On November 27, 2019, Harvard University denied tenure to an ethnic-studies professor specializing in Dominican identity. Students and faculty at Harvard and across the country sprung into protest mode. The failure to tenure Lorgia García Peña, they said, resulted from Harvard’s racism. NBC Nightly News, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and other outlets covered the controversy from the same angle.
In fact, García Peña had been catapulted into the academic firmament with a speed that most non-intersectional professors can only dream of. She has been showered with benefits. Thirty-one percent of Harvard’s tenure-track professors lost their tenure bids in the 2018‒19 academic year without alleging bias, since most of those failed contenders were white. Yet García Peña has gone through her academic career playing the victim, reflexively accusing those around her of white supremacy. In this, she is a perfect synecdoche for ethnic studies itself, which also stakes its identity on the conceit that it is in a nonstop battle for survival against the forces of racism and exclusion.
To the contrary, ethnic studies is ascendant. It is spreading rapidly throughout K‒12 schools; its ideology has already bled into the political realm. It’s worth reviewing García Peña’s career as an emblem of a fast-rising academic field whose worldview is taking over American culture.
In April 2019, García Peña published an op-ed about her travails as an ethnic-studies professor. After referencing Trayvon Martin as an example of the “violence and destruction based on bigotry and hate” that permeates all levels of our society, she urged readers to “dig deeper into the ‘seamless’ ways in which white supremacy shapes our institutions and every aspect of our lives.” (The rationale for García Peña’s scare quotes around “seamless” is unclear.) That all-encompassing white supremacy, she wrote, “is most evident in my location of work, in my subject position as a scholar of Latinx Studies. Colleges and universities, particularly the elite kind, were not created for people like me: a Dominican Latina immigrant from Trenton, NJ. Harvard’s manufactured ‘science’ denied Puerto Rican citizenship and produced rhetoric which deemed black people as inferior.”
García Peña is likely correct that Harvard’s founders did not anticipate that a Dominican immigrant would be on the tenure track in the twenty-first century, teaching about ubiquitous white supremacy. But there she is anyway. This transformation earns Harvard no credit. Harvard and every other college seeking assiduously to hire and promote as many minority faculty as possible face what García Peña, in another op-ed, murkily calls the “impossibility of redemption.” Harvard’s scholars may have once deemed black people inferior, but anyone on a college campus today who took such a position would be out of a job.
García Peña goes on to catalogue the racism that she and other ethnic-studies professors routinely encounter: “White supremacy in these institutions bleeds through the photos of white men which hang in the halls of the university, in the syllabi that privilege white cannon [sic] and lack any type of representation for people of color, and in the university’s inability to hire or retain black and brown faculty, in the university’s disavowal of Ethnic Studies as a legitimate field of knowledge.”
García Peña’s claim that Harvard’s syllabi lack “people of color” is ludicrous. The English Department alone, during the 2019–2020 academic year, taught Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Saidiya Hartman, Gabriel García Márquez, Countee Cullen, Robert Hayden, Claudia Rankin, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Anna Deavere Smith, Derek Walcott, Audre Lord, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Ellison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and M. NourbeSe Philip. It also offered numerous race-related courses, such as “Broadway Bodies, or Representation of the Great White Way,” which asked, among other questions pertaining to identity: how can the Broadway musical Hamilton, “that presents so many talented artists of color,” nonetheless “represent a white-washed American history?”
Harvard is unable to hire black and brown faculty, García Peña claims, another assertion belied by the facts: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, Randall Kennedy, Roland Fryer, Ronald Sullivan, Stephanie Robinson, and Lawrence Bobo, among others. She herself was hired just four years after she got her Ph.D. in American cultures at the University of Michigan in 2013. Before that she had taught for three years at the University of Georgia. As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, she had majored in journalism and Spanish language and literatures. By 2013, she had published three articles in academic journals. One of those chronicled her involvement in launching Freedom University, a program in Georgia for illegal-alien students that seeks to “mobilize undocumented youth” through “cognitive liberation” and an understanding of “systemic injustice.” To date, that 2012 article, “New Freedom Fights: The Creation of Freedom University Georgia,” in Latino Studies, has been cited ten times. A 2008 article rehashing material from her thesis has been cited seven times to date; the 2003 article, also derived from her thesis, does not show up on Google Scholar.
García Peña’s book, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction, appeared in 2016. It has been cited 22 times since publication.
