Do University History Departments Have a Race Problem?

The intellectual scandal that Bernal kicked up in classics is a good key to race controversies in academia in general, because they tend to redefine—or at least open up to scrutiny—the boundaries of subjects that were originally formulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The humanities as we know them know grew out of more technical forms of language study, or philology, that were developed in European universities in the period of exploration, imperialism, and then colonial expansionism. Early practitioners in literary study, the history of language, and anthropology were often ideologically manacled by the cultural mores that encased their object of study. A medievalist might sympathize with Crusading Europeans, for example, indeed believing that “Deus Vult” was a righteous motto. An ethnologist might study people of other races and categorize them in ways that we clearly see as racist, but which to them felt objective and scientific.

We moderns are no more free of our historical moment than they were. In recent months, white supremacists have publicly claimed the iconography of medieval Europe in an attempt to shore up their identification with a fictional, homogenous or “pure” white past. Some academics have been willing to indulge them. From within medieval studies itself, the University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown has become a notable supporter of Milo Yiannopoulis (she is cited in the Buzzfeed Breitbart investigation), and writes blog posts with titles like “Three Cheers for White Men.” She has also been a contributor to Breitbart. This solidarity between outright advocates of white supremacy and a conservative academic was already scandalous. But Professor Brown strained matters further when she publicly attacked the nontenured, woman of color scholar Dorothy Kim, encouraging her to “learn some fucking western European Christian history” after Kim wrote about the field of medievalism’s complicity with white nationalism.

As Donna Zuckerberg wrote, Brown’s response to Kim was formulated in the terms of a “fact check.” For her part, Brown pointed to blackness in the Song of Songs. Since medieval Europeans did not react badly to nonwhite people in this text from the Middle Ages, she claimed, Kim’s argument could not be right. But the argument totally misses the terms of Kim’s, which—much like Bernal’s intervention—called for a historiographical critique of the field’s relation to race, not a historical one. Kim’s question was not whether medieval peoples were racist, it was whether the study of them itself had perpetuated white supremacy. In the controversy that erupted over the fight between Brown and Kim in mainstream publications like Inside Higher Ed, that question was somewhat lost.

Similar controversies are raging within classics departments today, as those who would appropriate classicists’ work to promote reactionary agendas split the field. Zuckerberg cites an alt-right personality who goes by “Quintus Curtius,” who fears a future where classical knowledge will be “purged from schools … for not being in tune with modern feminism and political correctness.” But what is “classical knowledge,” in the mind of Quintus Curtius? It is not likely, writes Zuckerberg, to be knowledge of the experience of slavery.

The British scholar Mary Beard has also fallen afoul of conservatives who wish to see the classical period as a repository of white purity. “It all started,” Beard blogged for the TLS, “when an ‘alt-right’ commenter picked up on a BBC schools video that featured a family in Roman Britain in which the father, a high ranking soldier, was presented as black (as it is a cartoon it is harder to be more precise than that).” That commenter objected online that ‘The left is literally trying to rewrite history to pretend Britain always had mass immigration.’