I never would have expected to enjoy a book about black studies, especially one that refrains from pointed criticism of the field. But things don’t always work out as I expect. Yes, I’ve got a confession to make: I really enjoyed Fabio RojasFrom Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline.

EconLog readers may remember Fabio Rojas as the guy who won the contest to name my book; he’s also a regular blogger at Orgtheory.net. But all the while, he was plugging away on a well-written, thoughtful history/sociology of black studies. Rojas explains how the field got started, where it ended up, and why.

The quick version: Universities initially set up black studies to placate angry – and often violent – black student protestors. Early black studies departments had a strong nationalist, even separatist, bent, and embraced a broad mission of community outreach. Over time, however, black studies took the path of least resistance – with encouragement from charities like the Ford Foundation – and became fairly ordinary academic departments. Black nationalism and community outreach have been replaced by traditional academic in-reach.

So is Rojas just telling yet another story about how “the Establishment” co-opted a radical movement? No; Rojas tells a story of “coevolution” rather than co-optation:

Black studies and the academy have changed together, responding to each other’s demands. Although the academy rejected demands for black-only education and community control, it did accept black studies. This allowed black studies to further influence academia and made possible future developments such as Afrocentrism, black studies Ph.D. programs, and a stronger acceptance of the African American community as a topic worthy of academia attention.

My favorite part of the book: Rojas’ observations about the effect of non-profit incentives:

A new policy or work unit that has been created as a result of movement actions might be protected by rules guaranteeing publicity or money… [W]hen the black studies programs examined in this book atrophied in the 1980s, they were still listed in course catalogs and still commandeered minimal resources. A for-profit firm might have quietly eliminated such a unit, but by publicizing the unit in course catalogs and other publications, the university improved the program’s chance of survival. As long as a black studies program had office space, at least one or two faculty members, and official standing in the university’s publications, future professors could have a chance at rehabilitating the program.

Rojas goes on:

The university is one of the most difficult institutions to change in modern society. Unlike privately held firms, where power is concentrated in the owner’s hands, universities are governed by their workers (the professors and staff) and by external supervising boards… As black studies advocates found out, even friendly administrators may need years to push proposals through a university’s internal decision-making process. The black studies movement chose an unusually stubborn target.

Needless to say, this isn’t the book I would have written about black studies. The one mention of Thomas Sowell I could find is on page 202, where we learn (big surprise!) that virtually no black studies professors think highly of Ethnic America. Rojas didn’t bother asking them their opinion of The Bell Curve, much less Race, Evolution, and Behavior. He didn’t ask black studies professors to explain why they doubt that market forces eliminate taste-based discrimination; nor did his press them on the question of stereotype accuracy.

No matter; despite all these omissions, Rojas’ book is just plain good. Read it!