White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education

White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education

by Noliwe Rooks

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The history of African American studies is often told as a heroic tale, with compelling images of black power and passionate African American students who refused to take no for an answer. Noliwe M. Rooks argues for the recognition of another story, which proves that many of the programs that survived actually began as a result of white philanthropy. With unflinching… See more details below


The history of African American studies is often told as a heroic tale, with compelling images of black power and passionate African American students who refused to take no for an answer. Noliwe M. Rooks argues for the recognition of another story, which proves that many of the programs that survived actually began as a result of white philanthropy. With unflinching honesty, Rooks shows that the only way to create a stable future for African American studies is by confronting its complex past.

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White Money/Black Power

The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education

By Noliwe M. Rooks Beacon Press

Copyright © 2007 Noliwe M. Rooks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780807032718

Chapter One


The Ford Foundation and Black Studies

In I968, while under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, the former national security advisor in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the Ford Foundation began to craft and then fund a strategy aimed at ensuring a complication-free birth and life for African American Studies on college campuses. It was an act that would be denounced by the United States Congress as an attempt at social engineering. In keeping with the late-1960s world-view, African American Studies (then termed Black Studies) was envisioned and proposed by the Ford Foundation as a means to desegregate and integrate the student bodies, faculties, and curricula of colleges and universities in ways that would mirror the public school systems that had been ordered by the Supreme Court to free themselves from "separate but equal" racial educational systems. Within that context, African American Studies programs were viewed as a positive response to the increasingly strident calls for social and political redress made by African American students, as well as a means of responding to the unprecedented increase in the numbers of African Americanstudents entering colleges and universities during that politically turbulent period. Those early strategies around institutionalizing Black Studies, funded by Bundy and the Ford Foundation, currently threaten the very viability of African American Studies and have implications for how we think about, discuss, and understand both affirmative action and racial integration within colleges and universities today. While African American Studies programs and departments are still a central means of ensuring broad-based discussions about race, as well as the presence of Black students and faculty in American higher education, there has been a truly ironic development: As "Black Studies" became "African American, Africana, and African Diaspora Studies," Black students and faculty on white college campuses were less frequently African American-a trend that has increased. Indeed, the very question of what we mean when we say "Black students" has become a contested issue in and of itself. In 2005, increasing numbers of Black students are the children or grandchildren of first- or second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa. These students compose between 40 to nearly 80 percent of Black students on elite college campuses. In short, Black no longer means African American. As a result, if Black Studies was originally a tool used by colleges and universities to foster integration of faculties and curricula, and to achieve social justice, by recruiting African American students and faculty, today such programs have begun to signal a compelling shift in what we mean when we speak of affirmative action in relation to Black students. This is a far cry from the circumstances surrounding Black Studies at its founding, and a very different set of concerns from those McGeorge Bundy and the Ford Foundation first sought to address.

Much of this book is about student protest, the politics of racial integration on college campuses, and the politics surrounding the creation of the first departments of African American Studies. The story centers on a history of student protest traditions that are raced in ways not always acknowledged, and covers a time when violence and militancy, wrapped in the rhetoric of Black nationalism, were embraced as a viable strategy to effect social change. It is this latter point that is generally the most difficult to appreciate as we gaze back at a time not far removed from the present. While it was difficult for many in 1968 to accept the rhetoric around the political and social changes called for by students-a rhetoric that demanded colleges and universities discard their antiquated ideas about what constituted an educated individual-no one anticipated the institutional changes or the violence that would erupt when student protest began to center on a desire for a "relevant" education, an education that was capable both of helping to radicalize students and of addressing and ending the racial and economic inequities in the United States. On hundreds of campuses, students linked such calls for relevancy to the formation of Black Studies programs and departments. In halls hallowed and profane, with walls ivied or unadorned, in locales northern, southern, eastern and western, the arrival of Black Studies on predominantly white college campuses was often announced and preceded by cries of "Black Power!" and clenched fists raised in what was universally understood to be the Black Power salute. There were usually calls for increased levels of financial aid for Black students, and demands for the hiring of Black faculty who would teach a radical new curriculum that would educate, empower, and ultimately free not just the students taking the classes, but all Black people. At times the raised hands held signs; on other occasions, they clutched rifles or guns. Sometimes the hands were empty and raised only to cover heads as violent blows rained down.

