Few people have attempted to defend the Group of 88—perhaps because no credible defense of the rush-to-judgment faculty “activists” exists. Indeed, as the case to which they had attached their reputations imploded, nearly all Group members refused to comment on why they signed the April 2006 statement, which committed them not only to a common interpretation of the criminal case (something “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum) but also to a joint path forward (“turning up the volume” regardless of “what the police say or the court decides”).
The apologists generally have come from one of two groups: (1) those with a professional interest in cozying up to the Group; and (2) those with a personal connection to one or more Group members. Melissa Harris-Perry falls into the latter category—she’s a Duke Ph.D. (1999) who studied under Group of 88 stalwarts William Chafe and Wahneema Lubiano. Harris-Perry currently is a professor of political science at Tulane, where she heads the Project on Race, Gender, [ed: of course] and Politics in the South. The project’s inaugural event? A public lecture by none other than the Group’s own Karla Holloway.
Unlike nearly all members of the Group, Harris-Perry has some national visibility, thanks to her position as a frequent MSNBC commentator and a columnist for The Nation. In the latter capacity she recently penned an article that provided some insight into her race-obsessed thought process—exactly what could be expected from a Ph.D. student of Chafe and Lubiano. Her column accused white liberals of a “more insidious form of racism” than traditional, anti-black electoral racism for allegedly failing to back President Obama in the same percentages as they did President Clinton in 1996.
This absurd analysis was too much even for writers at traditionally left-leaning Salon. Joan Walsh, while quickly noting how much she considered Harris-Perry a professional friend, nonetheless gently observed that her friend “doesn’t mention any white liberals by name, nor cite polls showing a decline in support for President Obama among white liberals.” In other words: Harris-Perry had no evidence for her argument. (As will be seen, the Duke Ph.D. doesn’t seem to have problems with arguments lacking in empirical evidence.) Gene Lyons was less constrained by the trappings of collegiality. He argued that the Harris-Perry essay “resembles a photo negative of white racist thought . . . Turning everything into an issue of ethnic identity . . . appears to be Professor Harris-Perry’s stock in trade . . . Maybe academia isn’t the only place in American life where it’s possible to call people bigots and expect them to prove their innocence. But it’s definitely one of a very few . . . [I]f Harris-Perry expects people to defer to her Ph.D., she needs to raise her game.” And these criticisms, again, came from people generally sympathetic to Harris-Perry’s ideological goals.
But, even though I was an Obama supporter in 2008 and will remain so for 2012, Harris-Perry doubtless would dismiss me, too, as an insidiously racist white liberal. After all, I have publicly expressed horror with the Obama administration’s hostility to due process in higher education and my deep disappointment with the President’s indifference to the 2009 plebiscite that annulled the marriage equality law in my home state of Maine.
Harris-Perry’s defense of the Group of 88 comes in her recently-published book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Here’s how the Duke Ph.D. introduces the lacrosse case:
A woman lies about being sexually assaulted. The young men she accuses are assumed by both the press and the legal system to be guilty. A powerful institution bends to the public assumption of guilt and collaterally punishes a group of young men associated with the accused. The legal system eventually exonerates these young men. In the aftermath of the findings of innocence, the false accuser and those who uncritically accepted her honesty are subjected to public ridicule, just as they had earlier subjected the young men to ridicule.
The passage’s superficially neutral structure initially seems reasonable. Harris-Perry frames the case as the sum of two events: (1) the accusation and its response; and (2) the subsequent criticism (“public ridicule”) of Mangum and her validators.
Only by pondering a bit does Harris-Perry’s insidious (to borrow a word) false equivalence emerge. The initial event—the “crime”—did not occur. The second event—the embrace and exploitation of Mangum’s tale (including, although Harris-Perry carefully avoids mentioning it, by much of the faculty) despite increasingly solid evidence to the contrary—did occur. Yet Harris-Perry treats the two sets of reactions as equivalent: “the false accuser and those who uncritically accepted her honesty are subjected to public ridicule, just as they had earlier subjected the young men to ridicule.”
Even given Harris-Perry’s false equivalence, one might think that such a prominent public intellectual would be curious as to why many members of the media, the local prosecutor, and professors at Duke were so inclined to believe a false accuser. Or why a “powerful institution”—an institution of higher learning, no less, an institution supposedly devoted to pursuit of truth and knowledge—bowed to the mob.
Yet Harris-Perry offers no interest in these issues. Instead, she focuses on what she seems to see as the real victims of the case: her mentors and their pedagogical allies. She wants to know what motivated the critics of Mike Nifong and the Group of 88, and she wants to critically analyze their writings. Given that she sees racism everywhere, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out what she’s going to argue.
Here’s how Harris-Perry introduces the handiwork of her onetime mentor, Professor Lubiano:
The social disaster [Group of 88] ad argued that the faculty had gained important insights about the case and its social and cultural meaning by listening to the testimonies of students. This epistemological claim was scorned as ridiculous when the weight of DNA evidence showed that Crystal Mangum was being dishonest about the sexual assault. These black women professors, their students, and their faculty colleagues were told to be ashamed of ever believing that their own experiences, beliefs, and feelings [emphasis added] were valid.
