It's not just black and white any more

November 5, 2004

The experience of African-American studies has lessons for the UK despite debates about its aims and direction, Stephen Phillips finds in the last of our series on black academics.

In 2001, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers criticised star African-American studies professor Cornel West for becoming involved in the Rev Al Sharpton's presidential bid, releasing a rap album and allegedly presiding over grade inflation. The dust-up was more than a clash of egos between blunt administrator and maverick scholar.

Summers' attack was cast as part of a back-to-basics focus on academic rigour. But by making an example of West, Summers found himself accused of racism for singling out black studies and overlooking West's prolific and distinguished publishing history and stellar teaching reputation.

West pronounced himself "dishonoured" and left for Princeton University.

The affair has long since blown over. But it crystallises some of the tensions within a field forged out of the civil rights and black power protest movements.

West's supporters argued that, far from being a distraction from his academic duties, his extracurricular activities, which included helping to organise the Million Man March, a 1995 show of black male empowerment, showed that he remained true to black studies origins. Indeed, West called his rap CD about black luminaries, Pictures of My Race , "danceable education".

Black studies originated in the late 1960s - the first department was set up at San Francisco State University in 1967 - as a response to African-American calls for courses that were more relevant to their daily experiences and addressed omissions and biases in previous scholarship.

Nowadays, it is an established subject on US campuses, spanning some 400 programmes, departments and institutions. In 2000, 604 bachelors, 70 masters and seven doctorates graduated in the field, which accounts for roughly a quarter of black academics in US universities. Several of these are British and some are questioning whether following the US lead would have a similar effect on black participation in higher education in the UK.

"There's a respect for you as a black academic that's not there in the UK," says Mekada Graham, a British academic now based in California whose main interest is in the overrepresentation of black communities of African descent in social welfare statistics. "There's a deep stereotype in Britain that black people are intellectually inferior."

But the subject is not without its problems in the US. Although black studies has traditionally had an interdisciplinary slant - mixing sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, cultural studies and literary criticism to capture black experience - some fear the subject has fractured into so many areas that it is becoming alienated from its foundations in social activism.

Stephen Small, chair of African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, is concerned that the bigger social justice picture is being missed. "There's a fundamental neglect of the hardcore dimension of racism and racial inequality - given that racism has become far more indirect as laws have been constructed against it. People are so preoccupied with the subtleties and nuances of discrimination that they ignore the fundamental fact of it."

Howard Dodson, director of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York, says: "People are spending years on problems, (and the) answers don't contribute to anything.

"There are concerns about the tendency to shift away from political concerns to more traditional research and studies," adds Dodson, who convened and moderated a summit of leading black studies intellectuals last year.

The discord is often generational, he adds, noting that many early staff were amateurs who had "developed expertise in African-American experience through non-traditional means", reflecting the field's bottom-up origins.

As black studies has become academically established, the ranks have become professionalised. Dodson contrasts the political engagement that drove old-school practitioners with "younger folks who function like traditional scholars".

"They see themselves as individual scholars working on personal intellectual problems that may or may not be part of the African-American struggle for human dignity. The admonitions of traditional (black studies) leaders are that if you're not committed to this sense of mission, then don't claim to be doing black studies.

"People who've come through the doctoral programmes today have been able to do that only because of the political and social struggle of the community to open up colleges. You do have a debt to those who made it possible - it is not a function of your individual brilliance."

British academics, many of whom have left the UK because of poor career opportunities, do not have this legacy and have been able to bring a new eye to the subject. Paul Gilroy, chair of African-American studies at Yale University and formerly a professor at Goldsmiths College, London, has criticised an "Afrocentrism" that emphasises the continuity of African experience, the roots of African culture and the essential difference of blackness. "We need to get past this vindicationist project. I understand it, but you can't get stuck there," Gilroy says. He argues against the "provincialism" of US black studies, and in his books The Black Atlantic and Against Race he explores the transnational identity forged by blacks in Britain, North America and the Caribbean. Gilroy challenges the use of race as an organising motif in human affairs.

