Has ‘whiteness studies’ run its course at colleges?
Cable News Network (CNN)
In America: You define America. What defines you?
Alex P. Kellogg, Special to 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…
…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.
“The typical college student will always say ‘What racial inequality? Look at the White House,’” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “I have to first convince them that inequality exists.”…
…Charles Mills says he, too, has a fresh sense that many faculty and students are more skeptical of his work since Obama’s election. Mills is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. His first book, “The Racial Contract,” is widely taught in courses on U.S. college campuses.
Mills, like other scholars who study whiteness, argues in his courses that whites in particular have a self-interest in seeing the world as post-racial. In that world, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. The advantage of this perspective, he says, is that it allows your success in life not to be determined by race, but by how hard you work.
“Obama’s election meant to many white Americans that we’re in a post-racial epoch,” says Mills, even if most indicators show that we’re not…
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