Two things stand out from that period that are particularly relevant to the student strike that led to the founding of the first department of Black Studies. First, during the period, students offered a profound critique of the society's handling of racial exclusion, and second, the broad participation of white and brown college students in demands for an end to elitist and Eurocentric higher education was widespread. This second point is not widely known. Indeed, when I was writing this book, and told people it was about the history and contemporary meaning of Black Studies, the response, given the association between the field and Black student unrest, was generally something like: "That should be really exciting. It's about time someone focused on what Black students were up to back then." I rarely told people that what fascinated me was not necessarily the protest of Black students, but the fact that the first student strike-leading to the first department of Black Studies-was decidedly interracial and democratic. Those who participated sought nothing less than a fundamental reorganization of the aims of higher education.

This is one of the unremarked-upon legacies of the movement that spawned Black Studies as a field in America. Although the familiar narrative chronicling the beginning of Black Studies generally centers on Black student protest and violence, in reality, at San Francisco State, Black, white, Native American, Asian, and Latino students rose up together, joined forces, and made or supported unequivocal demands. Eighty percent of the 18,000 students supported the strike by refusing to attend classes. Thousands of students and faculty staffed daily picket lines, holding signs declaring, "This Strike Is Against Racism." Many politicians in California believed that the strike was a sign that communism or anarchy was poised to rule the day, and just as many students believed that a cultural and social revolution was under way. Within that context, a department of Black Studies was both fought for and feared. Its existence meant very different things to many different constituencies. The battle waged on many college campuses sought to realign and redefine the very meaning of democracy, citizenship, and social justice. If America was to live up to the ideals of inclusion so much at the heart of the civil rights movement and the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, college campuses would need to provide an accessible education. Education would have to be inviting to poor and disenfranchised students of all races, but especially to nonwhite students.

I rarely went into such detail when giving the two-sentence description of the book. Crafting a narrative about the beginning of Black Studies that includes white, Asian, Latino, and Native American students is so far removed from what most people think of when conjuring the history of the field, that it necessitates a fundamental rethinking of what many believe to be self-evident facts. Overwhelmingly, history has forgotten that any but Black students were ever involved in the student strike that produced Black Studies at San Francisco State. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that attempts to reinsert white students into that history can sound a discordant note and disrupt comforting visual, historical, and oral narratives. Certainly, when my thirteen-year-old son watches newsreel footage of the police attacking striking students at San Francisco State, he does not take particular note of the images of police officers pointing guns at, pushing, beating, and arresting Black student protesters. He does, however, notice and comment on each and every white student who is bloodied by batons wielded by the white police officers. "But those are WHITE people they are beating," he repeats with a mantralike regularity. Because he has grown up surrounded by discussions and images of Black protest in many different eras, I did not initially understand what was causing his comments. 1 came to realize that his response had as much to do with his familiarity with civil rights-era images of African Americans under assault by a Southern police force, as it did with his unfamiliarity with images of whites suffering similar kinds of brutal attacks. It became clear after his first ten minutes of viewing the footage that he had certainly not envisioned that a movement centering on Black freedom could have been interracial. He did not know that any but African Americans could have had an interest and investment in racial and social justice. Images of firehoses shooting water, dogs attacking, and batons raining down on the heads of those who look so much like my son are ubiquitous, raised to the level of art by the photographers who chronicled the movement to end legal segregation in the South. As a result, he sees, but in many ways does not notice, the Black bodies sacrificed at the altar of democracy and equality in those same photographs. Such images are for him historical relics from another era; as he once said, when he was about five, "Martin Luther King freed the slaves in the south." However, he has rarely if ever seen cries of "Black Power" accompanied by scenes of police brutality against whites. He had certainly never heard the story narrated by a white singer intoning the words to a hastily written song, as he accompanied himself on the guitar: "Brother Malcolm went to Mecca, to see what he could see. He saw that we all must be brothers and we must fight for liberty. And we must fight for what is right. Niggers of the world unite. For whites to get behind now is right." Such an image would probably bring many of us up short.