This is not a massive writing output, nor one that has had a large uptake. One can legitimately question academia’s emphasis on publishing as the main benchmark for hiring and promotion. But it’s impossible to make the case that Harvard imposed an inordinately high standard on a Latina ethnic-studies professor whose scholarly record would not earn a second look in any STEM field, at least if the candidate were a white or Asian male.
García Peña’s complaint about academia’s “disavowal of Ethnic Studies as a legitimate field of knowledge” is similarly ungrounded. Universities and research organizations have conferred grants on her throughout her career. The Ford Foundation awarded her a postdoctoral research fellowship in 2015 and a dissertation fellowship in 2006, both underwritten by the National Academies of Arts and Sciences. She received a Future of Minority Studies postdoctoral fellowship in 2009. That fellowship, run by Stanford, Cornell, Syracuse University, and the University of Wisconsin, inter alia, is designed to further “minority identity” and “social transformation.” A year after arriving at Harvard, she received a Milton Grant from the Office of Harvard’s Vice Provost of Research. That grant, established in 1924 to promote the welfare and prosperity of the human race, is heavily weighted toward the sciences and medicine. Awardees in 2019 studied “Red Cell Modifiers of Plasmodium falciparum growth,” and “High-throughput CRISPR/Cas9 screening,” among other topics. García Peña’s grant was for research on her forthcoming book on Dominican identity. Harvard has also given her money annually to develop her courses on “Performing Latinidad,” which “decenter” traditional ways of knowing and teaching. The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia—she misspells the center’s name on her official CV—gave her a research fellowship for her book. MIT and Johns Hopkins have awarded her fellowships as well.
All that support could not overcome García Peña’s belief in her own victimhood, since such a belief is the cornerstone of ethnic studies. In 2018, she published an online commentary decrying her subjection to the “structural violence in academia.” During her graduate studies at Michigan, “white professors” questioned her “abilities, research, and place in the academy.” “After laboring for six months on a dissertation chapter,” she writes, “one of the professors I asked for feedback asked me if I had ‘problems writing because this is pretty bad.’” A senior female professor told her that her pregnancy “must have affected [her] brain because [she] was writing pretty horribly.”
Were these criticisms the product of white supremacy or objective assessments designed to help a young researcher improve? By definition, of course, most High Theory writing is “pretty bad,” since it is mired in jargon whose main purpose is to signal membership in an exclusive academic guild. But García Peña’s writing is bad in more basic ways, showing an uncertain control of usage (recall the “syllabi that privilege white cannon”), punctuation, and grammar. We will pass over the dangling modifier (“After laboring for six months on a dissertation chapter”) above, since danglers are an all-too-common error. But that is just the start of her problems. “Ethnic Studies departments and programs make our universities a little less bias, a little less racist, a little less white,” she writes in “A Meditation on Possibility in Academia.” She repeatedly misuses the verb “to contrast,” as in: “Ethnic Studies—black, Latinx, indigenous, Asian, Arab—is charged with the immeasurable task of filling the gaps left by all the other fields of knowledge, with creating a learning environment that contrasts the supremacy of whiteness, inequality, racism, and exclusion that dominates our canons, libraries, and archives.” She inserts commas where they are not needed—ethnic-studies courses “also provide support for students of color who are made to feel in every other course, like second class citizens who are reminded that they don’t belong”—and leaves commas out where they are needed: “The recent appalling denial of tenure of [sic] one of our jewels in Latinx Studies Dr. Albert Laguna, reinforces the violence against scholars who are trying to return to what, as [Arthur] Schomburg suggested, ‘slavery took away.’” The following sentence from her 2016 book may be a prescient early adoption of the trans-sensitive plural pronoun for single actors, but more likely it is simply a grammatical failure: “How does the Dominican racialized exile subject—the rayano; the exoticized, sexualized brown-skinned dominicana; the Dominicanyork; and the Dominican migrant—contradict the hyphenated histories and stories that violently continue to silence them from the archives of the two nations it is charged with bridging?” The use of the verb “to silence” here is typically puzzling.
