City Journal

John H. McWhorter
The Mau-Mauing at Harvard
The fracas between Harvard’s new president and its top Afro-American studies profs highlights black academia’s fixation on victimhood and double standards.
Spring 2002

“Dignity is all a black person in America has,” Harvard professor Cornel West solemnly told listeners during the kick-off episode of black pundit Tavis Smiley’s new NPR radio show. Just then, West was feeling bereft of his dignity, after a much-publicized meeting with new Harvard president Lawrence Summers. West’s new boss had questioned the worth of some of his celebrity prof’s recent career moves—writing and editing several lightweight non-academic books, recording a rap CD, and assisting Al Sharpton on his presidential bid. Perhaps, Summers suggested, it might be time to get back to serious scholarly work.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. Illustration by Arnold Roth.

West quickly ran to the press, complaining that Summers had “disrespected” and “dishonored” him, and threatening to bolt to Princeton, which had made a generous offer. West’s high-powered Afro-American studies department colleagues Kwame Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and William Julius Wilson immediately chimed in that if he went, they’d follow—Princeton having courted them, too. So far, Appiah is the only one of the four to leave, but the word is that West will go soon, despite Summers’s public apology.

The dustup between Summers and Harvard’s black superstars provoked a flurry of articles and op-eds earlier this year, but most of the coverage missed its true import. In how it played out, the controversy cast a cold light on how today’s black academic experience—for students and teachers alike—remains faithful to two destructive orthodoxies: that for blacks, victimhood is a moral duty; and that, because of their history of oppression, blacks should get an exemption from the standards that apply to others. If Summers really intends to stand down these truly disrespectful and insulting notions, he’s Doing the Right Thing.

To see what the Harvard imbroglio reveals about black intellectual life in 2002, take a close look at the substance of Summers’s criticisms. What’s clear is that West had no grounds to feel “dissed”—unless, that is, black professors shouldn’t have to do, or can’t be expected to do, what the university requires of its other scholars.

Consider Summers’s advice that West do real academic work. Some West supporters, such as Harvard Medical School associate dean Alvin F. Poussaint, argued that the black prof had conclusively “established” his scholarly reputation. But while West has written several academic volumes in philosophy, it has been more than a decade since the last one appeared. His recent books have been edited anthologies, collections of pieces written for the press, and co-authored mass-market efforts. Serious universities expect scholars to produce a steady stream of substantial academic work. A compilation of mini-profiles of black Americans like West and Gates’s recent Our African-American Century, researched by student assistants, doesn’t meet this standard.

West’s advocates retort that such books represent an alternative, engaged form of scholarship, and champion the author as both “brilliant” and “on the ground,” as novelist Toni Morrison describes him. But to pretend that West’s puff pieces and coffee-table books are real scholarship is not only disingenuous, it verges on reviving racist stereotypes. After all, no one would argue that Stephen Ambrose’s pop histories qualify him as a leading academic historian. Why then do West’s pop books make him a scholar? The implication is that, for blacks, motivational musings qualify as deep thought. Surely this isn’t what West’s patron saint, W. E. B. Du Bois, had in mind in elevating his ideal of an “activist-scholar.”

Isn’t it a good thing that West can reach a big audience? “I think universities would prefer that people were able to do high-level specialized scholarship while also speaking to a broader audience,” Washington University’s Gerald Early says in West’s defense. “Very few people can do that.” True enough. But many other academics switch-hit successfully between the scholarly and the popular. West’s biologist colleague Stephen Jay Gould, for example, writes breezy scientific bestsellers and op-eds attacking scientific illiteracy, but he also continues his academic research on snails and has just produced a massive summa, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which few will be taking to the beach. Yet West feels insulted that Summers asked him to follow a similar career trajectory.

Not all academics are up to this kind of balancing act, of course. But West holds one of only 20 prestigious “university professor” appointments at Harvard—a high honor indeed. To assume that members of this elite group don’t have to engage in serious academic debate if they’re black is, well, racist.

Then there’s the notorious rap CD, Sketches of My Culture. In itself, it’s no big deal that West made the recording—not a high-decibel screed but a collection of homiletic appeals to black “consciousness” in free verse, set to rhythm tracks. The problem is that West seems to think that such endeavors are, as he implied in the NPR interview, a “more robust, wide-ranging inquiry” and a “visionary,” “ennobling” alternative to old-fashioned scholarship—and he praised Princeton provost Amy Guttman for endorsing this view. However you square it, though, rap is not Heidegger, and to give West a pass on this is to come dangerously close to affirming the old canard that blacks are, above all, entertainers and can’t really be serious thinkers. Summers was right to raise an eyebrow.

As for advising Sharpton in his presidential bid, West apparently sees nothing amiss in a university professor at Harvard lending support to a mendacious charlatan and racial demagogue, and he even implies that to question this action is a “silencing of dissidence.” Yet isn’t a scholar supposed to seek the truth? By hooking up with Rev. Al, West lends Harvard’s imprimatur to the dangerous notion that blacks, because of their tragic past and imperfect present, shouldn’t be constrained by the same moral strictures that apply to everybody else, including the responsibility to tell the truth. It’s sadly fitting that Sharpton in turn jumped into the Harvard mess, threatening to sue Summers for jeopardizing his presidential chances by criticizing his prized academic consultant. Summers was correct here, too, in asking whether West might not find better uses for his talents.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. Illustration by Arnold Roth.

