Politics By Other Means
The smaller, the tighter, the more disciplined and bigoted the group, the stricter its claims of conformity are likely to be. The consequence for education is frequently that a given way of teaching a group-affiliated subject gains enough coercive prestige to drive out alternative ways of teaching the subject. This would be rotten even if it were new talent driving out old. It is by no means always that. A story in the New York Times of January 2, 1991, reported the fate of Robert C. Smith, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, who for many years has taught a course in Black Politics. He faced competition in the academic year 1990-91 from an apparently similar course by Oba T'Shaka, professor and chairman of Black Studies. Both scholars are black—a point whose relevance will become clear in a moment. Once the conflict emerged, the Black Studies department refused to cross-list Smith's course. It then instigated or condoned—the article does not make clear which—a harassing attempt to discourage students from taking his course at all. The first day of class. Smith found himself confronted by a well-organized contingent of black students, who stood up in a mass, jeered and shouted over his lecture, placed banners at the front of the room, and urged other students to continue the protest and intimidation by assembling at the teacher's home. Of forty-five who showed up on the first day, five remained to take the class for credit; on the last day. Smith toasted the survivors with a bottle of champagne. The most disheartening single detail of the story is that all thirty-five of the black students who had started the course were 'persuaded' to drop it. The five who stayed were white political science majors.
Intellectually, what can have been at stake between the two courses in conflict, to prompt the black-studies sectarians to use their power so jealously? Smith, the political science professor, taught a version of black politics that stressed the history of American communities in the post—Civil War period. T'Shaka, the black studies professor, taught a version that stressed Afro-American roots and the uniqueness of black experience. One must do a little translating here, as usual with the New York Times. Smith evidently seeks to establish how some members of American society, who have long been oppressed and whose politics range from reformist to dissident, still share with others a political order in which they may want to claim the rights of participants. T'Shaka, by contrast, to judge by the extracurricular statements that are quoted, has an interest in showing that a complete difference from American life is inscribed in the very origins of black experience. Where origins are understood to govern destiny, this means that the imperative of black culture is to constitute itself as wholly separate from Eurocentric America.
These differences help to explain the tactics adopted by one side. The success of the campaign against Smith owed less to its cogency than to the presence, in command in the second course, of a chairman whose department claimed moral authority over the subject matter of both courses. Still, in a quarrel like this over issues of intellectual substance, reasons must be given, and it is interesting to see what the reasons were. 'There was no control,' complained Professor T'Shaka of Professor Smith, 'over the quality' of the teaching of black politics by a professor of political science. Smith's course, the article went on to paraphrase T'Shaka's verdict, 'might have too much of what he called a traditional perspective and might not sufficiently represent the Afro-American point of view.' Very noticeable here is the assumption that there is just one Afro-American point of view. But what is a 'traditional perspective'? I think the phrase means: Smith was likely to be too well in touch with current scholarship on American politics by scholars outside the controlling framework of black studies. From the point of view of mere knowledge, this may seem an uncomplicated virtue. From the point of view of a department whose interests are taken to coincide with the interests of a community, it is an unpardonable crime against the community.
Smith received support to continue his course from administrators at San Francisco State—a move that will seem unusual to anyone who has surveyed comparable incidents elsewhere. They gave no vibrant signals of rhetorical commiseration to the offended 'community,' and did not try to talk the besieged scholar out of taking his stand. His own judgment of the case afterwards was simply that 'it is very difficult to oppose black people without being called racist.' This is an alarming judgment to come from a black professor, a pioneer of his subject, who had fought hard to get black politics accepted as a topic within the study of political science. Very different, but as instructive in its way, was T'Shaka's defense of confining such studies in the future to departments specially designated according to race. Asked for his rationale, he compared the study of different races, 'Afro-American, native American, and La Raza Studies,' to the accepted separation of such discrete branches of science as biology, chemistry, and physics.