»  National Review Online

January 11th, 2002

  Af-Am Nonsense


It is a truth universally acknowledged that one pre-condition for being appointed president of a U.S. college or university is that you first submit to an operation to have your spine surgically removed. Anyone who doubts this fact is invited to read the January 2nd statement by Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University. In Summers's case the initial operation seems not to have been very well done; but this has now been corrected, and he looks set fair to make a very fine president indeed.

In case you haven't been keeping up with this sorry tale (and if you haven't, I don't blame you a bit), here is what happened. Summers, who served as U.S. Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, took over as president of Harvard last fall. Now, Harvard has an Afro-American Studies department. You can get a list of that department's faculty from its website; and you can get an idea of the kind of work they do by clicking on "Research Projects" on that same page. Well, one of the luminaries of the department is Professor Cornel West, and in October last year, soon after assuming his responsibilities, President Summers called Professor West in for a little chat. What was actually said is the subject of some controversy, but it seems that the Professor was rebuked for a number of shortcomings: egregious grade inflation, failing to publish anything much of academic value, recording a rap CD, and possibly also (though Summers has denied rebuking West on this one) for leading a political committee to support a run at the U.S. presidency by Al Sharpton. One thing led to another, and pretty soon there were reports in the newspapers that three stars of the Harvard faculty were thinking of decamping to Princeton.

By this time the issue had morphed into the allegation that Summers was insufficiently committed to affirmative action — a grave charge indeed in Academe. (Er, well: As a matter of fact, Harvard officially denies that affirmative action is practiced at the university. However, as the Duke said in Huckleberry Finn, when the King protested that his bald head and white whiskers made him a poor choice for the role of Shakespeare's Juliet: "These country jakes won't ever think of that.") Pretty soon the whole thing had reached the proportions of a Major Racial Crisis, signified by the presence on campus of Jesse Jackson, who held a finger-wagging press conference January 1st taking Summers to task on precisely the affirmative action issue. "Harvard must be a beacon of light for the nation, not a shadow of doubt," intoned the Reverend Jackson, in one of his less felicitous little antitheses. I suppose we should just be glad he didn't say: "A light unto the Gentiles …"

That was enough for Summers. He caved, issued the grovelling January 2nd statement, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The guardians of Correct Thinking, once they had examined him carefully to make sure no trace of spinal tissue remained, rallied to his support. William Julius Wilson, another professor on the Af-Am Studies faculty, delivered the Good Housekeeping seal of approval: "The new president is clearly reaching out … He is trying to correct a previous mistake and misjudgment and thereby affirm a strong commitment to issues relating to diversity and affirmative action … " Translation: He loves Big Brother.

I can speak with some modest authority on this subject, since I once read a book by Cornel West. The book had the title Race Matters, and I read it six or seven years ago,standing in the aisle in one of the bookstores on midtown Fifth Avenue in New York. It was either in the beautiful, elegant old Scribners bookstore, which has since been turned into a crack den, or else in the Barnes & Noble across the street. Race Matters was a small book, I am a fast reader, and I won't swear that I read every word. I read enough, though, to know that the book was irredeemably awful. Not that it told lies, or promoted a wrong-headed point of view (though it was probably attempting to do both); it was just so badly written and constructed that you couldn't tell what it was trying to say. You could have scissored that book up into its constituent words, rearranged them in random order, printed the result as another book, and not been able to tell the difference.

I start out, therefore, inclined to have a low opinion of the department in which Prof. West is considered such a shining talent. Like most nonblacks, I guess, I have, anyway, always thought that "Afro-American Studies" is a pseudo-discipline, invented by guilty white liberals as a way of keeping black intellectuals out of trouble, and giving them a shot at holding professorships at elite institutions without having to prove themselves in anything really difficult, like math.

[Just a word about that rather unattractive adjective "nonblack." One thing I have learned, I think, in fifteen years in the U.S.A. is that there are actually only two races here: black, and nonblack. All issues to do with race, including the Harvard one, are about this. Sure, I know people raise the "race" issue in other contexts — as a matter of fact, Larry Summers's next order of business, after putting out the Af-Am fire, is to deal with a group clamoring for a "Latino Studies" department. Yeah, yeah, but this is a bagatelle, and other "race" issues that don't involve blacks — the Wen Ho Lee case, for example — have a similarly forced, derivative quality to them and soon fade from the public consciousness. When Americans discuss race, they are talking about blacks and nonblacks. ("African-American," whatever. I have never met a black person, nor even been emailed by one, who objected to being called "black," so that's the term I use. If anyone does mind, please let me know. Way I look at it, one syllable trumps seven.) I used to try to pull rank in such discussions by throwing in a sentence that started: "Speaking as one half of a mixed-race marriage …" Among the people in the room who weren't familiar with my domestic arrangements, throats were cleared and fingernails examined; from those who were, there were irritated little "tsk tsk" noises. Come on, Derb. THAT'S not what we're talking about, and you know it .]

