Has 'Whiteness Studies' Run Its Course at Colleges?

By Kellogg, Alex P | St. Joseph News-Press, January 31, 2012 | Go to article overview

Has 'Whiteness Studies' Run Its Course at Colleges?


Kellogg, Alex P, St. Joseph News-Press


(CNN) -- Among university departments that study African- American history, Latin American or Chicano cultures and all varieties of ethnicities and nationalities, there's a relatively obscure field of academic inquiry: whiteness studies.

While there are no standalone departments dedicated to the field, interdisciplinary courses on the subject quietly gained traction on college and university campuses nationwide in the 1990s. Today, there are dozens of colleges and universities, including American University in Washington, D.C., and University of Texas at Arlington, that have a smattering of courses on the interdisciplinary subject of whiteness studies.

The field argues that white privilege still exists, thanks largely to structural and institutional racism, and that the playing field isn't level, and whites benefit from it. Using examples such as how white Americans tend not to be pulled over by the police as often as blacks and Latinos, or how lenders targeted blacks and Latinos for more expensive, subprime loans during the recent U.S. housing crisis, educators teach how people of different races and ethnicities often live very different lives.

Most of the instructors specialize in sociology, philosophy, political science and history, most of them are liberal or progressive, and most of them are, in fact, white. Books frequently used as textbooks in these courses include "How the Irish Became White" by Noel Ignatiev, an American history professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and "The History of White People" by Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of American history at Princeton; but the field has its roots in the writings of black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and author James Baldwin.

In the past, detractors have said the field itself demonizes people who identify as white.

But today, academics who teach the classes say they face a fresh hurdle, one that has its roots on the left instead of the right: the election of Barack Obama as America's first black president.

"Having Obama is, in a curious way, putting us behind," says Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

Bonilla-Silva, the author of books like "Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America" and "White Supremacy & Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era," says it is harder than ever before to convince college students that studying white privilege is a worthwhile or necessary endeavor.

To many students the election of Obama represents the culmination of decades of racial progress, they say.

"You have a growing racial apathy. People are telling you, I don't want to hear about race, because we're beyond that," Bonilla- Silva says. "But we still have a white America and a black America."

Other academics who study what they see as America's racial hierarchy say they struggle to teach that racial inequality remains a problem, and that it must be addressed. They point to more subtle indicators of structural racism like the fact that the overwhelming majority of CEOs are white men, and a vastly disproportionate number of convicted felons are black and Latino.

These academics generally agree that the end of slavery, the dismantling of Jim Crow and the election of a black president are all clear signs that things are getting better.

But that progress has slanted the mainstream narrative too far into positive terrain, they argue, leaving many to think that racial equality has arrived. Even some young students of color are more skeptical than ever before.

That's dangerous, they argue. …

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