Her opinion pieces ramble haphazardly without a discernible argument. She is unable to explain in plain terms what her book is even about. Statements like the following are the closest we get to a clarifying summary: “In many ways, this book is a project of recovering and historicizing knowledge interruptions through what I call contradictions, ‘dictions’—stories, narratives, and speech acts—that go against the hegemonic version of national identity and against the mode of analysis we tend to value as historically accurate or what most people call truth.” In other words, the book does not conform to historical accuracy. As García Peña elaborates: “Though skepticism surrounds intellectual projects that are not solely evidence based, I argue that finding a more complete version of ‘the truth’ requires us to read in contradiction, paying attention to the footnotes and silences left in the dominant archives.”
This dispensing of “what most people call truth” is a major theme in today’s grievance studies. Enlightenment norms of reason are dismissed as white-power grabs that should not constrain the discourses of people of color. García Peña’s disclaimers are not reassuring to readers seeking a history of the Dominican Republic, which, in the loosest sense, her book allegedly provides. But the repudiation of “evidence-based” arguments is understandable here, since the Dominican Republic and its island neighbor Haiti pose a problem for the ethnic-studies mindset. Ethnic studies is devoted to a single proposition: history consists of one unending assault on peoples of color by whites. But black Haitians and mestizo Dominicans fought to subjugate each other throughout the nineteenth century. Haiti sought to colonize its neighbor; it expropriated Dominican land and taxed without representation. Even García Peña admits that Dominicans have always been and are still “negrophobic.” This intra-island animosity long predated the arrival of the U.S. Marines on Hispaniola in 1869, in an effort to stop Haitian pirates from seizing U.S. goods on the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic asked to be annexed by the U.S.; President Ulysses Grant sent Frederick Douglass to investigate the matter in 1871. Douglass supported annexation, but Congress rejected the recommendation.
To be sure, the colonial grip on Hispaniola was brutal. The Spaniards and the French enslaved the native Taíno population to work in gold mines and imported Africans for forced labor on sugar plantations; that imperial history undoubtedly influenced Haitian-Dominican relations. Perhaps García Peña is trying to assert such influence in this characteristic sentence: “I approach Dominican racialized subjectivity through a study of the palimpsestic coexistence of colonial impositions that are projected on the racialized body of subjects living on the island or the United States.” Nevertheless, it remains the case that if you’re seeking a multicultural rainbow coalition, the Dominican Republic and Haiti aren’t it.
Ironically, García Peña’s alleged experience with “structural violence in academia” undercuts the Manichean oppression narrative as much as her subject matter does. She was exposed in graduate school not just to criticism of her writing but also to “violent . . . examples [sic] . . . I have lived on the tenure track that ranged from racist and sexist micro-aggression to harassment,” she recounts. “The perpetrators were not always men. They were not always white.” And maybe these supposed perpetrators were not actually committing microaggression and harassment, regardless of their race and sex.
Most of the time, of course, it’s easy to find a conventional target to accuse of racism. When a classroom for one of García Peña’s courses was full, forcing some students to stand, she blamed Harvard’s alleged contempt for ethnic studies. “This room is not big enough, because Harvard doesn’t think that we can fill a room for Latinx studies,” she reportedly told the class. Actually, disparities between seating availability and student demand are routine in academia; it takes a particularly astute connoisseur of racism to smoke out the hidden agenda in certain instances.
García Peña likewise saw racist disrespect in a routine security call. On October 24th, 2019, her class on Performing Latinidad was hanging paper cut-outs on a construction fence around a library on Harvard Yard, part of García Peña’s mission of using art to contest hegemonic power structures. Someone from the construction company interpreted the student activity as a possible protest and contacted his supervisors. One of those supervisors called the Harvard police to investigate. When the Harvard officer showed up, the students immediately charged him with racism. García Peña made the same charge when she arrived at the scene. (This was not the first security encounter triggered by García Peña’s penchant for using Harvard Yard infrastructure for her anti-hegemonic class art projects. In May 2018, teacher and students were hanging a poster on a tree and were approached by a security guard, resulting in another claim of racial trauma.)
Members of the Harvard faculty took up García Peña’s cause in Fencegate, presumably with her acquiescence. A faculty petition accused the Harvard police of creating a “gratuitous atmosphere of intimidation and mistrust.” The security inquiry was “fully unnecessary” (faculty fully understanding security protocols) and “deeply upsetting to students and course staff”—i.e., to García Peña. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Latinx Student Association announced that the incident was typical of “normalized racist, sexist, and classist acts against faculty and students of color” and part of a pattern of “violence against marginalized members of our community,” reported The College Fix. The only “violence” experienced by Harvard’s “marginalized members” here was being asked to verify that the poster hanging had been authorized; once the officer established that fact, he apologized and left. But the trauma of living in such a racist environment as Harvard apparently leaves its marginalized members deeply vulnerable to any unwanted interaction.
