Ron Radosh

Race, the Leftist Academy, and the Misuse of History on Behalf of Their Agenda

The latest shame of the academy is a vote by the Rutgers University New Brunswick Faculty Council calling on the administration to rescind its invitation to Condoleezza Rice as the speaker at the university’s graduation ceremonies. Rice is scheduled to give the commencement address this coming May. The professors explained their position in these words:

Condoleezza Rice … played a prominent role in (the Bush) administration’s effort to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. [She] at the very least condoned the Bush administration’s policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding. A Commencement speaker … should embody moral authority and exemplary citizenship. An honorary Doctor of Laws degree should not honor someone who participated in a political effort to circumvent the law.

No one called out the lack of tolerance for any view different than their own other than columnist Juan Williams. The African-American liberal journalist, himself a veteran of the civil rights movement and author of the classic Eyes on the Prize, was simply enraged at the faculty council’s statement and vote. Williams wrote:

Rice holds a Ph.D. in political science. She has taught college for decades. She was Provost of Stanford University. She worked her way up from a working-class family in the segregated South to the highest echelon of world power and politics.

But according to the Rutgers faculty council, all of that is negated by her service in President George W. Bush’s administration.

Williams disagreed with many of the positions Rice took as national security advisor and secretary of State under George W. Bush. Nevertheless, Williams says that she deserves the honor, and that her life and career should be an inspiration to all students, as her life “personifies the American dream.” The decision, he added, is simply one that stems from a “disgraceful double standard” by liberals, who have nothing but “hatred for black conservatives.”

Indeed, he writes: “Black Americans must be obedient liberals on all things or risk being called a race traitor or an Uncle Tom.”

Williams asks a rhetorical question: Is the faculty afraid to hear her views because they might not be equipped to refute them? The answer is “of course.” They believe that only leftist views — i.e., the truth as they see it — should be heard by those they teach. Why confuse inquiring minds with ways to see the world that are different than those of the Left?

Those opposing her, he writes, are nothing but “pompous jackass professors.”

For more evidence that many professors — in this case, historians — are exactly what Williams calls them, note the second farce to appear in recent days: an amicus curiae brief in a case before the Supreme Court, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. John Rosenberg has written a first-rate contribution dissecting the fallacies of those who support affirmative action — you can read his long version here, and a shorter one at Minding the CampusHere is the gist of his answer about what affirmative action results in on a campus, and why it is a completely wrong-headed policy:

Under affirmative action preferred minorities are, of course, given preferential treatment because of their race or ethnicity, but the rationale for the preference is not to benefit the minorities but the whites and Asians who are exposed to them. “White students interacting with African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans sometimes come with stereotypes about these minorities,” Lee Bollinger, former president of the University of Michigan, told the Michigan Daily (quoted here). “That kind of breaking down of expectations is the essence of what a liberal education is all about.” Bollinger did not address the evidence that admitting less qualified minorities who proceed to cluster at the bottom of their classes actually reinforces stereotypes of underperforming minorities.

Rushing to defend affirmative action, the brief by 75 historians was written to help the policy’s advocates in an effort to convince the justices of the Supreme Court why affirmative action should be upheld. Among the 75 are leading lights of the left-wing academy, including the red-diaper baby at Columbia Eric Foner Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard, Glenda Gilmore of Yale, Ira Berlin of the Univ. of Maryland, and many other scholars of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

The list is made up, one might say, of the big guns in the history profession. Basing their case on the 14th Amendment, they argue:

The history surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment demonstrates that the Amendment’s Framers intended to eliminate special burdens on racial minorities’ ability to seek legislative change such as the enactment of race-conscious affirmative action. 
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, newly freed slaves found themselves unable to influence the legislatures of the former Confederate states. On one side, freedmen were bounded by Northerners, some of whom were not yet interested in granting blacks the franchise. 
On the other side, freedmen who sought to persuade their neighbors and countrymen to support their reform initiatives and policy goals faced systematic exclusion, as well as outright violence, from Southern Democrats and former Confederates hostile to the notion of black freedom — let alone self- determination. Northern blacks, most Northern white Republicans, and the small number of white Republicans and Unionists who lived in the South supported the freedmen’s efforts.

They are claiming, in other words, that the 14th Amendment is violated by a state when the legislature passes a law prohibiting preferential treatment based on race. But the historians in their brief are addressing history to try to prove affirmative action is necessary. In particular, they refer to what took place after the end of the Civil War. Schools in the Reconstruction states were created for the “freedmen,” which they argue proves that “race-conscious” actions were not intended to be prohibited by the 14th Amendment.

Actually, the policies enacted then were meant to prohibit discrimination based on “previous condition of servitude,” i.e., slavery — and race was not used as a criterion for the schools of the time. Yes, the slaves were black — but those who opposed it opposed slavery per se, not just slavery when imposed on blacks. The language used in particular avoided racial categorization.

The historians argue: “[T]he Amendment precludes a state from imposing special burdens on a minority group’s ability to access the political process.” So, the real question rests on whether or not a university can demand standards for admission that all students must meet before being admitted, or whether such standards can be lowered for those who happen to be in a racial group other than white — and who would not be admitted if the standards for most high school graduates were imposed on them.

Is being subject to the same standards as whites or Asians really a “special burden,” since it would demand equal treatment by all, not special treatment for those of one racial group?

