Has ‘Whiteness Studies’ Run Its Course?

Alex P. Kellogg, WTAE (Pittsburg), February 1, 2012

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.

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{snip} Even some young students of color are more skeptical than ever before.

That’s dangerous, they argue.

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For now, the field continues to evolve. The annual White Privilege Conference, to be held this March in Albuquerque, N.M., is now in its 13th year. Organizers are expecting to draw several thousand people, from college professors to high school students.

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