By Errin Haines Whack
A leading journal of political philosophy took up the Black Lives Matter movement in its June issue without a single contribution from a black academic, triggering an outcry from African-American scholars.
Many black scholars said they felt insulted and ignored, and some took to social media to express their indignation. Two wrote open letters to the Journal of Political Philosophy.
The journal's editors were apologetic for what they conceded was an “especially grave oversight” and vowed to increase diversity on its editorial board and in its pages.
The episode highlights what some intellectuals say is a lack of diverse voices in the influential research journals where getting a paper accepted is often vital to getting ahead in the publish-or-perish world of academia.
The omission left many wondering: Do black minds matter?
“This is not an abstract philosophical question. There are real goods at stake when we talk about which voices count,” said Yale University philosopher Chris Lebron, who recently wrote a book on Black Lives Matter and wrote one of the letters to the journal.
The journal is a peer-reviewed academic quarterly that explores topics such as sociology, history, economics and race. It devoted part of its latest issue to a “symposium” on Black Lives Matter, inviting three white scholars to contribute articles on racial bias, law enforcement and the right to personal security.
UCLA political scientist Melvin Rogers, one of the black scholars who raised objections with the journal, called the lack of black voices “especially egregious” in this case.
“You have a major social movement that comes about because of police violence and a failure of the state to respond effectively,” Rogers said. “You put together a symposium ... and construct it in such a way that replicates the very problem the movement is trying to respond to. The signal this sends to scholars of color that care about this is that they, too, are invisible.”
The journal editors responded: “We accept the point eloquently and forcefully made by our colleagues that this is an especially grave oversight in light of the specific focus of Black Lives Matter on the extent to which African-Americans have been erased and marginalized from public life.”
In April, the American Historical Review apologized after allowing a professor with views seen as supporting white supremacy to review a book on school segregation.
Rogers said he sees a dearth of minority scholars in major journals. But he added that because of the common practice of blind peer review—where articles considered for publication are submitted and critiqued anonymously, something that was not done in this case—there is no clear way to know whether bias is to blame.
Some scholars suggested that journals are reflecting and compounding a larger problem in academia: the small number of black scholars. Two percent of faculty members at the nation's top institutions are black, according to Ivory A. Toldson, editor of the Journal of Negro Education.
Toldson said black scholars also must contend with the long-held belief among some whites that blacks cannot write about race with objectivity.
“We're taught that you're supposed to separate yourself subjectively from the matter you're researching to prevent bias,” he said. But that belief “can really become a tool of oppression itself. What sense does it make for someone to tell us that we're less qualified to speak to matters that we have a personal connection with?”
Megan Ming Francis, a black political scientist at the University of Washington, said she has been asked to do peer reviews, especially in her area of expertise—black social movements during the lynching era. She complained that black scholarship is sometimes seen as less rigorous.
On topics such as black history or politics, Francis said, “we have to make our case a bit more than others.”
Toldson said the journal incident has exposed “a huge racial blind spot” that goes beyond one publication.
“It's pervasive throughout the academy,” said Toldson, a psychology professor at Howard University. Journal editors “are gatekeepers. They can make or break someone's career. And they're making decisions they don't want to admit are loaded with racial biases.”