The “disrespect” shown West wasn’t the only thing troubling the professor and his colleagues in Afro-American studies about Summers. The new president also seemed insufficiently gung ho about “diversity”—i.e., racial preferences. And for most of today’s black intellectuals, there can be only one legitimate stance on racial preferences: unqualified support, now and forever. Reportedly, a group of black professors met with Summers and asked him twice about his stance on affirmative action in recruiting black students and faculty. They found his answers “unclear.”

What may first have raised the antennae of the university’s black professors was Summers’s inaugural address as Harvard’s president. On the face of it, the talk included a ringing endorsement of racial equality. “A century ago this was an institution where New England gentlemen taught other New England gentlemen,” Summers intoned. “Today, Harvard is open to men and women of all faiths, all races, all classes, all states, all nations. As a result we offer a better education to better students who make us a better university.” Summers urged that the university offer full scholarships to all students who needed them, as opposed to the more selective current policy—a change that would help many black students.

But Summers committed a big no-no in the eyes of diversity fans: he strongly defended the ideal of educational excellence. “We will also need to assure that we do not compromise our high standards,” Summers said. “Our goal will be to extend excellence without ever diluting it.” According to the diversity paradigm, any such talk of standards and excellence is elitist—and thus anti-black. The tacit belief underlying the racial preferences regime is that blacks just can’t compete, regardless of class or circumstances.

Some of the university’s black stars began to grouse that Summers—and by extension Harvard University itself, since it appointed him—must have an animus against the entire Afro-American studies department. West got downright conspiratorial in his NPR interview, insinuating that Harvard’s “old-boy network,” acting through Summers, had decided to embarrass him and the department because it feared that “the Negroes are taking over.”

Utter nonsense. Summers’s meeting with West was one of many he scheduled with professors throughout the university, and pointed questions were common. He queried Richard Chait of the Graduate School of Education as to whether he thought his school was even necessary, and he asked the Kennedy School of Government what it offered that the law and business schools do not.

What’s more, West’s “old-boy network” was responsible, little more than a decade ago, for transforming Harvard’s Afro-American studies program from a tiny operation, housed over a drugstore and with just a single tenured professor (who was white), into today’s lavishly funded enterprise, which boasts a fat $40 million endowment and more than a dozen professors, some of them, like Gates and West, remunerated as well as any academics in the country. These days, the department’s home is in Harvard’s Barker Center, a magnificent building designed by Stanford White, located on the humanities quad. The folks worried about “Negroes taking over” moved the department into the fancy digs after spending $25 million on renovations. Harvard has showered this largesse on a department with a mere 26 undergraduate majors, out of a campus-wide total of 4,800 or so undergrads with majors. Summers did say he was going to be less free with the money than his predecessors Neil Rudenstine and Derek Bok (co-author of the most comprehensive brief for affirmative action ever written), but nobody is talking about putting the department on a diet.

Since the notion that Afro-American studies labors under a permanent racist threat is obviously absurd, what were West and his colleagues really up to in crying “disrespect” and threatening to quit? Simple: making Summers do the “I’m not a racist” shuffle not only serves to deflect criticism and ensure that there’s no backtracking on racial preferences; it also scares the university into keeping up its generous level of support for Af-Am studies or even increasing it. And who knows, maybe it’ll get Princeton officials to come up with an even better deal if they think we’re really serious about quitting Harvard.

Because real racist bigotry is vanishingly rare on campuses, where the race police are out in almost totalitarian force, black academics have become talented at manufacturing racist insult out of encounters innocent of racism. Nervous white administrators usually play along. When Yale president Richard Levin recently joshed at a dinner honoring Gates that he was jealous of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department, Hazel Carby, chair of Yale’s Afro-American studies program, resigned, saying that she felt—you guessed it—“disrespected.” One week later, she was back on board, with Yale in the meantime elevating her program to full department status. At Berkeley, where I teach, African-American studies department chair Percy Hintzen has repeatedly claimed a racist “lack of support” from university officials for, among other things, “allowing” two of his professors to transfer to other departments. As one of those professors (I once had a half-time appointment), I find the idea laughable that my disenchantment with the African-American studies department was a moral lapse that my administration bosses should have prevented. But Hintzen’s racial grandstanding over the years has resulted in his department getting a graduate program, despite low undergraduate enrollments and long-standing indications of a lack of scholarly gravitas.

The campus race game has largely prevented any sustained investigation into what—if anything—Afro-American studies programs actually accomplish academically. The assumption in the mainstream press during the West-Summers contretemps was that the intellectual quality of Harvard’s Afro-American studies was unassailable.

