WASHINGTON – African-American studies (search) programs are intended to give students an unbiased opportunity to learn and celebrate the history and culture of blacks in America, but critics say courses too often are filled with a leftist political slant that taints the teachings.
The result is an emphasis on the negative experiences of blacks in America.
"Too often black history is hijacked by racial hucksters who use it not as a platform for social activism, but as a stage to shout about victimization and retribution," said Armstrong Williams (search), host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show.
"Black history month, when it originally came to fruition, was an attempt to instill some pride because there was a belief that American history in general and world history did not appropriately recognize the contributions of blacks," said Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality (search), one of America's oldest civil rights groups. "But it devolved into an ideological left-wing rant."
But several educators reject such charges and say it's impossible to classify ideologically an entire field of study, especially one that is taught in virtually every public school in the United States and has separate university departments devoted to research on the topic.
"The discipline, like most, is far too varied to make such generalizations," said Farah Griffin, director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African-American Studies (search). "Rarely is there any focus on 'victimization,' though there is attention given to the history of a people who have experienced forced migration, enslavement, terrorism, legalized discrimination and random acts of violence and who have sought to counter that brutality through political, intellectual, and cultural means."
Still, Innis said, the prevalent message in black studies at every level of education is indeed a concentration on victimization.
"This victimization syndrome undermines the achievement and growth and the optimism that blacks kids should have considering the progress that we've made as a nation," Innis said. "[Instructors] drown black kids in victimization as opposed to triumph."
Innis and Williams both suggested that instead of pessimism, teachers should help students explore the contributions of black Americans to the successful fight to overturn slavery, the defeat of segregation, the acquisition of voting rights and the continued successes in combating all forms of racism.
They agreed that the perpetuation of the negative is the result of pressure and influence by mainstream African-American organizations and leaders who seek to benefit politically by preaching victimization. They then use that sentiment to deliver the black vote to candidates willing to empower select black groups and individuals.
"Black people never really get the real truth. They’ve sold their souls. They're getting the perks, but it’s the masses that suffer. They want to keep their lifestyle at the expense of their people," Williams said.
Williams added that black leaders are deeply wed to the Democratic Party to the exclusion of criticism of party members who make racist comments. At the same time, black leaders refuse to praise GOP efforts that are popular among blacks, such as school vouchers and faith-based initiatives.
Lemuel Berry Jr., executive director of the National Association of African American Studies (search) and vice president for academic affairs at the University of New England, said that in recent history, political role models for blacks have tended to be almost entirely Democratic. Among the modern politicians most admired by the black community are Bill Clinton, Bobby Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.
However, Berry denied that blacks rule out supporting Republicans, and said the opportunity is there for Republicans to reach out to the black community. He added that he doubts that educators have a political agenda when they are teaching black studies.
"Spending a semester or an extended period of time talking about negative issues is not on anyone's agenda, at least not a lot of people," he said.
Derrick Gilbert, a professor at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan (search), acknowledged that black studies programs often relay morbid stories because to tell the past without them would be to recite history inaccurately.
"There's this inevitability about the topics that we deal with. To deal with the 19th century, you have to address some negatives. There was this thing called slavery. Just by the definition of doing that, I'm sure these pundits could argue that this is negative," he said, adding that he strives to emphasize how far African-Americans have come in America.
Berry, too, said that African-American studies do commonly make "cross-comparisons with the Japanese massacre in Nanking, the plight of the Jews and African-Americans, comparing the societies and experiences. It's kind of hard to talk about the history without discussing some of the problems."
But Griffin said a key ingredient in African-American coursework is a focus on the positive.
"There is often an emphasis on how the attempts of African-Americans and their allies to better their situation in the United States has led to the expansion of democracy and access to opportunity for all Americans," she said.
Patrick Coyle, director of campus programs for the Young America's Foundation (search), an organization that strives to expose youth to conservative principles, said that the increased attention on black history during February gives educators a chance to teach alternative messages.
"What universities typically do is bring in a parade of liberal speakers, and what we do is send a group of black conservatives to counter that message," he said.