Monday, May 6, 2013

The Academic-Popular Divide

I apologize for the barren blogging landscape around here. My kids and my thesis are dominating my life. They're giving me a proper beating. The former is personal, and the most juicy details of the latter I want to save for a proper reveal. I will say, though, that the vast disconnect between academic debates and popular perceptions is astonishing.

But it makes me realize how little I know. When you begin to become something of an expert in a narrowly defined field of knowledge (the career of John C. Stennis and its implications) you realize how frequently you and everyone else are just - pardon the crude bluntness - talking out of their butt.

It is odd to see things being debated in the popular realm that are considered settled in the academic world. For example, historians and political scientists don't sit around going, "Gee, I wonder which party has been more racially progressive the last 50 years?" Yet the standard view of Republican partisans is that this is a profound question up for debate. Interestingly, the responses of Democratic partisans, while broadly correct, are also simplistic and self-serving. Or consider white Americans' racial attitudes.
I'm not aware of any historian who thinks the linking together of blacks with immigrant groups in the same category is a useful analytical tool. The African American experience and the ethnic immigrant experience have been two completely different things. By obscuring that fact, the average white American finds comfort for conservative racial views.

There is, too, a huge corpus of academic work on the ways American society and the federal government discriminated against black Americans after World War 2. Again, by ignoring and denying this history completely, white Americans pretend that questions of redistribution and affirmative action are just about slavery. It is remarkable that the federal government has paid reparations to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War 2, but has not paid reparations to black Americans for the systematic discrimination against them in federal housing, social security, veterans affairs, and welfare policies.

The disconnect is most striking in the area of colorblindness. The dominant racial ideology of white Americans, so accepted that people aren't even aware it is an ideology, so ingrained that people think it is "natural," has been ruthlessly deconstructed in academia and is widely seen as a means of hiding and preserving white privilege. This is downright shocking and confusing to average people.

This is fast taking on all the hallmarks of an elitist rant, but I only mean to say that in learning more about a few specific topics, I have become less certain on many other topics. I wish more white Americans would consider this dynamic before making their confident and ignorant pronouncements on race.

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