The Firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley: A Disgraceful Witch-Hunt

Chronicle of Higher Education blogger fired for criticizing the appalling state of Black Studies.

A one-two punch of editorial cowardice and progressive intolerance has descended upon the Chronicle of Higher Education. Blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley has been fired by that magazine for a short column in which she dared to criticize another Chronicle piece about black-studies graduates and their Ph.D. dissertations. "What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap," Riley writes. "The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them." Riley may have a point about the dissertations themselves, but the subsequent firestorm of criticism aimed in her direction was apparently too much for Chronicle editor Liz McMillen who fired Riley--after first defending her.

There is no question Ms. McMillen capitulated to the mob. In an editor's note published May 3rd, McMillen did exactly what editors are supposed to do. "Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, 'The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,'" McMillen wrote. "I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity--to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit. Take a moment to read The Chronicle’s front-page story about the future of black studies, written by Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton and weigh in. Please join the debate," she added.

McMillen's courage was exhausted after a grand total of four days. On May 7th, she surrendered: "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 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."

McMillen's fallback excuse for her original defense of Riley? "Since Brainstorm was created five years ago, we have sought out bloggers representing a range of intellectual and political views, and we have allowed them broad freedom in topics and approach," McMillen wrote. "As part of that freedom, Brainstorm writers were able to post independently; Ms. Riley’s post was not reviewed until after it was posted."

Make that after it was posted and defended by Ms. McMillen. She then gets to the gist of why it became necessary to let Riley go. "I sincerely apologize for the distress these incidents have caused our readers and appreciate that so many of you have made your sentiments known to us." Thus, reader distress becomes the benchmark by which the failure to meet "basic editorial standards" is realized.

What so upset the delicate flowers of academia? Riley singled out three dissertations. First, “So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth,” written by Ruth Hayes. In her column, Riley was sarcastic. "How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in 'natural birth literature,' whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia." Riley then takes on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.” The sarcasm is evident here as well. "Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government’s promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s," Riley writes. "Single family homes! The audacity!" When Taylor makes the argument that the subprime lending crisis "highlighted the profitability of racism in the housing market,” Riley counters. "Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess," she writes.

Lastly, she takes on La TaSha B. Levy, who argues that black that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have "played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them." Riley's rebuttal? "The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights?' she asks. "Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?"

She concludes her piece with this paragraph. "Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments. If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man."

The authors of the dissertations were furious, and the Chronicle gave them a piece to vent their fury. Riley was accused of writing a "lazy and vitriolic hit piece," "breathtaking arrogance and gutless anti-intellectualism," and "a betrayal of her own bigotry." The three authors also characterize Riley's piece as a whole. "One can only assume that in a bid to not be 'out-niggered' by her right-wing cohort, [a reference to Newt Gingrich] Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on," they write.

Toward the end of this screed they completely, if inadvertently, validate Riley's main points. "Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in." In other words, an endemically racist America has kept black Americans down--exactly as Riley contends in her criticism.

The trio goes on. "For the past 40 years, black studies has been instrumental in transforming higher education into a more inclusive, competitive, and rigorous intellectual enterprise. This is a fact. The contributions are irrefutable. But the extent to which Riley chose to assail black studies and the scholarship of black-studies doctoral students is indicative of the desperate tactics commonly used by media pundits. What is she so afraid of?"

What is Riley afraid of? As the former Chronicle blogger notes in her own piece for the Wall Street Journal, "6,500 academics signed a petition online demanding that I be fired."

What are they afraid of?

Ms. Riley gets to the gist of the campaign against her. "If you want to know why almost all of the responses to my original post consist of personal attacks on me, along with irrelevant mentions of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and George Zimmerman, it is because black studies is a cause, not a course of study," Riley writes. "By doubting the academic worthiness of black studies, my critics conclude, I am opposed to racial justice--and therefore a racist."

She then reveals the utter intellectual bankruptcy of the academic left. "The content of my post, after all, is hardly shocking; the same thing could have been written 30 years ago. And perhaps that's the most depressing part of all this. Despite the real social and economic advancement that has been made by blacks in this country, the American faculty is still stuck in the 1960s."

That is not quite right. Back in the '60s there was still a modicum of intellectual rigor within the halls of academia. A half-century later, intellectual rigor has given way to emotional blackmail. Ms. Riley wasn't fired because her argument lacked sufficient intellectual vigor. She was fired because a sufficient number of people had their feelings hurt and deemed her ouster -- as opposed to a rebuttal of her arguments -- the more reasonable course of action.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is free to hire and fire whoever they choose. However, in succumbing to the terminally offended, they have revealed that placating the sensibilities of the progressive mob and so-called "journalistic standards" are interchangeable terms. What will they eventually learn?

The mob is never satisfied.

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