Unfortunately, that’s far from true. Survey the department’s undergraduate curriculum, and you find that most of the courses express the pernicious belief that victimhood defines what it means to be African-American—that to be black in America has always been a story of betrayal, disappointment, passivity, and tragedy, and that when things seem to be improving, it’s only an illusion.

It’s not that students receive an unalloyed diet of anti-establishment rage; some of the course offerings are worthy. Werner Sollors, for example, is currently teaching a subtle course on biracialism, a useful topic in a society where blacks and whites intermarry in increasing numbers. Ingrid Monson’s lectures on jazz illuminate one of blacks’ most complex and vibrant contributions to American culture—and happily, she’s not taking the line that whites’ adoption of jazz was cultural theft. Susan O’Donovan’s “African Americans in the Civil War Era” keys in on blacks’ contributions to abolitionism and their self-help efforts at the time.

Even Gates and West have offered sensible courses in recent years. Gates’s overview of black literature is entirely sober, with no evident bias toward “protest” literature. And West’s “Introduction to African-American Studies” straightforwardly presents the best that has been thought and written by black Americans through the centuries—Du Bois, Paula Giddings’s magisterial survey of black women in history When and Where I Enter, Ellison, Baldwin, William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race, and so on.

But if some of the department’s courses are fine, most of them are victimology in its Sunday best; some even verge on fantasy. Tommie Shelby’s “Marxist Theories of Racism” unpacks “the role of capitalist development and expansion in perpetuating racial inequality” and boasts a reading list that can serve as a primer on how to rage (articulately) against the machine: Caste, Class, and Race; Sexism, Power and Ideology; and, simply, Racism. Lawrence Bobo’s “Race, Segregation and Inequality” obsesses over racial inequality, too. Bobo teaches his students that African Americans’ problems are permanent, short of a revolutionary rending of the national fabric. Other courses mine the history of cinema, language, and hip-hop music, mainly to stoke eternal indignation at the Man. Note that the hip-hop survey has 74 students, while O’Donovan’s abolitionism course has just two.

One course—Karen McCarthy Brown’s “Haiti and Haitian Vodou”—descends into the fantastic. You might think that a Harvard class on Haitian voodoo would simply instruct students about a common cultural trait of African-descended peoples, but

McCarthy Brown recruits the topic to counsel blacks to reject Western Enlightenment rationalism as corrupt and to embrace voodoo spirits as real. “What is known,” the course syllabus reads, “is that the Vodou spirits have been active in Haitian politics” and, it goes on to say, “have even been sighted in cyberspace.”

Notably missing from any of this spring’s 13 departmental offerings is a single text by a black conservative. Thomas Sowell has written important academic books and countless substantial essays on race over the past three decades, and Shelby Steele’s work is unquestionably weighty enough to merit the attention of young black minds, but Harvard’s Afro-American studies program ignores such thinkers, as if the invalidity of their ideas were self-evident (under a paradigm that assumes that indignation against the Man is the only legitimate way to be black, it probably is). Voodoo god Legba, yes; Sowell, no.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. Illustration by Arnold Roth.

The fixation on victimhood evident throughout the Afro-American studies program contrasts markedly with what goes at Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. No one can deny that Jews have suffered merciless oppression during their history. Yet one searches the offerings of the Center for Jewish Studies in vain for any emphasis on victimhood as a permanent condition. This difference is not accidental. Jews in America have long had an orientation toward their history that stresses the positive, even in the greatest suffering, and that highlights strength, not fragility.

Such an approach characterized African-American culture too until the 1960s, when black leaders and thinkers got caught in the groundswell of anti-establishment ideology and, bruised by centuries of degradation, drank in the new message. The result was the illusion that to claim injury, even to seek it where few would find it, represents wisdom and strength.

A group for whom permanent grievance has come to be a defining trait naturally feels any criticism to be wounding. That’s why someone like West, whom Harvard is rumored to pay over $300,000 a year, can feel stripped of dignity by Summers’s entirely reasonable advice. That’s why his colleagues threaten to quit when a new president doesn’t play the race game in exactly the accustomed way. And that’s why West is still considering leaving for Princeton even though Summers (wrongly) apologized: to engage in constructive reconciliation would be to stray from the scripted indignation.

Nothing better illustrates this mindset of perpetual grievance than the fact that, according to Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, West’s spokesperson during the controversy, West is indeed working on three academic books. Why didn’t he tell Summers? Why didn’t he mention this to the papers he talked to or in his interview with “Brother” Tavis? Clearly, he felt that airing his sense of insult at Summers’s responsible managerial prodding was a more urgent message to get out than announcing that he was already doing what the new president was asking of him. Playing victim trumped all. Du Bois must be turning in his grave.

“I weep for Harvard,” West told Smiley. But in truth, we could only weep for a Harvard that subjected other departments to serious supervision while condescendingly accepting that, for black academics alone, “taking it to the streets” is serious thought. Harvard’s “old-boy network” deserves kudos for installing a president who operates on the assumption that black students and faculty are capable of competing on the same level as everyone else. The person exempted from serious evaluation, after all, is someone considered incapable of significant achievement.

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