The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Naomi Schaefer Riley: Tyranny of White Privilege

Last week, we were reminded again of the false construct of a post-racial society when Naomi Schaefer Riley posted a vitriolic and careless article in The Chronicle of Higher Education maligning three Black studies graduate students at Northwestern University, their professors, and the entire area of study. In her piece, she openly sneered at each woman’s dissertation (none of which she had read) and basically characterized their work as useless, “irrelevant,” outdated, and predicated upon victimization.

Already, responses have been generated by the NU students as well as the faculty. A Chronicle editor has also responded with a rather weak defense of Riley’s blog, claiming that, “It is a blog for opinion . . . not news reporting by the staff.” Besides the feelings of intense rage and sadness I felt over Riley publicly defaming these scholars at the beginning of their careers, I had another overwhelming feeling.


It is simply exhausting to fight those who have no awareness of the presence and manifestation of their own White privilege. It is the additional energy that Blacks must expend particularly when they dare to trespass through areas perceived as “White terrain” (Feagin 1991) which academia most certainly is.

Riley’s piece exposed the White privilege that Peggy McIntosh spoke of long ago in her 1988 landmark essay. In it, McIntosh includes a laundry list of nearly 50 invisible privileges conferred to her at birth simply by virtue of being born White. Based on Riley’s piece and her equally as sarcastic and misguided non-apology, we could adapt and add to some of McIntosh’s original items, because through Riley’s pieces, we’ve learned White privilege also includes:

1) The ability to make pronouncements and declarations on which dissertation topics constitute “legitimate debate” and who is a “legitimate scholar” based on precious few sentences about the work in question.
2) The privilege to substitute snark for responsible research and have it published in the leading publication on higher education without the editors challenging its integrity and in fact defending its inclusion as merely “an opportunity– to debate.”
3) The privilege to stunt the spirit of academic inquiry and intellectual curiosity simply because a research topic pertains to Blackness.
4) The privilege to pretend all is well where race relations are concerned and that if there are racial disparities or tensions, it’s because people of color caused them. [FYI: Ms. Riley, any of Tim Wise’s books, or Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists (2009), or Joe Feagin’s recent White Racial Frame (2010) can help you with this one.]
5) The ability to attack any Black person at any time and particularly those who have achieved scholar status because they threaten White hegemony.

And so, because Ms. Riley decided to wield these elements of her privilege like a weapon, we are stuck defending ourselves and expending the energy to respond.

Essentially, what she told the NU students is: You do not belong. It’s a message sent to Blacks whether they are doctoral students at a leading research university, student-athletes on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or a child walking around a White neighborhood armed only with an iced tea and Skittles. And yes, Ms. Riley, even President Obama is regularly told he doesn’t belong when he’s the only president who’s been called a “liar” in a televised address before a joint session of Congress or who has to prove citizenship over and over again like a freed slave showing manumission papers.

Fortunately, as Black folks, we have learned to multi-task—to resist our oppression and defend ourselves and our labor even as we go about our research, teaching, and daily lives. Yet, the fact that we must do both speaks to the very nature of the racial inequality Naomi Schaefer Riley claims has all but disappeared.

Capitalism and Racism: Remembering the Great Oliver C. Cox

In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been re-reading Oliver Cromwell Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race.

One of the key figures historically in what has come to be called the “Black Radical tradition,” Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

More than 60 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

De-radicalization of Racism: How and Why Philosophy Under-Specializes the Development of (Critical) Race Theory

There have been a lot of nasty-ass rumors embraced by philosophers and your run of the mill academicians surrounding the material substantiations of time as “histories,” and the meta-physical “flow of time,” as linear continuum towards progress and development. It is assumed without provocation that the variety of “histories” offered by racialized oppressed peoples enclosed within [H]istory—understood as a universal account of white civilization—emerges as continuities that further the evolution of not only our American society, but the edifice of the West. In short, we are told to believe that the multiple histories that now emerge at this moment are in fact the inevitable result of the genius of the Dialectical Hemi-(spherical engine) driving the expression of multiple subjectivities. But time need not revolve around such a mythical perspective; a perspective that demands from colonized people that they cherish their past enslavement and historical debasement by racism, and accept that their contemporary suffering, their present dehumanization, and their ongoing exploitation by the political economics of the university, blessed them with the post-colonial discourses to be shared with a now attentive white audience waiting to take stock of their critiques. The dominant schema of America’s liberal democratic order suggests that history be read and time be gauged by the falling away of the organized oppressive structures of the past, where the present is known by the remnants the last fading vestiges of racism, and the future will be identified by the absence of the barriers and attitudes of the past and present filled with only enlightened white folks who are adamantly against racism. This progressive teleology—the idea solidified by integration which suggests racism and the political economics of white supremacy will simply disappear over time—is the largely accepted political dogma of not only our social life, but the unquestioned paradigm of our academic lives as well.

As a function of its unique specialization, academic education determines for us what figures and categories are synonymous with knowledge. As such, even the most creative scholar who aims to be “radical,” forges their weapons from the formal templates of criticality outlined within disciplinarity, where the newly acquired linguistic armaments of race, class, and gender do little more than justify the revisions made to already bourgeois Black women’s thought like Anna Julia Cooper so that they may be copyrighted as canonical figures and made into Black feminists who truly supported the pluralist democratic ethos realized by America’s civil rights era. While intersectionality, popularly referred to the study of “Race, Class, and Gender,” what I have called the “trinity of bulls**t,” in previous writings, remain the three stooges of any inquiry into racist oppression, this rhetorical trope does little to tell the reader anything about the actual methods and/or concepts needed to understand the complicated nexus between racism, political economics and sexual exploitation.

