The necessity of black studies

Jun 18, 2014 at 5:00 am

Recent allegations by former North Carolina-Chapel Hill basketball player Rashad McCants have refueled perennial debates about university athletic department practices, exploitation of college athletes, the integrity of professors and, in this case, the viability of an academic discipline.

McCants told ESPN and other news outlets that his academic advisers steered him to “sham classes” in the school’s African, African-American and Diaspora studies department. They did this, according to McCants, because it was generally understood that these classes were not challenging. He also says academic tutors completed the majority of his work for him in other classes he sporadically attended.

McCants even says he received all As and made the dean’s list one semester even though he rarely (if ever) attended any of his four classes. Media is centering on whether or not UNC basketball coaches Roy Williams or Matt Doherty (who preceded Williams) knew what was going on with McCants and others. McCants emphatically claims both did. The McCants situation is yet another example of how far some individuals and universities go to keep the college athletics gravy train rolling.

I can’t speak to the veracity of McCants’ claims or his motivation for levying them. What I do know is something insidious is buried in the reporting of this case in that the only department mentioned by name is Af-Am studies. The singling out of this department causes concern. If the supposed offender was the department of communication, history, philosophy or anthropology, no one would question whether or not the department or field should exist. They do just that when black studies is mentioned.

The progression of the UNC situation certainly raises red flags. Something untoward seems to have happened involving former Af-Am studies chairman Julius Nyang’oyo, who resigned amid allegations of impropriety related to the football program in 2011. Nyang’oro was eventually indicted on a felony fraud charge of accepting $12,000 for a summer class he supposedly taught that never met. The case is ongoing.

The university has consistently said Nyango’oyo’s alleged misbehavior was “isolated.” Even if he is guilty as sin, his malfeasance should not be used to condemn an entire department or field. Af-Am at UNC, in fact, has a number of fine scholars whom I know personally and respect, including Drs. Parry Hall and my Morehouse brother, Walter Rucker. Beyond that, anyone using this case to attack black studies as a whole would do well to remember the field is strong and necessary.

Those who argue to the contrary have little sense of history and an even poorer grip on the future. Presently, we live in the most multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural America ever. For good or ill, this demographic trend is not likely to change — the country is becoming more “colorful.” In this new 21st century American reality, no university can call itself a “serious” educational institution without housing good black, Native American, Asian, Latin and women’s and gender studies. It is not unreasonable for one to argue that black studies will grow rather than wither as we move forward.

Quantitative exploration of black studies’ current footprint in American higher education is revealing. Indeed, a recent study by Dr. Abdul Alkalimat and colleagues at the University of Illinois found that of 1,777 institutions surveyed, “76% have some form of black studies, 20% (361 institutions) with formal units and 56% (999 institutions) without units but with a course or courses … dedicated to the black experience.” This important study goes on to note that 91 percent of public colleges and universities and 77 percent of private schools have either units or courses. More than a third (37 percent) of public colleges and universities have formal black studies units.

Supporters of black studies who believe it is viable because of the notable achievements of a few superstar professors like Henry Louis Gates at Harvard or the growing presence of programs and classes nationally actually miss the point. The core philosophical impetus for black studies since its genesis at San Francisco State University in the mid-1960s is its most important attribute. At its heart, black studies has been, and continues to be, immersed in a perpetual battle to affirm that black people have lived lives worth living and have histories worth studying. Cases involving people like McCants and Nyang’oyo will not change that fact.

So, to my black studies colleagues at UNC and around the country — MAINTAIN!

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