heterodox: the blog
Activism and the Academy: Lessons from the Rise of Ethnic Studies
As an academic, I am most well-known for writing a book that describes the evolution of ethnic studies as an academic discipline. From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (2007, The Johns Hopkins University Press) takes a sociological approach the topic. I found that Black nationalists were unable to implement a version of Black Studies that closely conformed to the idea that ethnic studies should be a radical departure from the academic mainstream. Instead, they had to build a discipline that rested on a foundation of interdisciplinary scholarship drawn from the traditional social sciences and humanities.
After I wrote From Black Power, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons asked me to contribute a chapter to their book on academic liberalism, Professors and Their Politics (2014, The Johns Hopkins University Press). I called the chapter “Activism and the Academy: Lessons from the Rise of Ethnic Studies.” The primary purpose of “Activism and the Academy” is to succinctly outline the path from protest to academic institution. Here are the main lessons that I drew from my research:
First, protest works. As I’ve argued in a series of articles, protest, especially non-violent protest, is one mechanism that effectively prompts academic reform.
Second, protest generates a “menu of options” and some options are simply not feasible in the system of higher education. For example, some activists managed to start autonomous Black Studies colleges such as North Carolina’s Malcolm X University and Palo Alto’s Nairobi College. None of these institutions survived more than a few years. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of Black Studies programs founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s still exist and some are thriving.
Third, Black Studies had to accommodate to the academic system and essentially de-radicalize. This is evident in many ways. Many of the activists who were early Black Studies professors could not get tenure. Proposals for “community control” of Black Studies were rejected. Black Studies faculty presented themselves as interdisciplinary scholars and Black Studies programs frequently were staffed by professors with joint appointments in other programs.
Fourth, Black Studies has been put to use in academia. Not only are Black Studies programs teaching and research units, they provide student support, they are seen as satisfying the needs for ethnic diversity within the professoriate, and they are places where people can be exposed to African American culture.
Fifth, Black Studies, in a sense, has stabilized as a “permanent inter-discipline.” It is an academic domain that is intellectually and organizationally dependent on other disciplines. It is not quite a fully-fledged discipline with a large number of its own doctoral programs and widely read journals, nor it is it a niche specialty. This may change in the long term, but in the short term Black Studies remains an interdisciplinary collegium of humanists, social scientists, and a growing group of ethnic studies PhDs.
This blog post has outlined the argument I made in the Gross and Simmons volume. I’ll conclude with a few words directed at readers of Heterodox Academy, which promotes discussion of intellectual diversity, with an emphasis on points of view such as conservatism and libertarianism. One important take away from my research is that the academic system is demanding. Even though many in the academy were favorable toward ethnic studies and its advocates, they still demanded rigor in research and competence in teaching. One might argue that Black Studies, at times, has been hampered by some schools of thought that actively rejected mainstream academia, such as Nile Valley scholarship of the 1980s.
Another lesson is that Black Studies has found a comfortable equilibrium where they have a “counter center” in the academy. While those who ally themselves with ethnic studies are a small minority in higher education, they still have degree granting programs, cultural centers, and journals. Some of these have had high impact and are important contributors to the university and the society at large. Ethnic studies are thus a counter weight to the mainstream. Conservative and libertarian scholars are in an analogous position. They are small in number, but they have friends and many will respect high quality work no matter who the author is. There is much to be said for growing from an embattled minority to a respected, if circumscribed, community that can constructively engage the mainstream while critiquing it at the same time.
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