Columbia University's African American Studies criticized by conservative website

Historians in the News

... Political activism and one-sided instruction are also the dominant characteristics of the African Studies department. For example, the course “Introduction to African American Studies” (AFAS C1001) makes no attempt to conceal the fact that one of its goals is to promote “social change” -- that is, political activism: “This introductory course in the African-American experience is largely constructed around the voices and language used by black people themselves. The course is organized chronologically, with an emphasis on the ideas of black social thought, political protest and efforts to initiate social change.”

The course description also suggests that the course portrays the history of black Americans, even contemporary black history, as a struggle against oppression. Thus, the themes the course purports to explore include “ways for the black community to survive discrimination and oppression” and how “black people have managed to sustain themselves in the face of almost constant adversity.” Moreover, according to the course description, “what brings together nearly all representatives of the black experience are the common efforts to achieve the same goals: the elimination of racism, the realization of democratic rights and greater social fairness within a racially pluralistic society, and achievement of cultural integrity of the black community.”

The claim that American society continues to discriminate against blacks is an opinion, rather than a fact, and an academic course should be expected, at the very least, to provide contrary perspectives on the black experience. The course does not do so. Instead, it is based primarily on the writings of the more radical black thinkers, who hold to just this view of the United States. For instance, a text frequently used throughout the course is Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform and Renewal: An African-American Anthology, is an anthology of writings edited by the course's professor, Manning Marable. Marable is a member of the “central committee” of a Communist splinter group called the Committees on Correspondence. The latter half of his anthology is devoted almost exclusively to the writings of radical activists. Among them are essays by “black Bolshevists,“ including one by communist poet Claude McKay paying tribute to the “freedom” and the support for “the Negro” in Soviet Russia. Other communist writers include Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, as well as former Black Panther Party members Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton. In obvious sympathy with these writers, the book omits all mention of the Black Panther Party's racist platform and its record of crimininality, including drug trafficking, rape, extortion and murder, explaining instead that the party's “armed confrontations with police and the free educational and the health-care programs they sponsored for poor communities conferred upon the Panthers an almost legendary status.” Likewise, an introduction to an essay by Mumia Abu Amal describes the death-row inmate and convicted cop-killer as “America's most celebrated and controversial prisoner on death row.” Beyond such blatantly polemical works, students are encouraged to watch films and visit the websites of anti-prison activists. These include films like Critical Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex, made by the far-Left Video Activist Network, and websites like, which rail against the “prison industrial complex.”

Having absorbed -- without the benefit of differing scholarly perspectives -- the course's underlying claim that Black Americans remain victims in modern-day America, students are required to apply this knowledge to becoming political activists. This is the transparent aim of the “service-learning” component of this course. In order to better understand the “theory you are exposed to in the classroom and throughout the assigned texts,” students are required to volunteer with four pre-approved organizations that work with the black community. Through this work, students can “understand your social responsibility.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Because, in the ideological schema imposed of the course, Black communities are “oppressed,” students are informed that by volunteering they will be “empowering those who have no voice.” Apparently, the fact that a leading presidential contender, Barack Obama is Black, as is the Secretary of State, does not reflect the contrary. Accordingly, students can volunteer with the Harlem Education Activities Fund, where they can take part in the so-called “Social Identity Program.” Alternatively, students may volunteer with Harlem Fifty, an organization that works with young Black men who have spent time in prison for criminal activity. The idea behind this experience, according to the course description, is to train students to see Black Americans not as individuals responsible for their own actions but as victims of unjust policies.

An integral part of the volunteer project is the creation of an open space in which Columbia students and Harlem Fifty's young Black men can discuss the impact of the African American experience in the United States. They are the effects of many of the policies inflicted on African American communities, and together, you will be able why and how this has come about.

Once the volunteer project is completed, students are required to write a “reflection paper” relating the political themes promoted in the course to their community activism. “Crucial to writing a successful reflection paper is the ability to connect theory and practice,” the course description notes. So as to arrive at predetermined political conclusions, students are asked to consider a series of purposely leading questions. The following are some examples:

Where you able to find any connection between the history of African Americans in the United States and what the students or trainees you worked with currently experience in their daily lives?
How have your experiences in the community helped you learn about structural racism today?
In what way did you encounter structural racism at your organizations or with the people you worked?
What change is needed for the groups of people you worked with?
How can this change be accomplished: with individual action or collective action--within the system or challenging the system?
What privilege did others bring? What systems are the sources of such privilege? How are you or others disempowered by your/their lack of such privilege?
Whether there is in fact “structural racism” should be a question not an assumption or point of departure for an academic course. By grading students on the basis of political criteria, the course establishes arbitrary standards that have no place in an academic setting. That the course promotes one-sided political views is objectionable enough. That students' grades depend on the extent to which they embrace its political line is a travesty of the educational enterprise.

Professor Marable combines political activism and classroom instruction in another course he teachers in the African Studies department, “Critical Approaches to African American Studies” (G4510y). The course description reveals Professor Marable's view that the principal goal of African American Studies is to train students for political activism: Black Studies is “prescriptive,” presenting theoretical and programmatic models designed to empower black people in the real world. By its very nature, it requires a “praxis” - the unity of critical analysis and social action, the production of new ideas, not merely designed to interpret the world, but change it.

This course description is repeated almost verbatim from Professor Marable's introduction to Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience, a book that is also required reading for this course. In it, Professor Marable writes there is “a practical connection between scholarship and struggle, between social analysis and social transformation.” Marable further describes African American Studies as a “means to dismantle powerful racist intellectual categories and white supremacy itself,” and states that “black studies must…be an oppositional critique of the existing power arrangements and relations that are responsible for the systemic exploitation of black people.”

Professor Marable's motivations are political not academic. Accordingly, he does not assign readings that challenge his radical critique of American society, as an academic professional would, but provides students with a menu of texts that reinforce his ideological prejudices and promote their agendas. These texts include his polemic Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America's Racial Future. In this book, Professor Marable rejects the historical “master narrative” that American society has extended certain rights and benefits to its black citizens. On the contrary, according to Professor Marable, American society is “historically organized around structural racism.” Marable calls for “popular resistance to the new racial domain” that in his view “oppresses' blacks in modern America.

One can detect the indelible stamp of political advocacy in many other courses in the department. The course “Black Intellectuals Seminar: Pan-Africanism and Internationalism, 1900-1975” (AFAS C3936) is billed not as an academic survey of pan-African ideology but as a recruitment to this very cause. “The overall aim of the course is for students to gain structured, critical, but appreciative knowledge of and insights into the variety of Pan-African ideas and intellectuals,” explains the course description. That the aim of a properly academic course is not to encourage students to think in specific ways about the subjects under discussion is nowhere mentioned, and other courses demonstrate equivalent ignorance on this score.

The course “Topics in the Black Experience Seminar: The Novels & Career of Toni Morrison,” (AFAS C3930/003) is not a critical survey of the author’s work, as one might expect in an academic course, but a blatant exercise in hagiography: In the course description, Morrison is declaratively described as “the greatest African-American writer of the 20th century whose place in the American literary canon is “above many white American male authors.”

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