Bias in Academia

Critical Theory in the American University: A Critical Issue, Part Three

Read Parts One and Two before proceeding here.


It is remarkable how universal a negative, critical, view of Whites as a race is in today’s university.  Every course, every speaker, every professional article and book, every “welcome week” activity in the fall, every program in the dorms, every word uttered in faculty meetings, every committee report, every organization, every administrative pronouncement, every master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, every group email, every bulletin board notice, etc., etc., etc., etc.—not one positive word about Whites and not one negative word about any other race.  If any university administrator or academic has said a favorable word about White people as a race, verbally or in print, I don’t know about it, and I think I pay attention.

The late novelist and essayist Susan Sontag, a regular on the university commencement speech circuit, captured the view of Whites held by those in power in American universities when she famously wrote, “The white race is the cancer of human history.”22 Indeed, Whites have their dirty linen—every race does—but the picture isn’t all bad in the way universities portray it.  I’d be happy to take the Whites’ side compared to any other race, let’s say Blacks, in accomplishments in philosophy, the arts and humanities, mathematics, science, technology, architecture, literature, philanthropy—you name it.20  I’d be willing to compare White communities to Black communities, anywhere in the world, on the basis of cleanliness, safety, care for children, and civility.  In the area of race relations, you can make the case that Whites are abusing Blacks and I’ll take the other side, which would involve citing interracial crime statistics. In race relations, I’ll cite examples of White individuals and groups trying to help out disadvantaged Black people and ending slavery for moral reasons at a time when slavery was pervasive throughout the rest of the world. And you can cite examples of Black individuals and groups trying to help out disadvantaged White people.

For Whites on campus, even the hint of a positive conception of their racial heritage or of racial consciousness and commitment and solidarity; even a touch of concern for the status and wellbeing of White people; even one word in favor of White advocacy, leadership, organization, and collective action; even the least gesture in the direction of affirming the right of White people to self-determination—don’t you dare.  Whites are obligated to have an all but obsessive concern for the interests of other races, and to serve those interests, while having absolutely no concern for the circumstances and fate of their own people.  In fact, Whites should go to work against their racial brethren (the race traitor idea). Read more

Critical Theory in the American University: A Critical Issue, Part Two

This material depends on familiarity with  Part One. Please read that before proceeding here.

David Roediger is a White professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois. He is a leading voice in the White abolitionist movement, as it is called: “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false,” he asserts, “it’s that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false.”  As does Peter McClaren (see Part One), Roediger proposes that Whites become “race traitors.”13 He is best known for his book, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.14 In it, he draws on Marxist ideology and psychoanalysis to sketch the development of racism in the American White working class during the nineteenth century. The book is arguably legitimate academic scholarship. That said, it comes down to portraying Blacks as victims and painting White working people negatively as racists: that’s who they are. That is not the only defensible way to perceive either labor history or the White working class.

If students only encounter this Roediger book, which is how it works in universities these days, they could well assume that this is the definitive take on White identity—overall, not just among working class Whites—and that what was true, or purported to be true, in the nineteenth century still prevails today. That is to say, that the problem in race relations is White racist animosity and feelings of superiority toward African Americans and desires to suppress or hurt them, which is the basic thrust of the Roediger book. Read more

Critical Theory in the American University: A Critical Issue, Part One

I teach a university course in education taken by undergraduate liberal arts students—they aren’t education majors—who take the course as an elective. It focuses on contemporary elementary and secondary public schooling and, to a lesser extent, the circumstance in universities.  Among the required readings this semester (Fall, 2013) are sections of a book edited by James Noll, a retired professor of education, entitled Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues.1   The Noll book is made up of twenty-three contemporary schooling issues as Noll defines them, each phrased in the form of a question.  For each issue/question, Noll writes an introduction and then includes two articles he has chosen from the professional literature in education to represent Yes and No answers to the question, thus creating a debate format.  Noll ends each issue with a concluding statement, which includes further readings on this concern.

Noll has done a good job with the book, and I find it useful in my course. I want my students to realize that there isn’t just one right answer to the issues we confront in education (or in anything else, for that matter), that depending on their particular outlooks and values, thoughtful and informed people legitimately differ both as to what is going on in schools and what ought to go on in them. Grounded in that realization, students, I hope, feel invited to analyze and assess arguments and explore their differences and implications, contribute their own best thinking to making sense of the issue, and come to their own conclusions rather than remain uncritical note-taking consumers of the ideas and proposals of others, which unfortunately is too often the role students play in university courses.

A Noll issue I used this semester is titled “Does a ‘Deficit Model’ Serve Poor Children Well?”2 It is clear from Noll’s introductory comments and the two opposing arguments that poverty to these writers means African American students in urban public schools. By deficit, Noll is referring to lack of health care, exposure to crime and drugs, negative adult role models, family instability, and limited exposure to culturally uplifting experiences. Read more