Only blacks can teach black history?

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

This article about a protest over a white teacher possibly teaching black history in the Cleveland area is pretty high in blogdex, so there’s a large amount of commentary out there if you want to look. I find it pretty freaky, I do understand that a black teacher probably has some insights into black history that a white teacher could not give, but the reaction is highly disproportionate to the problem in my opinion. This echoes something I saw on CSPAN a month ago, where Diane Ravitch was promoting her new book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, and a black woman rose up and rambled for about 10 minutes how blacks should teach black history and women should teach about sufferage and so forth. Ravitch ignored the ramble and replied orthogonally to the question/assertion. Whites, especially liberals, tend not to hold the same standard of stupidity to minorities that they would their own group, mostly especially with blacks. If a white woman had gone on in a rant about this subject Ravitch would certainly have taken a time out and pointed out that this sort of preoccupation with identity over the core area being studied is part of what leads to political pressure on textbook makers in the first place. It is also a sympton of what I see most well developed in black Americans, but also starting to infuse the thinking of other minorities & women, a preoccupation with your own group to the extent that there seems a neglect of broader learning because it is unnatural and uninteresting. John McWhorter, a black man, has been one of the few to publically comment on this topic, both in Losing the Race and in Authentically Black. McWhorter recalls how some of his black linguistics buddies in grad school teased him for picking a topic relating to Russian dialects to do a presentation on, when he should have perhaps focused on Carribean pidgins or something “more appropriate.” He also criticizes well educated blacks like Randall Robinson who have contempt for classical learning that they consider “Eurocentric” but offer little in the way of alternatives [1].

More broadly interpreted, this gets to a topic that serves as part of Bernard Lewis’ overall thesis expressed in What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, the lack of curiousity about other cultures and exoganous knowledge that seems prevelant in some areas of the world. Whether Lewis is right or wrong about Islamic culture, the broader question is important, and the assumptions that underlay it merit attention. Many non-white elites have traditionally looked to Europe after its post 18th century domination of the world as a model, intellectually and historically, schooled in the classics and well informed of the methodologies that took European the nations to the commanding heights in science and government. This does not mean a neglect of one’s own culture-Hindu barristers remained Hindu, Lee Kwan Yew might have been from an Anglophile family, but he remained committed to Confucian values and eventually schooled himself in Mandarin, while the elites of Latin America could both look to Europe for inspiration but maintain their own literary and artistic culture. Conversely Europeans have traditionally evinced a deep interest in the cultures that they surpassed and conquered, it was a European that discovered the relationship between Sanskrit and Latin & Greek, it was the West that rediscovered the ancient Near Eastern anquities lost to the memories of history, the examples are endless. Much of what we know about the breadth and depth of non-European cultures is because of Europeans.

Yet in recent years the rise of identity politics has infused a certain political aspect to much of learning & scholarship, especially outside the natural sciences. Emergent fields like Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Asian Studies, and so forth exist more to facilitate political movements and self-esteem than forward knowledge and understanding apart from personal considerations. This has important ramifications on the individual level-as some radical feminists & racialists assert that science is “patriarchal Western masculine thinking” and that those who are not white men who participate in the field are somehow sell-outs. These movements also tend to discourage “oppressed” groups from entering something that they view as Other and the domain of white men. On a milder level, I am regularly asked why I am interested in a variety of topics, how do I know so much about Roman history, Jewish history, Chinese history, etc.? There is no surprise at my scientific knowledge because there is a stereotype that South Asians are good at that in the United States, but my non-scientific background seems confusing to many, who assume that I would not have any interest in things outside my “culture’s background.” Of course, there is rich irony in this because most assume that I am of Hindu culture based on my physical appearence, when in fact I am from a family that has a strong Muslim identity (my paternal grandfather financed the building of and ran the local mosque in his home town and I was raised to believe that Hindus were snake-worshipping pagans).

I am not saying that background does not matter in any way on the choices one makes when one seeks knowledge, I suspect that as the years pass, more South Asian students will be interested in Indian mysticism than Korean students, and so forth. Race, culture, upbringing, matter, but on an individual level, it is not really that exceptional to transcend one’s own experience and knowledge and seek out that which is different and exotic. While I assert that there is much about our biological makeup that is essential and immutable, culture is clearly predominantly voluntary at the root, no matter that parental values correlate strongly with those of their children. One is not tied to the culture of one’s birth, moored permentantly in the same familiar waters through some law of physics, rather it is more the inertia of happenstance and the comfort of that which is the same. It is a great irony that those very individuals that might assert the malleability of human nature and reject any role for biology are the ones who are ghettoizing the quest for knowledge and forwarding the narrow idea that you should know only what you are and only you can know about yourself.

