How should journal editors address accusations of racism?

Two leading social scientists accused of producing racist scholarship say journals should rethink how they deal with such explosive allegations

June 29, 2020
Source: Getty
Guilt by association: Professor Wæver was criticised for quoting Hannah Arendt

Harsh words are an accepted part of the criticism that is central to academic journals. But a bitter row involving two of the world’s most famous security studies scholars has now raised a provocative and timely question: should accusations of racism be treated by editors in exactly the same way as other differences of opinion between scholars?

It follows the publication of a detailed response by Ole Wæver, professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, and Barry Buzan, emeritus professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, to accusations published in the journal Security Dialogue in August 2019 that their signature theory of “securitisation” was so underpinned by “racist thought” and “anti-black racism” that it should no longer be applied.

The two founders of the so-called Copenhagen School of security studies say they have been happy to engage with criticism of securitisation – the process of how governments turn non-security issues, such as immigration or climate change, into matters of national security.

But the claims made by Alison Howell, from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and Alison Richter-Montpetit, from the University of Sussex, in their paper “Is securitization theory racist: civilizationism, methodological whiteness, and antiblack thought in the Copenhagen School” were, they contend, not only unsound – relying on a “kind of deepfake methodology” and “illegitimate” quotations taken “radically out of context” – but also were so damaging that normal publication practices should be re-examined.

In future, those accused of racism should be given an immediate chance to respond to them, rather than having to wait several months for the journal to publish a response, they argue.

Referring to their correspondence with the journal’s editors, the two aggrieved professors state the editors had “claimed to see no difference between a charge of racism and normal academic disputes about facts, methods or theories, and therefore no case for amending their normal practice”.

The two professors also dismiss the defence put forward by the journal and their detractors that the accusation of racism “is not a personal indictment of any particular author” but is directed towards a wider school of thought or theory.

“Given that we are the ones who put this monster into the world, obviously we stand accused,” state the two professors in a 98-page document posted online.

They are also unconvinced by the authors’ claim that securitisation’s purported racism simply reflects a wider “structural” racism that unwittingly informs nearly all scholarship, given the Eurocentric nature of academia.

“It is irresponsible to use the term ‘racism’ without any attention to prevent the most likely reading,” they explain, adding: “It is a serious act to lob a grenade like that at fellow academics.”

However, more than 400 academics have signed an open letter saying that “more onerous review processes specifically for work that discusses racism” would “attack anti-racist scholarship [and] undermine academic freedom more broadly”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Buzan said he was left “speechless” when he first read the paper, which he believed was “bizarre in nature” and based on “shoddy scholarship”.

“People have said this is the normal method for racism studies, but it was not normal – it was specifically targeted at two authors and called for an entire body of scholarship to be shut down and the word ‘securitisation’ to be expunged from the vocabulary,” said Professor Buzan.

Many of the racism allegations levelled against his and Professor Wæver’s work centred on their quotation of certain thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt and Thomas Hobbes, who, according to some theorists, held racist views, explained Professor Buzan of what he called “guilt by association”.

For example, Professor Wæver is criticised for quoting Arendt, given how she “minimised the imperial, racialised, and gendered violence” seen in 1950s and 1960s America and drew on “German racist anthropology”, but, for Professor Buzan, she still remained a valuable political thinker given her wide-ranging body of work.

“Arendt is a highly contested figure who said all sorts of things – should we therefore ignore her entirely?” he asked. “Even good socialists from the past like H.G. Wells spoke in a way that today’s scholars might find horrific, but – like Hobbes – should we not read him because he held racist opinions?

“At one level, the entire Western civilisation is imbued with a streak of racism, but it seems like they’ve picked up only one area and are saying ‘we must shut this down’,” continued Professor Buzan, who added that this approach would lead to the “implosion of social sciences” as almost any work could fall foul of these accusations.

Neither Dr Howell nor Dr Richter-Montpetit responded to Times Higher Education’s request for a comment, but SD’s editor Mark Salter, from the University of Ottawa, defended the journal’s approach, saying he “[did] not buy the premise that this article constitutes an accusation of racism and that the article “falls within the normal frame of critical thinking”.

“A great deal of political science involves trying to think carefully about systems of power and how that power structures what can be said about security, knowledge, and justice,” said Professor Salter.


Print headline: How should editors address accusations of racism?

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Reader's comments (2)

If the argument is that the preceived 'racism' inherent in the theory actually disproves the theory, then it should be handled like any other academic dispute, without regard to the furore that the mere mention of the term 'racism' produces at the moment. If the argument is about whether or not the theory is itself 'racist' it's not an academic debate at all, but a socio-political one; another forum is probably more suitable for discussing it.
"If the argument is about whether or not the theory is itself 'racist' it's not an academic debate at all, but a socio-political one; another forum is probably more suitable for discussing it." That unfortunately won't work as most fora in the public realm if not explicitly left-wing and heavily 'moderated', thus limiting the range of 'suitable' subjects for discussion, are monitored by the self same left-wing who will accuse, pile on and even report discussions to the Police for 'racism'. Academic freedom has been and continues to be eroded by the left-wing requirement for ideological orthodoxy, ASSisted by University 'managerialism' who fear controversy of debate and bad P.R., along with self-censorship due to the atmosphere of hate directed at those that question the embedded neo-Marxist ideology. Until we have the equivalent to FIRE in the USA any the Academic freedoms we have been able to use to discuss issues others would rather we didn't will remain under threat.


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