Letters for the week of December 22-28, 2004 

Much disagreement about our guest essay blaming Berkeley's African American Studies Department for declining black enrollment at Cal.

"Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department?," Feature Sidebar, 12/1

Doing Christian a disservice
Although Cecil Brown's column raises many important issues, his implicit assertion that Professor Barbara Christian was a pawn in "the university's reactionary strategy to keep African Americans in line" is both obnoxious and absolutely untrue. Barbara Christian rolled over for nobody! She fought the administration for African-American students and other students of color, and Cecil Brown's divisive ugly remarks serve no one, not even his egotistical self.
Lynda Koolish, Ph.D, Berkeley

Your numbers were wrong
The numbers you cite in your essay are wrong. Brown says that there are only eight black graduate students at Cal, six of whom are in African-American Studies. I can count more than two black students at the Graduate School of Journalism alone -- and at 114 students, we only account for a tiny fraction of the graduate student population here.

Black Graduate Engineering and Science Students is an organization of black engineering graduate students that has eight elected officers -- not eight members, eight officers. (BGESS.berkeley.edu/organization.html) Where did you get your statistics from?
Joe Mullin, Oakland

Faking the facts
Cecil Brown's recent piece is xenophobic and incorrect. He claims that non-African-American blacks are "faking the funk." But in fact he's faking the facts. His article offers a series of facts that are almost entirely incorrect, most of his interpretations are difficult to defend, and he says more by its silences than by what it mentions. The only good thing in it is the opportunity it gives us to address one of the most important issues at UC Berkeley right now -- the dismal and declining numbers of people of color, including, of course, African Americans, and the need to implement comprehensive campuswide mechanisms to correct it.

Does he have anything right? At least one fact -- there are fewer black faculty and students here than ever before (and fewer black staff). This is also true for Latinos and Native Americans. The numbers are not only embarrassing, they are shameful. When I was a graduate student in sociology in the mid-'80s, you could not walk though Sproul Plaza without seeing a couple of hundred black students. Now you can traverse the entire campus and be lucky to see a handful. Thank the abolition of affirmative action, and both masked and direct racist stereotypes for that. The university is patently failing to fulfill its public service mission. And he is right to convey the pain, humiliation, and anger many of our black students feel as a result of being treated as second-class citizens, undeserving of places at Cal, or as the victims of outright racial hostility.

But most of the "facts" he asserts are, in fact, wrong. He is wrong on the number of African-American professors, wrong on the number of black female professors, wrong on the number of black graduate students, and wrong on the number of Caribbean immigrants who have been chair of the Department of African American Studies. According to departmental records, there have been nine chairs of the department (including myself) since it was established in 1970. All but two of them were African American. Besides, the issue is not just the record, but the competence and commitment. Being African American does not guarantee that the issues necessary for the advancement of African-American studies will be advanced. If that were true, why don't we put Condoleezza Rice or Clarence Thomas in charge?

He is also wrong that the department is "partly the reason we don't have more black students and professors at Berkeley." African American Studies has a very high proportion of both black faculty and black graduate students on campus -- immigrant and indigenous, for that matter -- and we continue to attract vast numbers of African-American students to courses in the department. This is true despite the fact that the university, through the American Cultures requirement, now offers more courses that cover African Americans than ever before in its history. We believe that this is the case because of our commitment to covering the lives and cultures of African Americans, and because we do so in a way that no other department does. We also offer the largest black graduation ceremony on the West Coast.

In addition to xenophobic, he is insulting and incorrect over Barbara Christian and Percy Hintzen. He is wrong about nationality and he is wrong about their commitment to African-American Studies and to African Americans.

First of all, Barbara Christian was born in the US -- in the US Virgin Islands -- a US citizen and remained a US citizen all her life. Her specialty was African-American women's literature, and I can say without fear of contradiction that she did more to advance the priorities, concerns, and interests of African-American women than any other person on campus. At her memorial service in 2000 African-American women, more than any other group, got up and testified to her commitment, dedication, and suffering for their cause. Furthermore, Percy Hintzen has recruited more African-American faculty and more African-American graduate students than any other department chair on this campus. And not just marginally, but by a vast majority. Rather than being hostile to African Americans, as Brown falsely claims, both Christian and Hintzen have dedicated their entire careers (Barbara dedicated her life) to advancing the primacy of African-American studies and the case of African Americans, in the university, in the nation, and world. As a result of their efforts, our department currently offers more courses on African Americans than it does on any other black group or nation.

Brown's arguments are based on crude and unworkable categories. The distinction between Africans, Caribbeans, and African Americans is not always as clear-cut as it seems. Some of our black students were born in the USA to two Caribbean parents, or to one Caribbean and one African-American parent. Some were born in Africa or the Caribbean, but have spent 90 percent of their lives in the US. To suggest that the distinction is clear-cut -- that we are comparing immigrants fresh off the boat, with indigenous people here for centuries -- is false. And he seems to be suggesting that we should appoint people based on nationality alone. Shouldn't we look at knowledge, research, teaching and commitment, and other skills? Would you rather a Clarence Thomas -- 100 percent Negro -- or a Marcus Garvey or Stokely Carmichael, immigrants that they were? Should the voters in Illinois diselect Barack Obama because he was born in Hawaii and lived most of his life abroad?

The only useful thing in Brown's article is to draw our attention to the dismal state of affairs for blacks on campus (and for other people of color, for that matter). The new chancellor, Robert Bigeneau, has made numerous statements that he, too, is gravely concerned about these issues and intends to do something about it. I think we should give him the time to do so.

Black immigrants owe a debt to African Americans who struggled in the civil rights movement and in setting up black studies departments. The whole nation should be in their debt. But according to the books I read and the people I talk to, it was never intended that such departments should be exclusively for and about African Americans. They were set up, in large part, to bring serious discussion of African Americans and Africans to the entire US population, black and nonblack. If the department ends up teaching only blacks I think that would be a major loss for black people, and for the nation as a whole.

We must have a debate about the nature and future of African-American studies -- especially in a national climate in which whitewashing seems to be the order of the day. But when we have that debate, it must be based on concern for our future as people of African descent, in the US and elsewhere, and with a focus on African Americans as the priority. This debate should be informed by the complexities of race and nation, and the reality of politics in the contemporary United States. When we disagree, it should be with measured criticism and appreciation of realistic alternatives. But it should also be based on the facts and an informed analysis of our collective future, not our individual grievances. Times they are a-changin', and we should change with them. Fakin' the facts won't help.
Stephen Small, chairman, UC Berkeley Department of African American Studies, Berkeley

The December 1 essay "Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department?" contained several factual errors. Perhaps most notable was the erroneous assertion that "Caribbean professors have run the African-American department at Cal since it was established in the early '70s." In fact, only three of the department's nine chairpersons have been of Caribbean origin, and one of them was an American citizen from the US Virgin Islands. As for the number of black teachers on campus, our assertion that "most" of Cal's forty-odd black teachers are immigrants seems to have been in error; representatives of the department say that only a handful are immigrants.

The essay went on to say that Cal's African American Studies Department and its globalized focus on "Diaspora Studies" was partly to blame for the lack of black students and faculty at Cal. While that assertion was clearly the opinion of the article's author, the essay may have left the impression that former department chairs Percy Hintzen and the late Barbara Christian were uninterested in recruiting black students or teachers to Cal. In fact, both were vocal supporters of affirmative action on campus.


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