[1] In “Authentically Black” McWhorter has a delicious take down of Robinson’s uninformed opinion that black students should learn Swahili rather than French or German. McWhorter responds, rightly, that the West Africans that are the ancestors of most black Americans knew nothing of Swahili and were more likely to hear a European pidgin along the coast then they were Swahili, an East African language. McWhorter then constructively suggests that Wolof is a good candidate if Robinson et al. want to be more authentic. Of course, it is clear that Robinson et al. didn’t do their homework and only want to score anti-Eurocentrics points-not be more authentically “African,” an identity McWhorter reminds readers is mostly American, as Africans are Ibos, Kikiyu and Zulu first and foremost.

Update from Godless:

An old post seems appropriate at this time.

Validity of Studying Black Topics

I want to respond to the second of his three points on McWhorter. In response to my condescending attitude toward black studies, he says:

This is a load of bollocks. Blacks are part of our society, which means that black history is our history, no matter what our ethnicity. That doesn’t mean that we should fall silent before obvious lunacies like Afrocentrism, but at the same time one can no more dismiss a conscientious historian or linguist whose expertise is in the African diaspora than one whose expertise is in French or ancient Greece.

In theory, he is quite correct. The study of the history of Africa or of African Americans is no less defensible than the study of the history of Europe. And truth be told, Ethnic Studies majors and English majors are virtually indistinguishable nowadays in terms of content in the modern university. Virtually every humanities course includes a discussion of “race, gender, and class” from a hopelessly PC perspective. Look at the Stanford course syllabi for yourself if you find this unbelievable.

I suppose, then, that my objection is to the humanities in general – or to what they’ve become. I consider Stanley Fish and Estelle Freedman to be just as bad as Cornel West. The only thing that sets ethnic studies and feminist studies below the rest is that they can cry “racism” or “sexism” whenever they’re under attack by those who know their work to be rubbish. Thus black scholars in African-American studies are held to an even lower standard than Stanley Fish. While postmodernists are open to criticism from the mainstream, ethnic studies professors are simply invulnerable. The Cornel West affair is, obviously, a case in point.

The invulnerability from criticism leads in practice to a complete lack of standards. It is for this reason that ethnic studies – and not just black studies – is worthy of singular disdain.

22 Comments

  1. President Lee of Singapore talked Confucian but he was a Legalist (~Machiavellian realist, ~Absolutist, ~enlightened despot) through and through. By about 1300 Chinese government was pretty much an amalgalm of Confucian pieties, legalist methods, and some stuff they learned from the Mongols, and the phrase “Confucian on the outside, Legalist on the inside” is a Chinese cliche.

  2. true to a great extent-though i suspect lee would assert that though his public policies were legalist, he favored a personal life that was confucian. of course, lee was also to some extent an englishmen, oxford educated & oriented….

  3. razib,

    We Hindus ARE snake-worshipping pagans. Please get it straight next time. Thanks a bunch!

  4. i never said what i was told was wrong ;)

    hindus do worship devils after all-devi?

  5. “And truth be told, Ethnic Studies majors and English majors are virtually indistinguishable nowadays in terms of content in the modern university. Virtually every humanities course includes a discussion of “race, gender, and class” from a hopelessly PC perspective.”

    (Warning–kind of long–this is about my experience in a leftist PC humanities course)

    I’m 19 and I can say firsthand that my (required)humanities core course at UC Irvine was full of PC multicultural garbage. The first quarter, we had to read such works as “China Men” by Maxine Hong Kingston (horrbile things the U.S. did to Asians), about the “Plessy v. Ferguson” Supreme Court case that established “seperate but equal” in 1896 (horrible things the U.S. did to blacks), and “The Cockroach People” by radical Chicano writer Oscar Zeta Acosta. That garbage took up 60% of the first quarter. To top it off, my discussion leader talked about conspiracy theories of how the U.S. government was responsible for Martin Luther King’s assassination. She also said that the government was in place to protect the rich from the poor.