Leave aside the wildly incomplete nature of Harris-Perry’s description—that the most inflammatory aspects of the ad (something “happened” to Mangum; thanking the protesters for not waiting; committing to action regardless of what the police or court found; falsely claiming official endorsement from several Duke academic departments) came not from professors “listening to the testimonies of students” but in the voices of the signatories themselves.
And, even, leave aside the outright inaccurate nature of Harris-Perry’s description—the ad’s claims initially were “scorned” as “ridiculous” not because of evidence emerging that Mangum had lied, but because the signatories abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to upholding due process.
Instead, consider the final sentence of the passage. In Harris-Perry’s world, the “feelings” of professors (or at least of “black women professors”) must be considered “valid”—because, as the Duke Ph.D. explains, “black feminist scholarship assumes that experiential knowledge has equal weight with empirical evidence.” How this rationale would excuse the Group members who weren’t black feminist scholars Harris-Perry never reveals.
In any event, despite Harris-Perry’s extraordinary downgrading of the importance of “empirical evidence” in the academic process, institutions of higher learning are supposed to pursue knowledge; they should not function as validators of “feelings,” even of “black women professors.”
That said, Harris-Perry’s rationale does represent an argument for “diversity” hires: academic qualifications can be deemed less important if the goal is to hire professors who will sympathize with the “feelings” of sensitive minority groups on campus, even if that means publicly attacking other students at the school. By these standards, Wahneema Lubiano—she of the perpetually-forthcoming manuscripts—is a potential Pulitzer Prize winner.
Harris-Perry’s concern for the “feelings” of “black women professors” informs her criticism of Until Proven Innocent—although she can’t manage to faithfully reproduce the book’s critique of the academic culture that spawned the Group of 88. The book, she claims, argues against “taking race and gender seriously as objects of academic inquiry.” Neither the book nor the blog, of course, ever made such a claim. The blog did critically examine some of the poor scholarship produced by race/class/gender-oriented faculty at Duke; and both the blog and the book did contend, repeatedly, that groupthink oriented around these themes has become extremely powerful not only at Duke but at most campuses, and that the effects of this groupthink explain the “activist” faculty’s rush to judgment on the case.
UPI, Harris-Perry fumes, also termed the Group of 88 “ungrateful, unpatriotic, and dangerous to the impressionable students they teach.” It’s not clear how the book could have portrayed the Group as “ungrateful,” even if had such an intent. Nor did the book even remotely touch upon the Group members’ patriotism; it would have been absurd to have done so. And both the book and the blog quite consciously stayed away from the “impressionable minds” argument. Beyond the obvious—if Lubiano teaches anything like she writes, it’s hard to imagine her leaving much of an impression on anyone—that line of criticism, most closely associated with David Horowitz’s indoctrination claims, is one I have publicly, and repeatedly, rejected. Yet much like previous Group apologists, Harris-Perry seems determined to assume that anyone who criticized the Group must have operated from Horowitzian motives.
But, in the end, Harris-Perry sees her role less as fighting David Horowitz than in providing (in Lyons’ words) a “photo negative of white racist thought.” On paper, Stuart Taylor and I don’t present inviting targets. Harris-Perry concedes that we never targeted professors based on their race or gender: while we criticized black women such as Lubiano or Holloway, we were “equally virulent in [our] critique of white male professors such as William Chafe or Peter Wood.” And she further understands that we “reserve our most virulent attacks for Nifong, a white man.”
But when “empirical evidence” won’t do, it’s time to employ other approaches to insinuate racism. By noting that Nifong’s political interest in the case came in his appealing to the black vote, Harris-Perry contends that UPI “implicate[d] the corrupting influence of black political power.” The book’s critiques of both academic and local political culture, Harris-Perry concludes, “contain powerful racial implications.” Indeed, she implies, our words tried to leave “black women professors” on Duke’s faculty with a sense of “shame.”
Under Harris-Perry’s anti-racist framework, how would any criticism of Nifong, or the Group of 88, ever have been possible? The Duke Ph.D. doesn’t claim that UPI, in having “carefully trace[d] the professional résumés and personal conduct” of several Group members, got anything wrong in its analysis of their writings, or that the book wrongly argued that the Group members’ race/class/gender agenda explained their decision to exploit Mangum’s claims for their own ends on campus. Harris-Perry doesn’t dispute the findings of UPI (and many others, including the State Bar) that Nifong’s political ambitions were linked to his unethical behavior, and that the only way he could win (in both the spring and fall 2006 campaigns) was through obtaining disproportionate black support.
It seems that using “empirical evidence” to point out the above facts constitutes inappropriate racial insensitivity. In Harris-Perry’s world, because of the moral justness of their cause, race/class/gender faculty on campus—or those who pander to black voters outside the ivory tower—must be sheltered from criticism. Any other course, alas, might disrespect their “feelings.”
At its most basic level, Harris-Perry’s book reinforces one of the basic critiques of the academy featured in this blog. In the case, Harris-Perry’s race-obsessed, evidence-thin analysis most closely resembles that of the Committee for Justice for Mike Nifong. Yet while the Committee is widely, and appropriately, viewed as a laughingstock in the legal community, Harris-Perry and her pedagogical allies are mainstream voices in the academy, and dominate most humanities and some social science departments.
And that outcome, to borrow a phrase, is nothing less than shameful.