Naturally, this racial crisis called for the involvement of Harvard’s top administrators. The dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences commissioned a review. That review found that, contrary to García Peña’s claims, the race and ethnicity of the students had nothing to do with the security inquiry. The construction manager never mentioned the students’ race during his call to campus security; he was not even present at the scene. Nevertheless, García Peña would not let the matter drop. “We need to understand that even if the intention is not bad, actions can still be harmful,” she told the reviewing team. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean, Claudine Gay, was suitably penitent. “It’s clear that this was very hard on the people involved, most particularly the faculty and students in the course,” she wrote. More red tape governing security procedures would be forthcoming to ensure that Harvard was creating “an inclusive community.”
Given García Peña’s history of charging racism, it was inevitable that she would be the self-declared victim of an alleged campus hate crime. In September 2019, García Peña reported that an obscene note had been hung on her office door insulting her race and her immigration status, Harvard’s president Lawrence Bacow and Dean Claudine Gay told the campus. The Harvard police, asked this month for an update on the investigation, would say only that the investigation was “ongoing” and that it was the department’s policy “not to comment on open investigations.” Thus do alleged campus hate crimes go down the memory hole, never to be mentioned again.
When Harvard denied García Peña tenure, the entire ethnic-studies profession replicated the rhetorical moves that she has been making throughout her career. It asserted García Peña’s victimhood and the victimhood of the field itself at the hands of the white patriarchy. Garcia had written earlier that year with her signature punctuation that students of color are “made to feel in every other course, like second class citizens who are reminded that they don’t belong.” Harvard’s student protesters similarly claimed that the university was exploiting them without providing the color-coded courses that they needed to survive. “We need more than just letting us in,” an illegal alien student from Colombia told the New York Times. “We need resources once we get to campus, and part of those resources is an ethnic studies program.” A Vietnamese junior proclaimed: “I am tired of Harvard using my story without giving me ethnic studies so I can fully understand what my story even means.”
The students alleged that García Peña’s denial of tenure was characterized by “procedural errors, prejudice, and discrimination.” Whatever else these students may have learned in their ethnic-studies classes, they have certainly absorbed the predilection for “intellectual projects that are not solely evidence based,” in García Peña’s words. The students have no empirical basis for charging procedural errors, prejudice, and discrimination, since the tenure process is completely confidential. But in the new world given us by ethnic studies, the conclusion of systemic bias comes first, the evidence later, if at all.
Nine faculty petitioners from various ethnic studies functions at Harvard echoed this claim of procedural bias. “Questions about the fairness of the promotion process for faculty in fields long misunderstood and dismissed at the university will inevitably arise until they are afforded the respect and resources given to other areas of study,” they wrote in a petition to the administration. The petitioners demanded a review of the tenure process to determine whether it is undermining the school’s diversity efforts. Naturally, Gay ordered one up.
A frequent complaint lodged against the tenure process in García Peña’s case and elsewhere is that it doesn’t reward minority faculty for serving as mentors to minority students. The assumption is that a student is best advised by someone of his same race or ethnicity. That assumption applies only to minority students; any white student who objected to a minority mentor would be brought up on bias charges. Universities inevitably agree with this color-coding demand, instead of encouraging students to seek wisdom wherever they can find it, free from the restrictions of skin color.
It is not just mentoring that is race-based in the ethnic studies-inspired academic world. Knowledge itself is carved up into racial fiefdoms. The Harvard faculty petitioners complained that “universities cannot simultaneously pledge a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and not take seriously the knowledge produced by and for communities that have long been excluded from or marginalized within the academy.” This assertion repudiates the ideal on which the modern university rests: to produce knowledge disinterestedly for all of mankind. In the ethnic-studies view, knowledge caters to as many different “communities” as the victimologists can organize.
