Black Studies as Cultural Reparations

The chickens of the 1960s have come home to roost.

In current conversations regarding reparations for blacks, few consider the phenomenon of cultural reparations as a sufficient contender.

This legacy of the civil rights movement is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, cultural reparations were an enormous contribution of the United States of America to bring blacks fully into the domain of what may be termed the sovereign mass that constitutes the citizenry of our republic.

One reason, among several, that reparations discussions today are uneven, is that they overlook the important fact that cultural reparations in the form of Black Studies that began in the 1960s were a hugely reparative moment for blacks in America.

Soon after tasting the victories of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which civilly and criminally outlawed racism, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—blacks became voraciously hungry. They were hungry for power—black power. They were hungry also for revenge. They were also filled with anger and rage. Gratitude was not an emotion they felt, as beneficiaries of the rights accorded them via the civil rights movements. They were eager to assume the perpetual mantle of victims and the conferral of moral, iconic sainthood that came with it for the first time in their collective history.

As historical victims, the insignia of moral innocence would give them a great deal of social capital—in fact, more social capital and political clout than they could have hoped for. Long after they had achieved that power, and after they had been emancipated from the bondage of legal disenfranchisement, many experienced a sense of existential angst predicated on the question: what do we do with our lives now?

Blacks not only were desirous of this power but were equally demanding that it be accompanied by an attendant guilt suffered by whites; the kind of guilt rooted in a history of moral oppression that sends a message on the order of, You’ve been a rotten, mean-spirited bigot all your life. Such persons are sent a message that they need to spend their lives in search of repentance, acts of contrition, atonement, redemption, and ultimate salvation. In the end, short of annihilating whiteness from the earth, there is nothing that can be done to ameliorate the black problem.

Blacks were navigating their agency and identities in a freer and more open society, and the blood they smelled was white guilt and embarrassment. There was no greater place to hand over the second installment of reparations — which I refer to as cultural reparations — to blacks than in our nation’s universities. The new appropriators of cultural black power were not content to win a seat in universities from which they had been previously excluded. A phalanx of race hustlers entered the academy, armed with a culturally and economically Marxist agenda to annihilate the world as they had lived in it, and to remake it in their own revolutionary style.

Afrocentrism and Black Power sought to reject traditional institutions that, from their perspective, had been agencies created under the auspices of imperial racist discourse. These Black Studies race fighters, who would declare openly that they were fighting false consciousness and mind-colonization, wanted their own ways of validating their standpoint experiences. Theirs was a revolt against the principles of the Enlightenment and reason itself, which were taken to be constructs that were not only compatible with colonialism and “racist capitalism,” but constitutive of them. In A Companion to African-American Studies, editors Gordon and Gordon point out that the founding of Black Studies was influenced by the Black Panthers’ goal of “decolonizing the minds of black people.” They write: “African-American Studies is an intrinsically politicized unit of the academy whose objective is to overcome ‘false consciousness’ [a Marxist term, created by ‘white supremacy’]”—or, to put it differently, to understand what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the double consciousness,” which, after the 1960s, was understood more as a contested truth.

Black Studies was the forerunner to today’s overtly politicized classrooms. The university was the institution that granted moral accreditation to Black Nationalism. This deferential act in turning the nation’s classrooms into bastions of indoctrination and activist sites came at a cost. Social justice, canonical revisions, and propaganda are inimical to academic rigor.  Radical blacks almost embraced the principle of arrested intellectual development, since the standards of rigor, research, and qualitative judgments were viewed as couched in the white society’s notions of hierarchical ranking, methods of appraisal and, concomitantly, patterns of exclusions.  

