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'White Money' and Black Studies Departments

ED GORDON, host:

GORDON: In the 1960's, black university students across the country staged protests with a range of demands, including that black history be taught in a new way. As a result, hundreds of black studies programs were established. What many didn't know at the time was that these departments were established and often shaped with the help of private institutional funds. Noliwe Rooks is associate director of African American studies at Princeton University, and she says that money came at a cost. In her new book, White Money, Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education, Rooks explores how outside donors shape the internal politics of black studies.

Ms. NOLIWE ROOKS (Associate Director of African American Studies, Princeton University): White philanthropy, or what I talk about in the book was mostly the Ford Foundation, had a real agenda around what the utility of African American studies would be and how it was going to be implemented. It's not the case that only programs that Ford supported were implemented. It is the case, however, that the view of what black studies could do took precedence over the views that a lot of black students on campuses were arguing for.

GORDON: It was to a great degree, if you will, a preemptive measure. One of the charters in the book, McGeorge Bundy, who in fact at the time was newly installed president of the Ford Foundation, understood the importance of being able to direct this new harness power, didn't he?

Ms. ROOKS: Mm-hmm. Yes. They were really worried that black studies was being implemented so quickly all over the country. McGeorge Bundy and the program officers that he was working with were afraid that an opportunity for institutional change would not be able to actually flourish if universities across the country kept a sort of say and hears give them black studies. One of the interesting things I've found is that a lot of black studies programs and departments were instituted on campuses where nobody was asking for them. But administrators said this will preempt some of the upheaval and violence that we think might be coming down the pike.

So, Bundy and his program officers said, well, we have these programs. Almost 200 were implemented within 12 months of the first program in 1968 at San Francisco State. Twelve months later, there were almost 200 in the pipeline. A year and a half later, there was almost 500. So, yes, they wanted to have it mean something very specific on college campuses and not just be this moment of give them something, let the programs disappear, and the black studies sort of goes off into the sunset.

GORDON: One of the things that's interesting in the book as well is the historical view of, "black studies departments" and where they are, and what they have turned into today. Some see them as stepchildren on campuses. Others suggest that they are a dying breed of studies that is not seen as a first-class academic pursuit by those who major in them. And you've been involved in this life for some time. Talk to me about how you see the genre, if you will, today.

Ms. ROOKS: Well, part of what I talk about in the book are the competing demands placed on black studies. Administrators came to see black studies as a quasi affirmative action program, as a way of being attractive to black students and black faculty. At the same time, you have African American faculty who have been arguing for the intellectual utility of black studies.

GORDON: What of the sense, as we have seen over the course of the last few years, the controversy in terms of who's in charge, who determines directions of these departments? We've seen the exodus from Harvard to Princeton of many noted black scholars and the debate at Harvard as to whether or not the direction should be placed in firm hands of the department, etc., etc. Are these normal university fights, or is there something slightly different here?

Ms. ROOKS: Well, they are, of course, normal. University faculties fight about different kinds of turf battles, but around the issue of black studies, it's a little more pressing how these debates are shaping up because the idea of black studies as an affirmative action program, as a way to recruit black students, is so firmly rooted in the minds of administrators, that as we're looking at affirmative action as a long term strategy, we're not clear how long we're going to have with it. Sandra Day O'Connor gave an arbitrary number of 25 years. There's a new Supreme Court. We don't know.

GORDON: What do you see as the biggest difference in today's black studies department versus those of nearly four decades ago, outside of the obvious? There seems to be in many people's minds an ambivalence not only amongst the universities oft times, but many of the black American students who do not see this as a real important measure to keep on the books.

Ms. ROOKS: One of the reasons I think looking back at the past is important around black studies is because you so often hear students say things like, well, I'm black, why do I need to take black studies? And this idea that intellectual contribution is not central to African American studies has trickled down. So today there's a big disconnect between black communities, black students, and black studies.

It seems like very generation we are subject to front page news about the pain and despair of racial inequity in this country, but every 10 to 15 years, if it's not Katrina, it's the Rodney King riot, if it's not the Rodney King riot, it's the civil rights movement where people are having dogs and hoses set on them. Ever generation bears a defining moment that black studies, I believe, has a long enough history and enough expertise to start to address the structural issues that lead to those moments so we can stop having them. So we can stop saying, how could this be true in America?

GORDON: Let me ask you the $64,000 question before we let you go, and that is whether or not the elimination of the stigma of black studies in terms of it going away, can that happen if you cannot eliminate the mindset of almost anything being black being deemed as inferior by the majority culture?

Ms. ROOKS: One of the things I talk about in the book are the numbers of white students and non-black students that African American studies has the opportunity to come in contact with and make substantial changes for. If you take all of our classes together, most of who we're educating are not black students. But our classes are among the most popular with the highest evaluations where we have students talking about the substantive change we have made in the way that they think about America.

And if you look at what black studies is actually doing on campuses and get it out of the way that we only view it as an affirmative action program, or something that well meaning white people gave to black people in the 1970's that no longer has any relevance, you'll see that there are answers to pressing problems around democracy and justice that black studies has a roadmap for.

GORDON: Well, Noliwe Rooks, assistant director of African American Studies at Princeton University. The book is called White Money, Black Power. We thank you for joining us today.

Ms. ROOKS: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.