    The second quarter wasn’t much better. Topics included the French Revolution, the Communist Manifesto, and Nazism. In the Nazism unit, the professors teaching the course emphasized the relation of American anti-miscegenation laws to Nazi ones. The professors also tied the eugenics movement in the U.S. to Nazism and the sterilizations in Nazi Germany. Another major point was the U.S.’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to the U.S.– I would agree that that was not a good thing, but the implication that the U.S. needs a more open immigration policy in general is ridiculous.

    In the third quarter, the anti-Communist movement was bashed. Additionally, at the end of the quarter, we learned about protestors attempted use of the “necessity defense” (originally to protect those who committed illegal acts to avoid more dire situations) to avoid penalties for illegal activities while protesting. Additionally, my discussion leader for the third quarter admitted to being “a deconstructionist, a kind of postmodernist.” She also commented on my essay that I should not refer to some cultures as “primitive.”

    To top the whole thing off, this humanities course is required of all CHP (Campuswide Honors Program) students, the most elite students at UC Irvine. Just what we need…a bunch of propoganda directed at very bright but generally politically ignorant students.

    I think this is particularly dangerous for the Asian students, who (I would think) tend to be even more politically ignorant than the white students. Being a “minority” group, Asians probably are also more likely to identify with past victims of discrimination against minorities (and view discrimination as lingering today) than whites. Perhaps courses such as the Humanities Core Course are in part responsible for the leftist tendencies of Asians, who voted 55-41 for Gore according to the VNS and 62-35 (or therabouts) for Gore according to the LA Times.

  6. think this is particularly dangerous for the Asian students, who (I would think) tend to be even more politically ignorant than the white students. Being a “minority” group, Asians probably are also more likely to identify with past victims of discrimination against minorities (and view discrimination as lingering today) than whites. Perhaps courses such as the Humanities Core Course are in part responsible for the leftist tendencies of Asians, who voted 55-41 for Gore according to the VNS and 62-35 (or therabouts) for Gore according to the LA Times.

    i also worry that asian students are vulnerable. there is a selfish reason i worry-once asians become whiny pussies like other minorities-all asians will get stereotyped and the “myth of asian competance” will collapse as asians will be perceived as another group in need of “help”-ergo, shunt them off to less important areas of a company, keep them away from places where law-suits can spring up.

    i also think that asian (at least east asian) campus drift toward evangelical christianity is also part of the general non-technical credulity that is endemic to this group-they can’t make heads or tails of social & cultural issues so they take the easiest and most predigested solution out there. you see the same thing in the islamic world where engineering departments are the hot-beds for fundamentalism and radicalism-they buy that crap because they don’t know any better, they’re too busy taking classes on heat flow through solids to step back and look at the broad view of history, politics & religion.

  7. i also think that asian (at least east asian) campus drift toward evangelical christianity is also part of the general non-technical credulity that is endemic to this group-they can’t make heads or tails of social & cultural issues so they take the easiest and most predigested solution out there.

    I don’t see any problem with East Asians’ adoption of Christianity. Yes, many Chirstians, including “conservative” ones, push PC crap like “race does not exist,” but I don’t see PC crap like that as so much a problem endemic to Christianity as it is so endemic to our society that PC crap has penetrated into every sector of society, including Christianity. The guilt component of Christianity can play into leftist/Marxist crap, but many feel plenty guilty about America and/or their success without ever cracking open a Bible or stepping foot in a church. Yes some Christians believe in a hard literal interpretation of the Bible that is anti-scientific and especially anti-Darwinian, but not all Christians believe this way. Moreover, Darwinism as it applies to race and racial differences is just as vociferously and anti-scienfically pushed by the left, center, and Limbaugh/Hannity/Bush quasi-right as it is by many hard-line Christians (for those who haven’t already, see Steve Sailer’s Darwin’s Enemies on the Left and Right).

  8. razib,

    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was on TV last night. All the silly Darkies worshipped Evil Kali, but our favorite blue-eyed sweet-talkin’ Avatar of Vishnu, Harrison Ford, was there to save the day! “White Man’s Burden” indeed.

    MattW:

    I don’t see whats wrong with exposing the history of race relations in America. In the last “humanities” course I took about immigration, many of the non-asians were SHOCKED to learn that asians were actually in this (rather, your) country before the 60′s, and did things other than run take-out restaurants or wash clothes for money. Indeed, the idea that Nissei could have gallantly served a country in WW1 only to be disenfranchised by the same country 20 years later should be disturbing to anyone. I don’t know EXACTLY which/what books you read but race relations in history doesn’t have too many high points for America, they’re all mostly low. I don’t see how you CAN’T make it sound depressing.

