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    Racism for Dummies: Naomi Schaefer Riley Edition

    So, on Monday, the conservative journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley, who specializes in attacking academics, wrote a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post which she titled:

    The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies: Just Read the Dissertations.

    The kicker, of course, is that she herself did not read the dissertations. Or a chapter of each dissertation. Or an abstract of each dissertation. Of course not. (And no, she's not getting a link from me.)

    Instead, she read a magazine article sidebar with brief descriptions of three (count them, three) dissertations. Having done that reading, Schaefer Riley feels entitled to 1) trash the content of the dissertations,  which she calls "left-wing victimization claptrap," 2) malign the intellect of the graduate students working on those dissertations, and 3) call for "eliminating the discipline" of black studies at all universities nationwide, on the basis of ... wait for it ... lack of rigorous intellectual standards.

    Rigorous intellectual standards such as reading magazine sidebars, I suppose. I can't imagine what else would be required.

    Riley has received a good deal of pushback; you can find excellent critiques, including a response from the students she maligned, here, here, here, and here. And there are excellent reasons for critique: her choice of targets who couldn't fight back, her claim that racism has not been a problem since 1963, and her attempt to blame "the problems that plague the black community" on "fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people," since of course, there has been no white-on-black racism in this country since 1963. Since Riley views all challenges faced by African-Americans since 1963 to come from African-Americans themselves, and condemns any implication to the contrary to be racist, then Riley must consider Martin Luther King, Jr. a suicide.

    But the true racism here is in Riley's stupidity. Because that's what racism is: white people's entitlement to be dumb.

    Racism means believing that anything you say, no matter how half-assed or ill-informed, is automatically smart and important because you're white. Racism means being able to mock people of other races as stupid and ignorant because they know things you don't. You can just assume that you know more than they do, because you're white and they're not. They've spent years doing primary research in a scholarly field. You have read a sidebar in a magazine. Obviously, you are the one who gets to judge their intellect.

    Modern American racism masquerades as a defense of meritocracy. It is of course just the opposite. It is a defense of mediocrity and failure against genuine competition. Most racists who've been to college have learned how to be subtle about it. Riley is stupid and crude enough to give away the game. Racism promotes the presumption of intellectual and educational superiority, which means never having to prove your learning or intelligence. This is extremely convenient for white people who could not actually prove their intellectual superiority because they're barely intellectually superior to a cucumber.

    In the kinder, gentler form of racism, blacks are considered intellectually inferior until they prove otherwise. In the purer, viler strain, which is much more common than it appears, proof doesn't matter: Barack Obama must be an intellectual fraud, African-Americans getting Ph.D.s don't count as "legitimate scholars." But even in the "nicer" form of racism, blacks only get grudgingly accepted as equals, and the white people have to concede that equality. Pat Buchanan gets to opine on whether Sonia Sotomayor is well-educated enough; who asked him? The idea that any given white person might not be as smart as a given black person, and that the white person doesn't get a vote on whether or not that's true, never enters the picture. This is a wonderful situation for the many, many, many white people who are not as smart as they want to think they are, including Naomi Schaefer Riley.

     (Riley's defenders will point out that she went to Harvard and graduated magna cum laude. This is true. But it doesn't mean Riley isn't a fool. Harvard isn't a credential I feel any need to bow down to. I have a  Harvard degree; it doesn't convey magical knowledge of things I haven't read. Going to a good college isn't the license to be an idiot for the rest of your life that some people take it as; a good education obliges you to continue educating yourself. "Magna cum laude" is not Latin for "don't bother reading anything else.")

    Modern American racism makes a profound appeal to losers and mediocrities, people who have not achieved the success or respect they expected, counted on, and believed that they deserved. Some of these people do not look like failures from the outside, but fall very far short of their own vainglorious ambitions for themselves. Graduating from Harvard isn't a sign of failure, but if you think your magna cum laude from Harvard entitles you to either a billion dollars or Pulitzer before 30 (as many Harvard grads do seem to think), you're likely to be very disappointed. At that point, a hypothetical Harvard grad, whose ambitions were Not So Realistic, can either choose to look inside and accept being only Normally Smart, Really, or else look around for something or someone to blame. If you can't bear to abandon your unrealistic expectations of yourself, and can't face the truth that you're not making the cut, you begin to make excuses, which is when you join the ranks of the losers. And of course, there is a more than ample supply of losers and mediocrities who fall short of anyone's definition of success. Too many of those people are too happy to blame other people for their frustrations, and in America black people are always easy to blame.