The purest distillation of the ethnic-studies mindset came via a website created to honor García Peña and all those like her who “have encountered resistance and retaliation for their timely work, and to [sic] the students who need them and fight daily for epistemological insurrection, academic freedom, and justice in the US academy.” The ultimate goal of ethnic studies is to dismantle the university itself, writes Columbia English and Comparative Literature professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner on Ethnic Studies Rise. “At its [sic] most radical, Ethnic Studies practices aim to make the university incapable of reproducing itself as it is,” according to Negrón-Muntaner. (Meantime, of course, ethnic-studies professors are happy to extract from the university all the goodies that they can, whether in the form of cushy nine-month teaching schedules or long sabbaticals). Ethnic Studies will dismantle the university by “upend[ing] colonial (including white supremacist) epistemologies, institutions, and power structures; and . . . generat[ing] decolonial narratives, subjectivities, and forms of organization.” Such a blatantly political agenda was once thought to be incompatible with scholarship. Negrón-Muntaner’s interlocutor, a professor of education and English at Salem State University, is even more overheated in her wannabe revolutionary rhetoric. “The university is indefensible,” writes Roopika Risam. And the reason it is indefensible is whites. White professors, no matter how far left politically, are the enemy. Ethnic studies is being “co-opted by white scholars” who get credit for pedagogical innovations that they have stolen from minority scholars, according to Risam. When minority scholars use those same methods, they are penalized with denial of tenure, promotion, and hiring. There is no possibility of bridging the racial gap. “We speak in languages and discursive modes that are confounding to white scholars,” Risam writes. “We compose in genres they can’t understand. We publish in venues that are not theirs. We value the expertise of individuals and communities they do not see as ‘academic.’”
Risam appears to have been subjected to the same alleged linguistic racism that García Peña encountered. She complains about “student evaluations disputing our command of the English language, even when we’re fluent English speakers.” If García Peña’s writing is representative, these student evaluations of other ethnic-studies professors would seem to be on target.
The ethnic-studies victim narrative is fiction. Far from being shut down by its racist institutional hosts, the field is growing. Even Negrón-Muntaner grudgingly concedes that radical scholars “may be incorporated and even rewarded.” Are they ever! Professors in “Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender, and Group Studies” earned almost $12,000 more than the average professor in 2017–18, reported Campus Reform, drawing on data from the College and University Professional Association of Human Resources. If you were so benighted as to teach Math, Biology, or the Physical Sciences, you earned $15,000 less on average than your counterparts in ethnic studies. This is not a salary pattern consistent with a field under siege.
It’s not just in the university where ethnic studies is expanding its reach. States across the country are importing the ideology into their K–12 systems. Indiana mandates that high schools offer ethnic-studies courses, and Oregon’s proposed ethnic-studies standards would introduce first-graders to racism and systemic power, according to Real Clear Investigations’ John Murawski. Toddlers in pre-K will learn social-justice concepts under Vermont’s upcoming ethnic-studies guidelines. Tenth-graders in Wake County, North Carolina, fill out a “Diversity Inventory” worksheet about themselves, their friends, neighbors, and teachers. Students at the Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, California, write a “breakup letter with a form of oppression,” such as the Eurocentric curriculum.
This wave of curricular change is demographically driven. Ethnic-studies advocates are now “in the professoriate, administrative, faculty, superintendents of schools, we’re now in the legislature,” Kenneth Monteiro, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, told Real Clear Investigations. And their influence shows up in the Democratic presidential aspirants’ recurrent denunciations of America’s ineradicable white supremacy. Monteiro, a board member of the Association for Ethnic Studies, is unapologetic about the racial divisiveness of the field. “It’s not ethnic studies if it doesn’t challenge whiteness,” he says. “We actually prepare our teachers to know that on the first day of class, or in the first week, you may have students who are sobbing. This is the first time they’ve had to be this uncomfortable.” White students claiming trauma is a sign of educational efficacy; black students claiming trauma is a sign of systemic racism.
Harvard upheld its academic standards in the García Peña case. It is hard to imagine that it will do so the next time a minority professor comes up for tenure. Dean Gay’s tenure review sends an unambiguous message that Harvard’s administrators view neutral standards as suspect if they impede the goal of tenuring ever more minority faculty. And the negative press generated by any tenure denial of a minority professor is simply too great. The business world faces the identical risk if meritocratic standards result in denied promotions for managers “of color.”
This backlash against meritocracy is the least of the problems created by the diffusion of the ethnic-studies worldview, however. Its proponents are injecting paranoia and hatred into the body politic, making civil harmony ever more elusive, and rendering the embattled American ideal of a colorblind society impossibly quaint.
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