The goal of Black Studies programs was not just to decolonize the minds of black students to reorient them away from a Eurocentric model of thinking grounded in the value of the Enlightenment, universalism, and disciplinary pluralism. These individuals were after power. Black Studies, per se, was not a real discipline like philosophy, history, psychology, political science, English literature, or sociology. It had no methodology and, pedagogically speaking, it was intellectually bankrupt. When we say that a discipline has a methodology to support it, we mean it has a foundational anchor to give it coherence, sensibility in the literal sense, and the ability to yield conclusions and make judgments that are intelligible, comprehensible, and perceptible to the average human mind. The rules and procedures cannot be arbitrary and subjective; they must be consonant with the nature of each discipline. It is, for example, inappropriate for a literary scholar to use the methods employed by a physicist to analyze nineteenth century Victorian poetry.

But Black Studies was radical and revolutionary in nature. The goal was activism and to establish Black Power.

Today, it’s all about ethnicity and racism. The Black Studies programs of the sixties established the anti-intellectual standard that permitted Rutgers University to declare, in 2020, that grammar is racist and that it would be focusing on critical grammar, that is, black English. In fall of the same year, the University of Chicago would go even further and refuse to allow any of its incoming doctoral students in English a place unless their studies incorporated some hodgepodge of social justice linked to Black Lives.

The idea that Black Studies programs were, and continue to be, a form of cultural reparations is premised on my larger argument that the 1964 Civil Rights Act has been participating in a series of incremental, reparative acts directed towards black American uplift. Black Studies was a form of cultural reparations and not just because it was conducted under the auspices of administrative bodies run by powerful white people who funneled thousands of dollars into a pseudo discipline. It was a form of cultural reparations because these bureaucratic bodies sanctioned the well-publicized agenda of these victims and their activist, revolutionary studies phenomena that would grant moral license for the creation of Women’s Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Studies, Fat Studies, Disabilities Studies, Chicano Studies, and congeries of other programs, heavily indexed to post-modernism and cultural Marxism as their philosophical grid.

The race fighters—and even genuine activists—were out to establish a new world order. They wanted to get even by overthrowing the system. In the spirit of Frantz Fanon, they wanted to substitute one species of mankind with another. This endeavor inevitably sets out to change the order of the world. It is putatively an agenda for chaos. The substitution of one species of mankind with another was framed by an agenda which set out to decolonize black people from white and Western educational paradigms. The race fighters were academic activists inspired by the Black Panthers’ ethos, which they sought to emulate and promulgate inside the classroom. This ethos, translated into literal form, was the creation of a new type of human being, who would be an atavistic, non-American black nationalist filled with racial pride, besotted with power and a maniacal will to impose his agenda on the rest of America. The Black Power ethos that charged Black Studies was fueled by a view that saw white Americans as colonists.

The colonized blacks had been in such a state since 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in Virginia, they claimed. In truth, that first ship contained not slaves but indentured servants. The way in which these new Negritudes stood in diametric opposition to what Martin Luther King, Jr. had advocated and fought for must be emphasized. Waiting in the wings for the imprimatur of official freedom—that is, no legal barriers to prevent them from pressing rights claims—they co-opted and bullied an obsequious set of cowardly, bureaucratic Babbitts into submitting to their demands all over the United States. Student strikes at a broad swath of universities such as Columbia, Amherst, Harvard, Cornell, Yale and Howard compelled university administrators to establish Black Studies programs all over the country.

By 1970, most major American universities had Black Studies programs on their campuses. These cultural reparations programs, meant to assuage the anger, rage, and nihilistic impulses of students, who had just been the beneficiaries of a painful and protracted civil rights struggle, were generally not seen as educational programs but as ideological indoctrination units. The programs, like the separatist movements among several black student organizations today, were not designed to improve or create interracial relations or understanding as unified Americans. They were meant to establish black autonomy and self-sovereignty to the level of a cult.

It was the beginning of the coddling of the American mind by progressive administrators who felt guilty for the injustice blacks had suffered by members of their race. Cultural autonomy for blacks is a given in today’s universities. The chickens of the 1960s have come home to roost. The hatchlings and their surrogates are running our universities today. That debt has been paid. A greater debt is now being incurred.

Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, and moral psychology. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. Dr. Hill is the author of five books, including  “What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression.” Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.

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