Edmund Gordon, director of African and African-American studies at the University of Texas, puts Gilroy's critique within "radical academia's general disillusionment with totalising movements".

The "deconstructivist postmodernism" he posits instead, Gordon says, has a political edge within academia, but "is divorced from activism within black communities", where Afrocentrism and cultural nationalism remain powerful political rallying calls.

"There's an ebony tower, embraced by white humanities scholars, which is understood to be the cutting-edge embodiment of black studies, but the vast majority of departments are much more wedded to Afrocentrist scholarship," he says.

Gilroy's thesis has been criticised in some quarters as a denial of racism and an assault on black studies' fundamental premise.

US Afrocentrism "doesn't always welcome questions about what blackness signifies", says Briton Ben Carrington, associate sociology professor at the University of Texas. "But there are understandable reasons why African-American scholars might (be suspicious) of black British scholars," he adds. "They've waged hard-fought battles for space to work and to find it occupied by a trendy British intellectual, they're entitled to ask: 'What are you contributing?'"

But despite these clashes, the presence of international scholars such as Gilroy is helping "de-centre" black studies from its US bias, Dodson says.

For example, Brazil - home to the largest black population in the Americas and second only to Nigeria globally - is yielding valuable new insights.

Small has led annual Berkeley field studies there for the past four years, and the University of Texas has five Afro-Brazilian scholars working on African diaspora issues.

Because of centuries of racial mixing, Brazil has "a wide range of identities between black, European and native (indigenous Indian) populations", Dodson says. "That diversity raises different questions."

Brazil is challenging simple black-white racial categorisation, Small says, chiefly the so-called "rule of hypodescent", under which everyone who is partly black is defined as black. "They have far more words and categories to describe people of different colour."

Demographic trends within America are posing a different kind of challenge.

Hispanics outstripped blacks as America's most populous minority grouping (37 million versus 36.2 million) in last year's population figures, prompting The New York Times to talk of rivalry between black and Hispanic studies.

Black studies academics play this down. Gordon says there can be lots of research potential where the two diasporas cross over, in Puerto Rico, for instance. But, he adds, in the southwestern US, Hispanic studies may eventually come to "counterbalance the hegemony of black studies".

Despite this, there is undeniably a vibrancy about black studies in the US that British academics say is missing in the UK. Barnor Hesse, who this year upped sticks from the University of East London to Chicago's Northwestern University, says that there is little about the UK to recommend to a black academic. British academics also champion affirmative action policies for bringing in more black students. "It's very important to have people in academia who represent the community," says Graham, "and this is one of the things the US has done through affirmative action."

But things may be changing. The Bush Administration has challenged affirmative-action policies used to build more representative student bodies and faculties, and although race-conscious admissions policies were upheld (with caveats) by the Supreme Court last year, many universities are proceeding with caution, mindful of coming under the watchful eye of conservative groups. There has already been a fall in black and Hispanic enrolment at institutions in California, where a state-level measure outlawed affirmative action several years ago.

Overall, Gordon says, it is part of a political climate that is unfriendly to such issues. He has found himself on an "academic watch list" circulated by conservative Texas students for supposed liberal bias. And he singles out the self-appointed Middle Eastern studies watchdog, Campus Watch, whose founder Daniel Pipes was recently appointed to a US government-funded think-tank, saying that in the current climate of fear "radical academia" in general may soon become a target of intrusion and vetting. "Eight years of (President Bill) Clinton, transnational agencies and the World Bank, and an embrace of neo-liberal multiculturalism had a positive impact on black studies. There's much less celebration of cultural difference and cultural power now. I'm not sure what that means, but it's not good for us," Gordon says.

Whether things will change over the next administration, given the continuation of the war on terror, remains to be seen.

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