"Did they know they were protesting for Black Studies?" my son asks me and his father and the television and himself. They did know, but the story, given the complicated nature of the period, is much more complex than he can ever imagine.

Racial inclusion, white philanthropy, and historical memory are ultimately at the center of the creation story of African American Studies and at the core of this book. In many ways, the question of memory is the most difficult to do justice to here, and that question once led me to wonder if this was a story I should indeed share.


There are no monuments, holidays, or commemorative stamps that ask us as a nation to mark the founding moment for Black Studies programs. It is difficult even to determine the moment that led to the founding of the first department. Was it at San Francisco State College, where the first department was ultimately started in 1969, as a result of an ugly and protracted student strike, or was the Black student strike at Howard University in March of 1968 the most significant event? Howard's was the first of many student strikes to come, and it set the tone and strategy for increasingly radicalized and militant students in all parts of the United States, including those at San Francisco State. It is telling that we as a country do not grapple with or debate questions such as these concerning the founding of Black Studies.

In fact, the late 1960s and early 1970s are largely absent from our discussions of political promise and multiracial dreams. There are no heartrending calls on the part of leaders, elected or not, to reflect upon the sacrifice of those who died or were injured in an effort to institute Black Studies departments. There is little in our shared culture that reminds us that the Black Power movement happened and that one of its lasting contributions was the formation of Black Studies departments and programs. If we reflect on it at all, we tend to remember the period as a jumble of images: cities burning, Black fists raised in a salute, and Afros framing Black faces. Nonetheless, how we remember matters.

Memory is both public and private, both historical and contemporary. Increasingly, as I attempt to make sense of the key moments, upheavals, court rulings, personalities, and historical context of the period when Black Studies was first instituted, and grapple with the question of what such programs and departments mean today, I wonder if how we remember tells us more about our past or our present. Is the movement that birthed Black Studies programs and departments a historical relic, a cultural occasion for self-congratulatory glad-handing, or the foundation of programs that today function as a path towards a collectively envisioned future? The period explored in this book, from 1968 to 2005, captured America's cultural imagination and complicated the nature of our collective conversations about race. As a result, both the period of time and the subject matter raise questions about legacy, which is to say, the ways in which we commemorate and remember who we are as a country and what our present says about our future. Thinking about, remembering, contextualizing, and understanding the past and present of Black Studies programs matters. It matters not only because such programs tell us so much about whence we have come and the progress we have made, but also because the field will be central for us as a way to make sense of our country's increasingly complicated present and future in regard to race.

Black Studies programs, departments, and institutes have had a long, contentious, yet revealing, relationship with America's institutions of higher education and have played a compelling role within the imaginings of this nation's popular consciousness. The creation and institutionalization of Black Studies is sometimes viewed as a result of the capitulation of well-meaning white college administrators to militant, angry, and ungrateful African American students who were recruited to Northern colleges and universities during the late 1960s. The role of Black Studies in such universities is often thought of, at best, as utilitarian, as a means to ensure a comfortable social space for the institution's Black students, or, at worst, as glorified affirmative action programs useful for ensuring an easy ride for unqualified Black students. However, Black Studies is rarely viewed as a successful example of social justice, a means of multiracial democratic reform, or a harbinger of widespread institutional and cultural change in relation to race, integration, and desegregation at the postsecondary level. That is precisely what these programs were, and what they tell us today about the role and meaning of race in higher education, about the battle for "African Americans to be a full and accepted part of the scholarly enterprise" is no less instructive than it was thirty years ago, when the first programs and departments were established.


Excerpted from White Money/Black Power by Noliwe M. Rooks Copyright © 2007 by Noliwe M. Rooks. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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