    If you generally believe yourself to be bright and well-qualified, you don't waste your time bitching about this or that petty advantage or disadvantage. Maybe affirmative action policies close this or that particular job to you at a specific moment, the same way someone's unforeseen decision about retirement might open or close a particular job at a particular time. Life is full of little variables like that, and affirmative action isn't an especially big one. If you're good enough, you have faith that it will all come out in the wash. You don't whine that you face tiny disadvantages. And you surely don't complain that your white race doesn't provide you advantage enough.

    But racism, and especially the anti-affirmative-action "reverse racism" canard, allows endless excuses for one's own failures. Didn't get into medical school? Blame some black student rather than your MCAT scores. Didn't get into the college of your choice? Blame a black applicant. Never mind that the schools you didn't get into are still positively packed with white people, all of whom got in just fine. The only explanation for your failure can be racial bias! Political correctness has taken away your God-given right to be a marginally-qualified student! But back in the bad old days, marginal white applicants who missed the cut knew that they had missed the cut. Now every white applicant gets to imagine him or herself as someone who would have made it, if it weren't for those pesky non-white people (and to imagine those non-white applicants being incredibly underqualified). Every white kid who's ever gotten a B in something gets to be at least a bubble prospect! It is self-esteem gold.

    Conservatives like to sneer at minority claims of "victimhood" and at "politically correct" emphasis on "self-esteem." But American racism, and most of all the form of American racism that poses as fighting against "reverse racism" is nothing but one long whine of victimhood in defense of wounded self-esteem. It is pathetic, like Riley's whining defense that she's only "a journalist" and therefore can't be expected to read "all of the dissertations" that she hasn't read at all. Racism is the enemy of meritocracy in our country. It is the defense of every white person's right to be a special snowflake, judged only by the standards they choose to set for themselves. It is white people's passionate demand not to have those test scores count against them. It is their plea for social promotion.

    American racism is the badge of the loser and the crybaby. It is a mockery of every value to which its craven pleas appeal: merit, excellence, self-reliance, justice. It is the song of the whiner and the blame shifter. It is a refusal to take personal responsibility. It is a profound moral failure. But it is also a failure of character.


    Devastating piece. Where's DD? There are Dayly Line candidates galore in here.

    I just gave the line of the day to Mac.

    But this is easier than I thought!

    I hereby render unto Doc the Dayly Blog of the Day Award for this here Dagblog Site, given to all of him from all of me!

    How do you like them apples?


    I am going to do a comment later on but I must have read six or seven articles covering signs and writings where the authors use the 'n' word and claim they just like the word.

    And all of them claim they aint racist!

    Ever since limbaugh's Barack the Magic Negro, I have been witness to a drastic change in political correctness and a tragic turn to open racism with few consequences.

    You just gave it to Mac first b/c she's a chick. There's no justice.

    It is justice baby, did you know based on my awesome statistical analysis, that only two women have received the Dayly Nightly since mid-afternoon Fall 2008. Oh you've been locking us out of this award and we are taking it back.

    That and I also offered him a raspberry cream filled, margarita cupcake. See I win again.

    This reminds me of the Derbyshire column. The Chronicle does not have to provide a platform to someone unwilling to actually know something about the subject that have chosen to ridicule. Riley is free to consider Black Studies to be false scholarship, but if she can't "lower" herself to read and critique the subject, she is only an opinionated bigot.

    Don't worry, in short order another wingnut will write a "scholarly"article on the divisiveness of Black Studies.

    The Derbyshire column was on my mind, rmd. And Derbyshire is exactly the kind of resentful mediocrity that Riley is: someone whose advantages of class and education has not led them to the kind of success which they consider their rightful due.