Rather than address that question in the usual way, the historians go to the past. They write about the violence imposed on the former slaves by Southern Democrats and former Confederates in the post-Civil War Southern states. As they explain: “[T]he history relevant to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment confirms the correctness of this Court’s precedents.” The core concern was to ensure “that democratic majorities in the states did not hamper freedmen (as former slaves were then called) from exercising influence in governmental processes, including the consideration of legislation, in support of their rights and interests.”

But are they correct?

Do these historians really think that comparing the plight of African-Americans in the former slave states, soon to be hounded by the KKK and other violent groups seeking to deprive the freedmen of the rights granted them, in any way compares to those African-Americans living today who seek entry to college despite not being able to pass the admission standards?

If one argues that they need to catch up and not be prevented from a college education because their material circumstances necessitated affirmative action, shouldn’t it also be extended to poor working-class whites who only made it through high school, and who are equally unprepared for college? Why is the call for affirmative action made only for African-Americans? In other words, they are arguing for the same racial standards they claim to oppose.

It is they who are using a racist argument.

The filers of the brief argue that the Court should look to events leading up to the Civil War, and then to “the legal repression and brutal racial violence that took place” in the South “immediately after the Civil War ended,” quoting one of the signers who initiated the brief, historian Paul Finkelman. The historians then wade through the history of the past, to which I have no objection. It has long been known that, although slavery was ended, the black population had its rights granted after the war slowly taken away as Reconstruction came to an end. All this is true, and one wonders why this group is seeking to acquaint the justices of the Supreme Court with this lesson, which they undoubtedly already are quite familiar with. We already know, for example, that “President [Andrew] Johnson offered amnesty and readmission to the Union [and that it] created significant obstacles to achieving [the] result” of full “civil and political rights” for the freedmen.

So I ask a very simple question: just what does this long history lesson have anything at all to do with giving African-Americans continuing entry to college through “affirmative action”?

Are they implying that, like at the end of Radical Reconstruction, blacks today are as oppressed as they were then?

Do they think that blacks today are subject to the infamous “Black Codes” imposed upon African-Americans after the racist counterrevolution that took place?

The historians note that one result was that former Southern rebels took back control of state and local governments, and thus the black freedmen turned to the national government for support. True enough. Does that mean that because the former slaves then “had no civil rights,” that today’s black population must have affirmative action?

Is the black population’s situation in the United States today the very same one the freedmen faced?

They answer by arguing that the 14th Amendment made “civil rights” something that had to be protected by that amendment to the Constitution. Violence in places like New Orleans and Memphis, they point out, led to the weakening of Reconstruction favored by the president. The result was the short-lived victory of Radical Reconstruction, during which for the first time the freed black population gained actual civil rights as well as full political rights.

According to their history, the Congress that funded these efforts made “race-conscious educational initiatives” through creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Get it? If Congress made “race-conscious” policy then, it has the right to do so now!

Congress, they write, “was attempting to address in the Fourteenth Amendment the disparity of power caused by unequal access to economic opportunity and to the public square.”

According to their own testimony, however, the treatment afforded blacks in the 1860s and ’70s prevented them from participating at all in the public sphere, and local mobs supported by the state governments used violence against the black population to see that Reconstruction would end. To give their argument merit, one would have to prove that today the black population of the United States faces the very same repressive policies inflicted on the freedmen, and that the laws of the states and the federal government also prevent African-Americans today from attaining justice.

Of course they do not even attempt to do that, although undoubtedly many of them actually believe that the situation facing African-Americans today is precisely the same as it was then. Hence their conclusion:

Nevertheless, the Congress that proposed the Fourteenth Amendment and the people who ratified it in 1868 were very much aware of the systematic exclusion of black voters. They knew full well about the violence frequently directed at blacks who advocated on behalf of freedmen’s rights. And they were familiar with the other, more subtle means used to prevent the freedmen’s concerns — in particular promotion of race-conscious affirmative assistance of the type enacted at the federal level — from consideration by state legislatures. These special burdens on racial minorities’ advocacy efforts therefore were among the principal evils against which the Fourteenth Amendment was directed.

I remind readers that the schools established were for former slaves, and were not specified as being only for African-Americans. They were giving education previously denied to both whites and blacks in the former slave states, and what they established was not “race-conscious affirmative assistance.” As John Rosenberg points out in his essay, there is a great difference between laws that protect civil rights and laws that are used to create racial preferences that are discriminatory to others, and in effect “promote racial discrimination.”

Perhaps Professors Finkelman, Foner, and the others could have simply handed out a bibliography or stood in the lobby during Court deliberations, where they could set up a table and sell their respective books. Had they done that, they would have spared themselves the task of having to draw up a brief that is a précis of what they wrote in their actual works.

The lesson to learn from their brief is not the one they believe they are teaching. Rather, the brief reveals the left-wing bias of the major figures in our academy, and reveals how they use our history to argue for racial measures today that are quite different from the ones created by Congress after the Civil War, which were meant to aid those whose civil rights had been taken from them.

Once again, our leading historians have joined others — like the Rutgers faculty — in arguing on racial grounds. Like the historians, the Rutgers group has effectively said they can determine who really is African-American by the beliefs they hold, and since Condoleezza Rice disagrees with them, she cannot be allowed to speak to students who might exit thinking that a black Republican just might have something to say.

It is a day for members of the academy to bow their heads in shame.