  9. “If anything, I think Asian engineering types are more pragmatic about such things.”

    I tend to agree with GC. Asian engineering types (i.e. many of my friends) are conservative/pragmatic on social/political issues and indeed, many of them have a keen interest in history (WW2 etc.) without having taken a single history course after high school.

    On the other hand, Artsies’ interest in history doesn’t really go beyond the classroom. Exception is duly made for actual History majors, but give me an English major who’s never taken a WW2 or Holocaust course, and I bet I could brainwash him into thinking the Holocaust never occurred with just a few pages off ihr.org… there’s post-modernism for ya.

  10. see this article on asian american christians on campus.

    In a religious sense, Chung and Harvell traded places, each one embracing the faith of the other’s forebears. But neither of them noticed the irony because so many other Asian and white students at Yale were doing the very same thing. Indeed, the 120-member Christian fellowship to which Chung belonged was about 85 percent Asian, while the Buddhist meditation meetings at Yale were almost entirely white.

    Yale is hardly the only university where this is occurring. Asian Americans are rapidly becoming the face of Christianity on many college campuses across the country, joining evangelical clubs in large numbers and, in some cases, starting their own Christian organizations. The trend is most pronounced at elite private universities, where Asian American enrollment is high, but it also has been evident at public colleges, including the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. Meanwhile, in smaller numbers, white students are increasingly gravitating toward Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern religions.

    i was a member of InterVarsity & the Korean American Christian Fellowship, i saw asian american christianity up close & personal, and it’s WACK!

  11. about 120k jap-am’s were interned.

    many wanted to fight against japan; some were denied the chance, yet some were allowed (100th/442nd RCT).

    as for the question of “balance” in the liberal arts, yes I agree that it is key. you guys must have some really bonkers left-wing schools there, at least here in the Immigration/Race history classes they DID tell us that it was AFRICAN BLACKS who sold other blacks to the white euro’s; i get the feeling this fact is left out when teaching black history in the US? certainly sounds like it.

    BTW I think holocaust history should be mandatory and taught in high schools. Now, the arabs (that are here) are totally buying into revisionist propaganda and giving people like Norman Finklestein new avenues to peddle their “holocaust industry” filth. just a completely random, slightly off-topic observation. (see, the muslim student assoc. at my school invited him here to give a speech… gee, muslim group inviting a holocaust denier, now why would they do that…)

  12. in high school for about 6 months I dated an asian-canadian (hongkong) who was a real Godfearin’ churchgoin’ gal, and on weekends she’d go with her chinese church (baptist i think) down to T.O. and try to convert people (usually homeless) to their faith. really weird stuff. fortunately she never tried to convert me. wonder how she justified being “with” a pagan anyways? guess she’s going to hell now? haha.

  13. “Also…on the issue of the Japanese, I have read that thousands of Japanese requested repatriation to fight for Japan “

    I misread that, I thought you meant ‘fight for USA’ (which certainly was the case, look up the battalion number I quoted above).

    However, I’m not aware of any significant numbers of japs who actually wanted to return to Japan and fight for the bad guys – at least not among the Nissei (2nd gen, born in USA).

    Note that in 1990, Bush Senior’s republican government did indeed issue reparations ($20k per person!) & an apology to those internees who were still alive.

  14. About the article. I’m visiting Chennai and Bangalore (maybe) sometime in August. Since I havent been to India in about 7 years it’ll be interesting to see how all these purported “advances” have actually changed life for the upper middle class. the litmus test will be whether they’ve got high speed internet in the house ;)

  15. A black (actually mixed but definitely black-identified) friend of mine was going for her masters. She is
    ex-military, btw, so that colors her opinion. One of her text books referred to the internment of the
    Japanese-Americans during WWII as the worst race crime in the history of the U.S., or words to that affect.
    Barb was appalled. Worse than slavery I guess she wondered. Even I was in disbelief. The interment camps
    were unjust and no less than the profoundly paranoid J.Edgar Hoover thought it unnecesary to intern the
    Japanese, but they were not Auswitch. From the Occident to the Orient, conflicts of race/ethnicity/class/and sundry isms, caused a slide to the depths which is still going on (read Scarlet Memorials by Yi Zheng if you have a strong stomach.)
    Anyway, Barb’s comment was, the Japanese had attacked us and should have been locked up. Draconian, but she’s very proud of being American and feels as a
    black person with white & Native American ancestry, she is rooted here in the deepest sense. If Caucasians were to
    emmigrate–not as conquerors but as immigrants–to Asian countries and become a significant minority, what would happen going through that looking glass?