    This is here response to those who criticize her for not having actually read the dissertations - which only proves she is a fool:

    Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.

    Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.

    Yes. This is her in all her pure, condescending idiocy.

    As someone who is defending his dissertation Monday (yay!), I imagine that (including my committee, parents, wife, and myself) that there will be fewer than a dozen people who will ever read my dissertation. (It's on a genetic algorithm approach to finding a neural network model of the mammalian hippocampus that operates at millisecond timescales.)

    Mazel tov! And it's the right thing that your dissertation be that focused. It's a research product meant to advance a specialist discussion, not something to sell in Barnes & Noble.

    You should publish it here. Maybe change the title though. I'd go with:

    "On how God created Brains. Also, Tits."

    Bet you'd get 20 readers, easy. 19 of 'em would be DD, but hey, they still count.

    Where were your bright ideas when I was trying to come up with a title before giving it to my committee?

    a subtitle "Or how Ron Paul and Wall Street caused the Civil War" would boost the number of readers a bit more

    You said "Ron Paul" - that should double the number of page hits for the Doc. Now let's see if we can set a record. 


    1. Ron Paul rogers rabbits.
    2. Ron Paul fought for the right of the partaaaaaaaay.
    3. Ron Paul beggared beaver butts and behaved badly.
    4. Ron Paul - not good at math.
    5. Also, I hear he hates Black Americans. What's up with that, Paulistas?

    You're welcome Doc!


    For all of those who were waiting on bated breath, here is a dissertation that should have been titled, "On how God created Brains. Also, Tits: An Ontological Post-Structuralist Analysis of Ron Paul, Michael Jackson, and Nicki Minaj".

    But the true racism here is in Riley's stupidity. Because that's what racism is: white people's entitlement to be dumb.

    Well of course.




    I love this blog. I have nothing to add to the discussion, but I wanted to write that down. I was going to highlight my favorite paragraph, but the next paragraph was always better than the one before it. Just awesome.


    And, I will always be a special snowflake. Just not a racist one.

    I think you would have done better linking to the thesis descriptions themselves:

    3 seem to be interesting - birthing options & history for women of color and low-income women, how to thread the Stop & Frisk system by an ex-NYC asst DA, and research into gov/industry collusion in black housing development. The 4th on Shirley Chisholm/Barbara Rogers might be interesting - depends on insights & conclusions, while the one on black conservatives feels a bit meh - a foregone conclusion that affirmative action is good and those against are betraying their helping hand.

    I don't need to read the dissertations to get an idea where they're going, though obviously can be surprised. And since these were chosen elsewhere as the top 5 (count them: 5), there doesn't seem a fair requirement that she examine every one in the program.

    Riley appears not to have understood the reference to single-family housing - this wasn't a complaint about priorities, it was the program where collusion took place. Though I agree with Riley that the comment on racism in sub-prime lending crisis foolishly labeled that as the highlight, when poor whites likely were injured in far greater numbers.

    Riley's attack on black maternity choice is plain dumb - she doesn't even know what natural childbirth literature is, and of course blacks often have different or limited options, and exploring healthy choices and trends makes for good public policy. Frisk & Search? yep, Lifehacker 101 for any NYC youth of color.

    You, however misunderstand her comment about 1963. And the background pastiche of this diary, where only whites are racist, "Because that's what racism is: white people's entitlement to be dumb." Go on, don't hold back your feelings.

    What I most dislike is the sense that Riley can't insult the program because it's a black studies program. Of course she can. People talk about how lame the PhysEd department is, how ditzy theater majors are, does there even need to be a Geography or Sociology Department? So if a batch of Black Studies theses are crap, then the 2 obvious questions are: "Does the program itself serve a strong useful purpose?" (in this age of continual education cuts), and "If important, how to improve the quality of academics?" - both admitted students and quality of research/subsequent theses.

