Provost Peter Lange’s response to Houston Baker’s open letter represents a path not taken in the lacrosse case. The Lange letter—released on April 3, 2006—suggested that the administration might be willing to confront the extremist voices among the faculty. The aftermath of the letter, meanwhile, revealed deep flaws within the African-American Studies movement nationally.
Ten times, the Baker letter mentioned in a derogatory fashion the race of the lacrosse players. And it demanded the immediate dismissals from Duke of: “Coaches of the lacrosse team, the team itself and its players, and any other agents who silenced or lied about the real nature of events at 610 Buchanan on the evening of March 13, 2006.”
Lange’s response was equally forceful. “I cannot tell you,” the provost wrote, “how disappointed, saddened and appalled I was to receive this letter from you. A form of prejudice - one felt so often by minorities whether they be African American, Jewish or other - is the act of prejudgment: to presume that one knows something ‘must’ have been done by or done to someone because of his or her race, religion or other characteristic. In the United States our sad racial history is laced with such incidents, only fully brought to light in the recent past and undoubtedly there are uncounted numbers of such incidents not yet, or ever to be, known.”
In line with previous announcements by President Brodhead, Lange promised examination of “the deeper issues that are revealed by those known events and what they say about the values in our community.” (Of course, as Mike Nifong’s case collapsed, the administration demonstrated no enthusiasm for examining “the deeper issues that are revealed” by the faculty’s rush to judgment.) But for the most part, Lange made clear his distaste for Baker’s heated rhetoric and intemperate proposals. Repairing Duke, he wrote, “will take less rhetoric and more hard work, less quick judgment and more reasoned intervention, less playing to the crowd, than entering the hearts and lives of those whose education we are charged to promote and who we must treat as an integral part of the community we wish to restore and heal. Sadly, letters like yours do little to advance our common cause."
At Duke, Lange’s letter fell on deaf ears. Three days later, Baker joined 87 colleagues in the highest-profile example of faculty prejudice, the issuance of the Group of 88’s statement. For months thereafter, the African-American Studies program hosted the Group of 88’s ad on its official webpage—prominently, in black. And the English professor—holder of an endowed chair during his time at Duke—continued his pattern of inflammatory statements. On one occasion, he suggested that the lacrosse players had committed additional rapes; on another, he informed the mother of a lacrosse player that her son and his teammates were "farm animals."
Off campus, however, Lange’s letter attracted notice. In June 2006, 15 African-American Studies professors sent Lange what they termed an OPEN LETTER ON DUKE’S ‘TEACHABLE MOMENT.’” [caps in original] The list included some of the country’s most prominent professors African-American Studies and related fields. Manthia Diawara, Director, Institute for African American Affairs, New York University; Dwight A. McBride, Chair & Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies, Professor of English and Communication Studies, Northwestern University; Thadious Davis, Segal Professor of American Social Thought, University of Pennsylvania; Robin D. G. Kelley, William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies, Columbia University; Farah J. Griffin, Professor of English, Columbia University.
The signatories lectured Lange about his temerity in responding to Baker. “You seem,” they wrote, “not to understand that the tone of that letter assumes a lofty and condescending position of White authority over the insufficiencies of minority reason, thereby exemplifying one of the problems at Duke. The offense that Professor Baker might justifiably take to this display of paternalistic rhetoric is shared by those of us who search for racial harmony in our society.”
In other words, the “search for racial harmony in our society” requires allowing racist screeds like Baker’s to stand unchallenged. “What we have not heard,” the signatories continued, “in your response to Professor Baker is an acknowledgment of the complex demands of this situation, with an eye towards deep structural amelioration.”
Their demand: that Duke “first recognize[e] that the academics and departments that work assiduously to impart the best ethical and intellectual wisdom of their disciplines, which are always race, class, and gender inflected, are the most marginalized and under-appreciated among high administrative personnel and traditional disciplines across all academic domains.” [emphasis added]
They also demanded that Duke coordinate a coalition “of major universities and colleges in a campaign of active, enlightened strategies to reduce the huge structural, material and social inequities in our society”—in other words, that colleges and universities take positions, as institutions, on controversial political and socio-economic issues.
I asked each of the signatories whether—in light of events that unfolded in the past year—they would, in retrospect, reconsider their actions. One, Manning Marable of Columbia, essentially said yes, in a witty fashion: “To paraphrase Hillary Clinton about Iraq, had I known then what we know now, my actions might have been different.”
But for the other fourteen, reconsideration did not seem to be in the cards. Maryemma Graham responded sensitively, but continued to maintain that Duke should have rededicated itself to a “diversity” crusade; and that Lange’s rebuke of Baker was ill-conceived. Thadious Davis went much further: channeling Mike Nifong, the Penn professor asked, “And so you really believe ‘nothing happened’ that night?” (Actually, the state Attorney General, the special prosecutors, and the SBI believe that.)
In her presentation at the “Shut Up and teach” forum, Group of 88 statement author Wahneema Lubiano offered an explanation for this reluctance to examine new facts. Black Studies, she theorized, engaged in the process of “blurring the line historically drawn between intellectual work as such and everything else that is recognized as ‘political.’"
Lubiano and her colleagues, therefore, essentially define Black Studies as a vehicle for professors to mask their political views as academic production and shield them from public criticism. In her mind, Black Studies professors can make any statement, no matter how outrageous, on any non-academic issue they want: but anyone who criticizes them for such statements is engaging in McCarthyism, since the critic is attacking Black Studies “scholarship.” How convenient.
The embarrassing performance of African-American Studies programs in this case extended beyond the Duke program, 80 percent of whose members signed the Group of 88 statement. This past spring,
This is a photoshopped item: no actual photograph exists of a “Crime Scene: Do Not Cross” overseeing the lacrosse field. Who created this photograph? Farred?
The flyer prominently identified Farred as a Duke professor—and clearly stated that two academic departments at
Farred has since departed Duke for Cornell, where administrators have raved about his arrival and appointed him a full professor, a step up from his Duke rank. Cornell president David Skorton recently e-mailed a DIW reader, “We are very pleased that Grant Farred has joined the Cornell faculty.* He has already made a significant contribution to intellectual life here at Cornell.” Added English Department chair Molly Hite, author of Class Porn, “We are very enthusiastic about Professor Farred, whose work everyone in this department has long admired.”
To paraphrase Lubiano, such a reaction blurs “the line historically drawn between intellectual work as such” and reality.
*--modified for grammar