Clearing the Air: Racial Preferences in Classics Studies Revisited

Feb 27, 2019 |  David Randall

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Clearing the Air: Racial Preferences in Classics Studies Revisited

Feb 27, 2019 | 

David Randall

We wrote earlier this month about a race controversy that erupted at the joint meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) in San Diego this January. We encouraged the Classics Studies association to post the video of the panel “The Future of the Classics” as soon as possible, so that the public might view and judge the event directly. They have done so. In addition, Mary Frances Williams, who was banned from further participation in the SCS conference, has now had a chance to tell her side of the story.

The Society for Classical Studies does not emerge well from this fuller view of their panel. One or the other of the panelists rejected:

  1. The essential value of Classics as a discipline;
  2. The need to continue teaching Latin and Greek as core components of the discipline;
  3. Our continuing participation in Western Civilization; and
  4. The idea that the content and value of knowledge is independent of who produces it.

Several panelists called for the Classics profession to adopt bigotry on principle, by limiting the number of publications and footnotes allowed to white men. They justified this via the noxious jargon of critical race theory.

Meanwhile, Dr. Williams was punished for objecting to the panelists’ arguments. She was interrupted as she spoke, and then, under some stress, misspoke to Peralta.

In the hope of making my position clearer—that race should not be a determining factor when it comes to assessing the value of scholarship—I said to Padilla, “You may have got your job because you’re black, but I’d prefer to think you got your job because of merit.” Admittedly, I was under stress and did not express myself as clearly as I might have done, but what I was trying to convey is that the principle he was advocating clearly didn’t apply to hiring decisions—and nor should it—because he had got his job on merit, not because he’s black. Indeed, if I thought the opposite, and I imagined there was a chance of him saying, “You’re right, I was only hired because I’m black,” that would have contradicted the point I was trying to make, which is that it would have been wrong to hire him based only on his race, just as it would be wrong for an academic journal to publish an article based on the race of its author.

Williams should have apologized for misspeaking and Peralta should have accepted her apology. That should have been the end of the matter. Instead, Williams has not only been banished from the SCS conference but also been fired from her job as assistant editor of the Association of Ancient Historian’s Newsletter.

Meanwhile, Peralta’s response to Williams was that “here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you’ve outlined: If that is in fact a vision that affirms you in your white supremacy, I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies, that you’ve outlined [sic], dies, and that it dies as swiftly as possible!”

If the Society of Classical Studies, and the discipline of Classics as a whole, continues to honor the likes of Peralta, and punish the likes of Williams, Classics undoubtedly will die swiftly. Worst of all this death will be more suicide than murder.


| March 10, 2019 - 6:07 PM

What in fact is the “essential value” of classics? The case for continuing to treat the study of Latin and Greek as the “core” of the discipline — how would you put that case?

To whom does the pronoun “our” refer in your formulation “our continuing participation in Western Civilization”? Again, whom do you have in mind when you write “the likes of Peralta” and “the likes of Williams,” and does your language here truly support the principle that “the content and value of knowledge [should be] independent of who produces it”? Or in the alternative, does your choice of words tend to leave the impression that you are trafficking in stereotypes?

Would it have been fair for you to acknowledge that Peralta may have been, at least to some degree, “misspeaking” in the heat of the moment, after a fellow classicist humiliated him, just as you accept that Williams’ was “misspeaking”? In her later account of the incident, Williams writes that what she intended to say is that “it would have been wrong to hire him based only on his race” — “only” here indicating that in her carefully considered view, race (and by extension, presumably, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) is indeed one valid criterion for a private university to use in making a hiring decision. Do you agree with that? Or in this admission, is Williams herself guilty of “bigotry,” the charge you bring against the participants in this discussion?

Do you believe that it should be up to any one person to decide for all the rest of us what Homer says about warfare, Thucydides says about democracy, Plato says about virtue, Cicero says about moral duty, Tacitus says about freedom? What about any single group of people? Professional classicists, for example. Should they decide for the rest of us? What about Christian conservatives? Only them? Or do you believe that the continuing value of the humanities derives in significant part from their profound relevance to people of any and every background, identity, political persuasion? And if so, do you agree that this conversation can benefit from and should include as large a number as possible of all those who are willing to engage in it — professionals and amateurs; specialists and casual observers; people who love Greek tragedy and those who are bored by it; the old and the young; men who have a critical view of patriarchy and women who deny it exists; both whites and the descendants of men and women brought to the United States in chains, whose past and current experiences, in a country even today terribly roiled by strongly differing attitudes toward race, are certainly distinctive?

Is it hypothetically possible for the National Association of Scholars to find a way to make a meaningful and contribution to engendering that wider conversation, in which it is inarguably true that before the 20th century, large numbers of people did not take part? Is it hypothetically possible for the National Association of Scholars to argue against the use of racial and gender quotas in scholarly journals, without singling out Dan-el Padilla Peralta for special condemnation (omitting mention by name, one must note, of the panel organizer Stephen Hinds, speaker Sarah Bond, and speaker Joy Connolly). Might people of goodwill arrive at a broad consensus, with help from organizations like the National Association of Scholars, that there are indeed different kinds of knowledge (different questions, different methodologies) in non-scientific scholarly disciplines, and that rather than impoverishing the humanities and the social sciences by denying that rather obvious truth, we might rather attempt to ensure the place of the humanities in today’s world by encouraging all the young, up-and-coming Dan-el Padilla Peraltas out there to share with us what they make of Solon, Sappho, Aeschylus, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Ovid, Seneca, et al.?

In sum, can’t we do better?