It only contends that we should make “discursive space” to hear from the subjects many have agreed to believe come to embody this allusive trinity. As Peter Kwan has argued in a series of articles entitled “Jeffery Dahmer and the Cosynthesis of Categories,”“Complicity and Complexity: Cosynthesis and Praxis,” and “After Intersectionality,” intersectionality (specifically the idea of race and gender) has been used primarily as a tool to center an identity politics that justifies defining race and gender as Black women, rather than on the systemic dynamics of racist sexual exploitation. In short, the rhetorical tropes of race, class, and gender are thought to be evidence of something like rigor and interdisciplinarity, but in reality they announce categories that disciplinary consensus has decided are represented by specific antebellum women authors compatible with integrationism, feminism, and the revisions to and selective reading of their thought along these lines.

Similarly, I have argued in previous works like “Concerning the Under-specialization of Race Theory in American Philosophy: How the Exclusion of Black Sources Affects the Field,” that disciplines reward scholarship dealing with race that abide by the correct ethics of disdain,—

those ethics that outline the proper rules of engaging racism and colonial oppression—so that the resulting engagements of non-European peoples against their oppression can qualify as philosophy is of the utmost concern(Curry 2010, p.50).

These ethics de-radicalize analyses of racism, because an actual investigation into racism in the discipline of philosophy would begin with institutional criticisms that attack the organizational integrity of philosophical organizations like the American Philosophy Association (APA), the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP), and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), the largely white philosophy departments with histories of racial discrimination, and the work of white philosophers contributing to the erasure of Black, Latin American, and Indigenous peoples in an effort to solidify white thinkers authority on racism and colonialism over and against the reading of authors who are part of the groups that actually suffered under oppression. In philosophy, this is largely done by explaining away the racism of white scholars like John Dewey (who supported segregated education, assimilation, and the naturalness of racial antipathy) and Josiah Royce (who advocated the United States take up the “white man’s burden,” and British colonial administration in the South) , and revising the theories of European thinkers like Immanuel Kant (a figure Emmanuel Eze demonstrated was not only racist, but responsible for racial taxonomy), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (who supported slavery and argued Africans were outside of history and civilization) and Michel Foucault (who not only steals his analysis of prisons from the Black Panthers, but dismisses the persistence of racism based on skin color), so that what the discipline says counts as their (now revised and inclusive) “non-racist ideas,” amounting to little more than proclamations that Americans should strive toward democratic progress, and that (white) individuals are moral and rational, take priority over the highly developed racist associations (think Josiah Royce’s idolization of Joseph LeConte), anthropologies (think of Kant’s founding of physical geography and pragmatic anthropology), and actual thoughts of these historic white thinkers. Failure to abide by this disciplinary etiquette results in being labeled as “ideological,” “political,” and “anachronistic”—a nasty ad hominem intended to suggest that the scholar in question has no grasp of history despite the deliberate ahistorical nature of reading American and European authors of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century as being in line with sixties’ brand Kingian integrationism.

These aforementioned propagandas are meant to deter the young Black philosopher from questioning the institutional legitimacy of philosophy’s disciplinarity. The initial strategy pursued by many departments is usually positive and involves offering the young Black philosopher evidence of inclusion and progress in the field. This is usually done by showing the Black graduate student/s that the department either has people who write on W.E.B. DuBois and/or Frantz Fanon or people who are sympathetic to these authors’ work. This is usually combined with introducing the student/s to one or more of the Black philosophers who comprise less than 1% of the discipline in an effort to show the student that there are people who look like them doing work in philosophy. Mind you, very rarely are these gestures followed with actual curricula changes, like classes and/or dissertation support aiming to cultivate a comprehensive specialization in DuBois and Fanon equal to that of white figures like Kant, Hegel, or Dewey, or followed by the hiring of Black faculty (even in the cases with one professor—it is usually just that one expected to teach all of Africana philosophy and European traditions as well) with specializations on these figures once the deficiency in Africana philosophy is recognized. As dissatisfaction grows with the inculcated chimeras of pluralism and diversity in philosophy, the Black graduate student is warned that their “growing anger,” and “radicality,” not only threatens their careers, but their matriculation. This repressive apparatus (the doctorate) is used to wed the Black philosopher to their duty as a philosophical thinker on race—which is to gradually change (by moral appeal) how whites think about Blacks. In other words, the Black philosopher is recognized not as race theorist, but racial therapist by sanction.

Perhaps the direst consequence of philosophy’s racism on the Black mind is the Black philosopher’s obsessive hope in the redemptive character of white innocence; or what Joe Feagin has described in our conversations as “white virtue.” Because racism is understood to be a “mistaken idea” held by ignorance, academic philosophy maintains that Black philosophers arguing with and talking to whites, even dead whites through their scholarship, uncovers the virtuous purity and innocence of white reason. Accepting that whites can and have changed as a result of integration and the desegregation of the academy is made into a professional prerequisite. Almost a decade before Derrick Bell introduced what would come to be known as his racial realist thesis, Robert F. Williams, author of Negroes with Guns, argued in that work that:

The stranglehold of oppression cannot be loosened by a plea to the oppressor’s conscience… We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis…the logical inventions of a thoroughly diseased mind. The racist is a man crazed by hysteria at the idea of coming into equal human contact with Negroes. And this mass mental illness called racism is very much a part of the “American way of life (p.110-111).

A rigorous study of American racism marks history through the endurance of epochs, not differences between generations, where the conscious realization of America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow and domestic colonization stems from the civilizational motif solidified by the teleological continuity of empire, not the idealized hope that white colonizers instilled in their progeny the ideas to overthrow their own economic, political, and military superiority over the world. In other words, the descendants of whites carry with them the aspirations for, not the aversion to, the legacies of their colonial parents.