Thursday, January 13, 2022

Koppelman on Emory Law Journal's rejection of an invited symposium piece as "hurtful" and "divisive"

Andrew Koppelman (Northwestern) writes about the incident at CHE:

The law journal had invited papers for a symposium honoring Michael Perry, one of the most important living constitutional theorists. An invitation of this sort normally includes a commitment to publish if basic scholarly standards are met. One invitee was the University of San Diego professor Larry Alexander, whose piece engaged with Perry’s work on racial discrimination. Alexander argued that the principal causes of Black poverty are not racism but the cultural factors that have produced family disintegration, which in turn have produced poor educational achievement and crime.


The Emory editors told Alexander that they would not publish his essay unless he deleted an entire section of his discussion. Their initial memo declared that “our comments are merely suggestions and you should feel free to incorporate or dismiss these suggestions as you see fit.” It noted that “as a prudential matter, the refutation of the presence of systemic racism might be a highly controversial viewpoint.” But when it became clear that Alexander would stick to that thesis, the editors evidently changed their minds. The next email was an ultimatum. It conceded that “there are fair points of intellectual disagreement that would not necessarily warrant the extreme action of withdrawing our publication offer.” But, they said, his piece was “hurtful and unnecessarily divisive"....


I don’t agree with Alexander’s description of the world. I have fought with him in the past. (Jonathan Turley offers a good critique of his essay.) But it is a possible world, he offers evidence for it, and it is important to know whether he is right. The editors do not allege falsity or offer any evidence of scholarly dereliction. It’s been claimed that he resisted editing, but the editors did not ask for his claims to be better supported. They demanded the deletion of the entire final third of the article.


The editors think that academic work ought not to describe what the scholar takes to be reality if revealing or calling attention to that reality is “hurtful” and “divisive.” That notion, which is increasingly common, attacks the scholarly enterprise at its root. It handicaps us in addressing the genuine problems of racial inequality. It conceives antiracism as a determination to insulate oneself and one’s friends from uncomfortable ideas: “Woke” becomes a synonym for sleepwalking. This self-lobotomization will incapacitate one from thinking about how to actually improve the lives of poor African Americans, but that isn’t as important as avoiding hurtfulness.

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