  16. BTW I think holocaust history should be mandatory and taught in high schools. Now, the arabs (that are here) are totally buying into revisionist propaganda and giving people like Norman Finklestein new avenues to peddle their “holocaust industry” filth. just a completely random, slightly off-topic observation. (see, the muslim student assoc. at my school invited him here to give a speech… gee, muslim group inviting a holocaust denier, now why would they do that…)
    Holocaust history is so over-taught and over-exposed now that it’s lost all meaning. It’s been made banal by constant repetition.

    And why should Holocaust be held to be worst thing that ever happened, and endlessly analysed? The 5 worst atrocities of the last few hundred years are:
    1. China (under Mao): 48-53 million
    2. African Slavery: 17 million
    3. Congolese killed by Belgium – 8.5 million (upper limit 21.5 million)
    4. Ukrainians by Soviets: 8 million
    5. Soviet killed by Nazis: 7 million

    With the holocaust not even in the top 5 atrocities, it’s hard to see why it should be made mandatory in high schools (in fact, it IS mandatory in UK schools). I’m sure part of the reason for it’s over-representation is the political capital of getting the “Gold Medal in the Victimisation Olympics”.

    And as for Finkelstein being a “Holocaust denier” – I think you’d better check your facts. He lost some his family in the Holocaust. No sane person believes there wasn’t a holocaust – his beef is with the exploitation of the holocaust.

  17. GC,

    There was also an article on corporate oursourcing to India on this weeks’ time.

  18. Johnny:

    I think what Matt is lamenting is the lack of balance. These are not classes in which the fundamental good of capitalism + democracy + American science is factually justified and established. These are intentionally selective portrayals of American history to make the US look like a land of evil racists.

    The lack of balance is exactly the problem. Almost my whole Humanities course did everything it could to point out what was *wrong* with America, and race relations was almost always an issue when the course dealt with anything America-related.

    The problem is that harping too much on race relations while ignoring say, the achievements of the Founding Fathers, does not do justice to America. Yes, race relations are not an area in which America has a whole lot to be proud of historically. However, I can’t think of any country in the world that has a good record historically on race relations. Certainly, the implicit message of guilt to push leftist ideas on race (that we need affirmative action to correct racism, we need more social programs to correct racism, that race does not exist and is nothing more than a social construct used to oppress minorities, etc) is not justified.

  19. Mr Rotten writes: “race relations in history doesn’t have too many high points for America, they’re all mostly low. I don’t see how you CAN’T make it sound depressing.”

    There’s an ideal where all races enjoy status and wealth proportional to their headcount,perfectly integrated while maintaining their unique customs and languages. Comparing to that ideal, every multiracial society in world history is a total failure, and the US experience is probably above average (slave mortality rates were much higher in South America, tribal racism in Africa today is much more potent than white racism in the US).

    Homogeneous societies can tsk-tsk (eg Norway, Beverly Hills), but comparing any multi-ethnic or multi-racial history to an unrealistic ideal is not constructive. The history of ideas and peoples should not prioritize suffering; life is better today than it was 300 years ago for every ethnic group in the US. Sure it remains unfair, and we should work to correct that, but the solution isn’t harping on past injustices that were not unique to our culture. There’s a sense of proportion and relevance that’s totally missing from the victimology camp.

  20. MaryClaire:

    “One of her text books referred to the internment of the
    Japanese-Americans during WWII as the worst race crime in the history of the U.S., or words to that affect.”

    Oh, I’m in agreeance of your point. It WASN’T worse than slavery and it sure as hell wasn’t freakin’ Auschwitz! Still, recognizing it for what it was does not mean having to jump off the deep end and pretend whitey is still out to get the 3rd/4th gen Jap-Am.

    For example, I didn’t understand the whole brouhaha when Pearl Harbor was released. Some groups were actually afraid people were going to start lynching Japanese-American descendants? A valid concern or just some leftist over-reaction?

  21. As someone who used to buy rice candy at Tokyo Rose’s store at Belmont and Clark in Chicago I think that it is important to point out that whatever was wrong about the internment of West Coast Japanese during the war the negative feelings clearly faded into the background fairly quickly after the war was over.

  22. Razib- Lee Kuan Yew wasn’t at Oxford. He was at the same Cambridge college as me (England, not Mass.)

a