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K.C. Johnson Makes the Case Against the Elimination of Black Studies Departments


I’d like to add a couple more points about the K.C. Johnson post SEK linked below. First, it’s worth noting Johnson makes no attempt to address the central point made about Riley’s post — namely, that listing dissertation titles isn’t an argument (let alone a good argument) and that making arguments about the content of research you haven’t read is remarkably foolish.

Of course, Johnson has good reason not to get into this, since as you can see from the post he’s a big fan of sneering at titles in lieu of making arguments himself. (Needless to say, we also get that favorite non-argument of the right, using the phrase “political correctness.”  I wouldn’t want to defend anything Riley actually wrote either.) Johnson does, however, make an attempt to engage with the work of one of the scholars being smeared by Riley. This critique involves…a couple short encyclopedia entries, but hey, it’s something.   Alas, the meager substantive content contains a major howler:

In a fantastic interpretation of California’s Proposition 209, Levy maintained that “the controversy continued when some voters”–people who, it would seem, were living under a rock during the campaign–“claimed that they did not realize the measure ended affirmative action.”

First of all, far from being “fantastical,” for a substantial number of initiative voters to not fully understand the implications of what they’re voting for would be utterly banal, as anyone with the most passing familiarity with the vote behavior literature would know. But in the specific case of Prop 209, the framers of the initiative strategically chose language that would attract a crucial bloc of voters who did not necessarily favor ending all affirmative action programs.  Let me turm things over to Richard Frankel  (Yale L. & Pol’y Rev., 2000: 444-5):

The circumstances surrounding the passage of Proposition 209 demonstrate the dangers of strategic drafting. The drafters and the campaign in favor of the initiative were generally farther to the right than most voters on the issue of affirmative action. They wanted the initiative to have broader authority to eliminate affirmative action programs than most voters. As a result, supporters sought to narrow the scope of the initiative during the campaign so that voters would think it was less controversial than it really was. The backers tried to make it sound as if the proposal would do less than it would really do so that they would not offend voter sensibilities and so they could win swing votes from the political center.

The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), the campaign in favor of 209, used strategic drafting and campaigning to convince the voters that the scope of the initiative was narrow. Although the drafters wanted to stop affirmative action programs in higher education and government employment, they feared that using the phrase affirmative action would doom the initiative. CCRI’s internal polls showed that the initiative would likely lose if the phrase “affirmative action” was used, and so CCRI chose a more appealing phrase they felt would mean the same thing. In a memorandum early in the campaign, CCRI’s own political consultant stated that “what is at issue is how the debate is framed.” Realizing the importance of the proposal’s language, the authors used strategic drafting rather than substantive changes to sway public opinion. Most polls of voters show that a majority support affirmative action programs. Therefore, the authors replaced “affirmative action” with “preferences,” a word which carried much less support in polls. Because people think of preferences as giving a person something that person did not earn, people opposed preferences in much higher percentages than they opposed affirmative action. Even though CCRI may have been seeking to end affirmative action, it couched the initiative’s language in terms of preferences to increase voter support.

The plan succeeded, as the language of the initiative may have been the main reason for its passage. Polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1996 show that when pollsters used the language of the initiative, fifty-four percent of voters supported it and thirty-one percent opposed it. However, when the next question asked if people realized the initiative would substantially reduce or eliminate affirmative action programs, support dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-three percent and opposition grew from thirty-one percent to forty percent. These statistics suggest that not only did the voters not understand the meaning of the initiative, but also that the drafters exploited the voters’ confusion in order to persuade them to vote for a proposal they otherwise might not have supported. [cites omitted]

So, in attempting to defend a hack who dismissed an entire academic field based on nothing, Johnson singles out for smug ridicule an argument about which 1)his would-be smear target is completely right, and 2)Johnson hasn’t the slightest idea what the hell he’s talking about.   Give Riley this: at least she made no pretense of knowing what she was talking about.

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