Spinning Race at Harvard

The Business Behind the Gates-West Power Play

Cornel West, a professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, says he's sore that all the noise about his unhappy job review from the Harvard president has given critics an opening to question his scholarship and that of his colleagues. If that's the case, he shouldn't have called the press in the first place.

Lawrence Summers, Harvard's new president, criticized West about grade inflation, outside pursuits that absented him from class (including his rap CD), and suggested he do a work of serious scholarship. A controversy blew up as West announced that he felt "insulted" by Summers, with the pundits chiming in here and abroad.

West threatened to quit and move to Princeton, a threat joined by both Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Harvard's Afro-American studies department and W.E.B. DuBois Institute, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy.

Apparently the press attention was welcomed by the West-Gates Dream Team. The biggest stink was made by national talk show host Tom Joyner, who exhorted his 30 million listeners to contact the Harvard president. Maybe Joyner was so concerned because, in 2000, he became partners with Gates and McDonald's in a deal to sell black history booklets with the purchase of a meal. A tie-in with Scholastic produced a teacher's curriculum guide, sent to nearly 18,000 high schools, distributed by Coca-Cola. McDonald's announced at the time that both Joyner and Gates were serving as national spokesmen for the promotion.

When Shelby Steele, the conservative race scholar, complained about the Harvard flap in The Wall Street Journal, he was answered in the same paper by another West-Gates colleague, William Julius Wilson, like West one of only 14 "university" professors at Harvard—the school's most prestigious title. When his article was circulated electronically by Harvard Law School's Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who serves as the Dream Team's lawyer, a note was left attached: "Tree: Here is the WSJ letter that Skip asked me to write."

And the Dream Team had other spinmeisters talking up a theory that right-wingers were behind Summers, that he's friends with conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, etc. Summers, former Treasury secretary under Clinton, had by all reports spoken to a number of faculty, black and white, about their jobs too, and while some admire him as an intellectual, no one has said he's a tactful darling. But neither Summers nor any of the other faculty he has privately upset went public with the content of their conversations. Voice phone calls to Gates and West for this story were not returned.

The most damning aspect of West's power play is the possible backlash for academics, black and white, in African American studies all over the country. These thousands of scholars, some doing brilliant and unheralded work, have struggled for respectability for years, and they don't need the kind of fallout that comes when privileged men call the race troops to arms for no greater reason than to enhance their already cushy careers.

Rutgers University professor David Levering Lewis, author of the award-winning two-volume biography W.E.B. DuBois, was in residence at Harvard's history department and taught some of West's classes during West's recent medical leave. Lewis, who's pretty sanguine about the dustup, says he's "glad to know Harvard is interested in academic standards" and that he suspected "it's been much overblown." In situations like this, he said, "people reach for the maximum uppercase noun, LIBERTY, FREEDOM, etc., but I doubt if a commitment to this field of study is in jeopardy."

But others were more disturbed. Robin D.G. Kelley, NYU professor of history and author of the impressive Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, says he finds Summers's remarks "more than disrespectful." He objects to the notion that a professor's politics would be called into question, saying, "We're all involved in politics to a certain degree." The fear for the field, he says, is "if the president of Harvard could bring the country's top Afro-American department down a notch, I can't imagine what deans might do at other institutions where there is no respect for what we do."

Kelley also says it's his impression that the DuBois Institute and the Afro-American Studies department had struggled hard to accomplish so much. And in the end, Kelley said, Summers might opt to back his own guys while disparaging the larger field, reinforcing their immunity from the woes others suffer.

Elizabeth Alexander, associate professor adjunct in African American studies at Yale, was a student of Gates's. "Wouldn't it be nice," she asks, "if this event were yoked to a broader analysis of how these institutions have not done anything for non-elite scholars? West's job is to make an analysis that goes beyond his own circumstance." She says the Dream Team ought to spell out their complaints with Harvard's affirmative action process, and should also embrace the employee wage issues still in contention there.

But another Ivy League professor, who does not wish to be named, was more aggrieved: "It is tawdry to be called upon to go to bat in what is really a negotiation for further job advantage, when people are out of work, millions are going without health care, and there are real problems." He may be right. A January 10 New York Times report states that Summers's office says that talks with the principals continue, "including discussions that would match Princeton offers." Gates and Appiah visited Princeton last fall—have they been considering this shift for a while?

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