words, McMillan Cottom calls out esteemed academic journal The Chronicle for Higher Education and, more specifically, a blog entry from Naomi Schaefer-Riley in The Chronicle entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” In much the same way that Schaefer-Riley’s blog critiqued and dismissed the dissertations she saw cited by Black doctoral studies, so does McMillan Cottom respectfully respond to and dismiss Schaefer Riley’s assertions, primarily because Schaefer-Riley critiques the dissertations based upon their titles and not the subject matter that makes up each dissertation. As McMillan Cottom so eloquently states, these Black doctoral students are “deliberately assaulted… for not being invisible.”
It’s intriguing that Naomi Schaefer Riley would contribute the newest chapter to the argument surrounding Black studies and its “place” in the academic arena, in the process driving the point home as to what REALLY lies at the center of this argument – privilege. Tressie McMillan Cottom touches upon this when she writes that Schaefer Riley is all but condescending to “three young scholars who have the audacity to treat the black subject as a human subject worthy of interrogation.” As a lowly undergraduate student myself, perhaps I am unqualified to speak upon this matter. But I do have many friends, colleagues, and associates who are Black students in doctoral programs, many of whom have embarked upon dissertations that touch upon or directly engage issues that affect African-Americans. And I am certain they, too, would treat Schaefer Riley’s criticism as, to put it plainly, “hating.”
I’m not talking about “hate” as in rooted in racism; but rather, “hate” as a completely subjective assessment of something with no sound basis other than dismissing something just to say it’s worthy of dismissal. McMillan Cottom sees this, as well, effectively highlighting that Schaefer Riley “does not even afford [the three doctoral students] the respect of critiquing their actual scholarship. That is beneath her. She attacks the very veracity of their right to choose what scholarship they will do.”
But let’s delve a little deeper here. Why DOESN’T Schaefer Riley “critique their actual scholarship?” The answer is simple – because Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn’t believe Black studies is scholarship worthy of critique. It would be easy to play “what if” and to imagine if the tone and approach of Schaefer Riley’s blog might be different had these three Black students been putting forth dissertations for their, say, Executive Doctorates in Higher Education. It is easy to assume that, perhaps then, Schaefer Riley would have given these students a fair assessment of their work and, additionally, an appropriate acknowledgment of their progress and pioneering achievement thus far (which was what the original article that stemmed this debate, was about in the first place).
Rather than wonder about what could have been, it is important to remain focused on and challenge the actual facts. The actual facts are that doctoral programs are not easy to get into, and by far, all but a challenge to remain and excel in; that, since doctoral programs operate by a process of acceptance to a prestigious program and adoption of a rigorous academic commitment and platform, that one must be amongst the best or working towards becoming the best to be a doctoral student; and that, while in the process of being a doctoral student, one can expect to be critiqued and vetted, it is not an unfair expectation to assume that you are still worthy of respect and dignity as a student throughout the entire process.
Apparently, none of these facts apply when it comes to the field of Black studies. It may be true that doctoral students in Black studies will still have the same “Ph.D.” initials listed after their name upon graduation. And it is likely true that students in doctoral programs for Black studies devote just as much time, blood, sweat, and tears as their peers in other areas of the academic arena, to assembling adequate research worthy of a dissertation that can be effectively defended. But privilege demands that Black studies be regarded at a lower level than all other academic fields, simply because issues that affect African-Americans can’t possibly affect people from other backgrounds, nor can non-Blacks possibly relate to those same issues. Privilege demands that those in positions of power can tell students in Black studies that their work is “left-wing victimization claptrap” and that “This may matter to you, but it doesn’t matter to me, therefore it doesn’t matter at all.”
It is easy to diminish the hard work, the scholastic potential, and the diligence that Black graduate students must adopt to succeed in academia on some scholarly journal’s webpage. But I wonder if Naomi Schaefer Riley would be as quick to tell Black doctoral students in person, what she really meant: that being a Black Ph. D student is good, but not good enough.
Somewhere in California, Dr. Nathan Hare, the founder of Black studies, is no doubt sitting in his rocking chair thinking, “I wish a nigga would.”