February 13, 2003

Book Focuses on Racism

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Cornell’s campus and much of the country has been engaged in heated discussions recently regarding race relations and policies encouraging diversity in the United States.

Benjamin Bowser PhD ’69 and former graduate school dean, has written a variety of books on topics concerning race and race relations. Currently, Bowser is a professor at California State University Hayward.

His most recent work is a book he co-edited with partner Louis Kushnick entitled, Against the Odds: Scholars Who Challenged Racism in the 20th Century. The book delves into the topic of racial inequality, and examines the views and lives of ten scholars who have devoted their lives and work to advocating change.

Bowser began research for the book after cosponsoring a lecture with Herbert Apetheker, “one of the most prominent scholars of American slavery and the longtime editor of the W.E.B. DuBois’ papers and collective works,” according to Bowser.

After interviewing Apetheker and his wife, Fay, Bowser said that he “realized that there are two stories behind major scholarly works. The first is how the work was conceived and produced, what was included and excluded and why? Secondly, there is the author’s biography with regard to each publication; how did they come to realize the importance of a particular body of knowledge and decide to spend, in most cases, years producing a major work?”

The result of asking these questions was a series of interviews with prominent scholars. Bowser said he selected those that would be interviewed “by asking myself who were the people who produced scholarship that changed our thinking about race in the past century as a consequence of their work.”

Bowser and Kushnick asked each scholar questions about their career and experiences. These questions included, according to their book, “What were the formative influences during your youth on developing your interest?” and “What were the major barriers during the early years of your career?” among others.

Many of the scholars interviewed are from the Depression era, which Bowser and Kushnick call “a period of profound suffering and great hope.”

St. Clair Drake is one of the prominent scholars represented in the book.

Drake received his degree from the University of Chicago, and went on to teach at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Drake also served as the first black studies program director at Stanford University. In his numerous writings, Drake has examined race in relation to such issues as community life, class and culture.

In his essay in Against the Odds, entitled “Studies of the African Diaspora,” Drake explained his views on what research needs to be done in the study of race and racism. According to Drake, “Once we can get beyond racism and its denial, the task for the scholarly community will be to correct the omissions and distortions about black societies in the New and Old Worlds ancient, recent, and contemporary.”

Herbert and Fay Aptheker contributed an article entitled “Personal Reflections on W.E.B. Du Bois: The Person, Scholar, and Activist” to the book.

The Apthekers used their knowledge of Du Bois as a writer and scholar, as well as their relationships with him, to write the article. In his other works, Aptheker wrote about slavery and racism in history, and the roles blacks and whites played together and against each other in history.

According to the Apethekers’ work, “what many Americans do not realize is that whatever benefits they enjoy, such as social security, health care, unemployment insurance, workplace health laws, minimum wage and universal education, were gotten through struggle. And if they plan to keep them or improve on them, they will have to struggle. All the positive developments in this country were gained by mass radical struggle.”

Bowser outlined some of the challenges facing scholars today, as discussed by the essays in Against the Odds. According to Bowser, there are several major challenges, including the fact that “perspectives of people of color are being painfully integrated into what has been primarily a European-American discourse on race and ethnicity” and the presumption that “the federal government cannot and should not address racial and economic inequality in the twenty-first century [as] racial and economic inequalities were created and have been sustained by the state; so they can and must be eliminated by the state.”

Additionally, Bowser said that elimination of a concept of race and the expansion of race relations in America to include a “large world community” are also issues that scholars must confront.

The most obvious current discussion concerning minorities and diversity has been that of affirmative action. Currently, two Supreme Court cases are pending concerning the University of Michigan’s admissions policy of on an admissions point scale giving minority candidates a higher number of points for minority status.

According to Bowser, “regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, social diversity that includes race is going to be part of university and college admissions in some form or another. This will be [the] case if for no other reason then American businesses require increasingly diverse work forces. This is necessary in order to stay competitive and to do business in the world community.”

Commenting further on current affirmative action policies, Bowser said that President George W. Bush’s affirmative action is “momentary.”

Currently, Bowser is working on a variety of different projects, including writing two new books, consulting for community based HIV/AIDS prevention programs and teaching three courses at California State University.

Archived article by Kate Cooper