    Well, in any case, the Chronicle has fired Riley. But she's already publishing at the Wall Street Journal. And surprisingly, if you look at her articles at both Chronicle & WSJ, they're not terribly wingnut - in fact the former are more about the pretensions of academia (teach-ins about sex with free vibrators for the nation's most exclusive university!!!???) along with some long-term destructive effects of student debt, how come 50 years after Port Huron students are still careerist and not terribly involved in social issues, or why seemingly promising 20-year-olds in prestrigious universities destroy themselves in dorm rooms boozing it up?

    Here's one she did on Islam in America - probably the most consoling anti-hysterical piece I've read in a while. And I guess it'll be a while before I read another one.

    Or would I know without her that a black man's about to be voted in to lead the Southern Baptist Convention? (certainly a watershed for the old South, with the religion that split from the Baptist Church to defend slavery)

    PS - I'm also disappointed in the quality of editorial response both from 3 of the grad students and their faculty. Example:

    To write such disparaging comments about young scholars and their expressions of intellectual curiosity is cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education.  

    Obviously, these academics are unfamiliar with current practice on American Idol, where young talent and non-talent alike is disparaged by Simon with vigor and enthusiasm. Academia - still frail wallflowers after all these years.

    Can't anyone write a coherent non-pompous rebuttal that doesn't put you to sleep or make you want to lose your Wheaties? (Christ-like, I await the obvious barbs)

    Hey Doc, I read in the Chronicle today that Naomi Schaefer Riley has been fired.

    According to a Note to Readers:

    When we published Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog posting on Brainstorm last week , several thousand of you spoke out in outrage and disappointment that The Chronicle had published an article that did not conform to the journalistic standards and civil tone that you expect from us.

    We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said.

    We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.

    Yes. I'm happy with that result.

    Really? Write a bad or controversial column and you're fired?

    Open opinion is fine for academia, but not for reviewing academia?

    Have college dissertations suddenly become exceedingly valuable, rather than a first stab at becoming useful?

    Some of the complaints were about an unfair attack on young students - when 4 of the 5 are in their 30's.

    Read elsewhere in the Chronicle - law professors are overpaid and do too much research instead of teach. Humanities students are unused to failing and put out crap first drafts instead. And then there are off-topic musings about Israel's existence. Should these people be fired too?

    As I noted - 3 of the dissertation topics looked interesting (though Frisk & Search might have been a manual rather than a thesis), while the one that riled Riley the most looked hackneyed. The original article describing the 5 was rather weak, and included is phrasing that's much more political than academic - "how the demonizing of black women still operates today", "Ms. Fraser was born into activism"...

    Nevertheless, an interesting topic still doesn't mean an interesting or useful dissertation, and the purpose of dissertations is seldom just to scratch the author's itch - it's to search for a unique view to move the field forward and document it. Again, the original article doesn't highlight how this happens - instead praising theses that might be book reports or field manuals or catalogs for health resources - all useful, but not dissertations per se.

    The worst thing that can happen to Black Studies is that it's uncritically accepted, that every pablum that comes out of it is praised and then ignored, that there's no pressure to improve and become more relevant and interesting.

    There's already the danger for Black Studies to just be an extension of politics or popular culture, not an academic field (i.e. political science, history, musicology, sociology), and even those traditional academic fields have trouble fighting off irrelevance and over-fixated on relating specific events or movements rather than exploring principles and causes.

    There's also the foregone conclusion - if I know how my thesis will end before I begin, is it really a thesis?

    But sure, fire the woman because she made some snide (but not personal) remarks about a field. And then write a diary about how intolerant the right is.

    [and again, see if this fits the image of intolerance you have for Riley:  ]


    Not that I care about company, but good to see I'm not alone on this one:

    [while they say Riley just read the *titles*, it seems more likely she read the titles and brief descriptions/interviews found in the Chronicle. And the author of *that* piece likely just read the titles to praise the 5 "best". But it's a blog ferchrissakes.]

    For what it's worth, I agree with you. I don't like what she wrote, but if this commentary is the sole reason she was fired, then that doesn't seem right.

    Write a bad column and, yes, you could be fired if it's bad enough. Do bad enough work in any job and that is a potential consequence. And when you combine bad with lazy (ie, not reading the material about which you have chosen to criticize, which is what Ms Riley did), you increase those chances.

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