Well, in a spirit of earnest inquiry and self-improvement, I went to the Af-Am department's website, the one I linked you to up there above, and did a browse. I actually had two questions in mind: (1) Are there any nonblack members of the faculty of this department? (2) What contributions has the department made recently to human knowledge — to our understanding of the world, and of ourselves?

On the first question, I still don't have much idea. Of the eleven faculty members listed on the web page, only four give a photograph. One of these four, Werner Sollors, is obviously German, and fairly obviously nonblack. (It's hard to be sure about these things just from a picture, of course. The thing you notice about Cornel West in person — he was on The O'Reilly Factor in the middle of my writing this piece — is that his skin is actually white. I suspect that he comes on with that huge afro and weird beard to assert his blackness, which might otherwise escape attention, leading to him being mistaken for a professor of computer science.) The presence of Prof. Sollors is encouraging, anyway, suggesting that this is not entirely a boondoggle for otherwise-unemployable black intellectuals, in spite of the tendency of several faculty members to talk, in their on-site résumés, about "African American literary criticism" and "Black critical thought." ("Jewish science," anybody?)

As to the second point, there do seem to be some worthwhile research projects going on at Harvard Af-Am, though of course there is no way to judge the quality of their execution from a cursory description. The "Black Periodical Literature Project" sounds particularly interesting. I'm not quite clear as to why this, and the other projects listed, need to be all in the one department. Periodical literature, of any color, could be collected and analyzed in a department of, well, literature; or in a department of journalism, or of librarianship … But universities are funny places, and I suppose they have the right to divvy up their research into whatever categories they like. What really caught my eye was the heading on the website: "The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research." How many other departments are there at elite American colleges that are named after a communist? But, as I said, universities are funny places.

I'm still not convinced that Afro-American Studies is a legitimate discipline, though. What's the international angle, for example? Do these professors go off to scholarly conferences in Belgrade, Beijing, Blagovaschensk, Brisbane and Bombay to compare notes with Afro-American Studies experts in those countries? I suspect not. And some of the stuff they are researching is just African. One of my own old almae matres, London's School of Oriental and African Studies, used to do that perfectly well without feeling the need to stick any hyphenated prefixes on the front of "African."

And on the question of why an obvious mountebank like Cornel West is regarded as a glittering presence on the faculty of one of America's elite universities, I know the answer, and so do you. "Of that of which we cannot speak, we must perforce be silent." A friend who is better acquainted with these things than I am tells me that in fact West is a very bright guy, who arrived for his undergraduate course in religious studies already able to read Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. So why is he writing gibberish books, making rap CDs and pimping for the thuggish Al Sharpton? I know the answer to that one, too.

I know the answer because I know something about intellectual work. One thing I know is that all work of this kind is honed and tempered by criticism, and that without criticism your work gets sloppy, lazy and solipsistic. This is true even at the lowest level of brainwork — writing web opinion columns, say. One reason I keep an email button at the top of my column is to hear what people think about what I write. Of course, a lot of silly people write in, a lot of illiterate people, and a lot of rude people; but I get a surprising amount of thoughtful criticism, from people who've read what I've said with attention, rolled it around in their minds some, and come to a clear, intelligent opinion about it. To me, as a writer (I don't mean just as a web bloviator: I am currently engaged in writing a serious nonfiction book, on commission to a respectable publisher) this is gold dust. It makes me think about what I've said, look at it through other people's eyes, weigh it and judge it.

Cornel West doesn't get too much of that. The process I just described has an equivalent in the academic world. It's called "peer review." You publish a paper in a learned journal, or read it out at a scholarly conference, and scholars in your field then scrutinize it. Does this actually happen in "Afro-American Studies"? My guess is that it doesn't. There aren't that many departments in this "discipline," anyway, even in the U.S.A. For such academics as there are laboring in this field, the main interest is in promoting its validity, knowing (as they surely must) how many people, like me, doubt it. Under these cicumstances, it doesn't seem likely to me that they are going to engage in much scholarly controversy. And even if peer review does go on, Cornel West isn't exposing himself to it much, because he doesn't publish much — at any rate, this was said to be one of the beefs that Larry Summers had at that October meeting. As to criticism from outside the field … Well, nobody's going to do that. That would be "racist," wouldn't it?