From Harvard, and barely coherent: Just for the record, Professor Miles graduated from Harvard, in 1992. She got her doctorate, in American Studies, at Minnesota.
According to leading authority on her career, she's currently "a professor at the University of Michigan in the Program in American Culture, Center for Afro-American and African Studies, Department of History, and Native American Studies Program."
We're not entirely sure that we know how to disentangle that string of words. But then, we had a similar reaction to Professor Miles' op-ed column in today's (hard copy) New York Times.
We're not even entirely sure how to explain what the column asserts. A cynic might say that Professor Miles is the kind of professor the New York Times like to publish—the kind of professor who's Harvard-credentialed, but at best only barely coherent.
As the column starts, it makes something resembling perfect sense. Smoothing the op-ed's language a bit, the professor says that this nation's brutal racial history wasn't confined to the South:
MILEY (9/11/17): The violent furor that erupted this summer over the removal of Confederate monuments in several cities was a stark reminder that Americans remain trapped in the residue of slavery and racial violence. In confronting this difficult truth, our attention is naturally drawn to the South. And rightfully so: The South was the hotbed of race-based labor and sexual exploitation before and after the Civil War, and the caldron of a white supremacist ideology that sought to draw an inviolable line between whiteness and blackness, purity and contagion, precious lives and throwaway lives. As the author of three histories on slavery and race in the South, I agree that removing Confederate iconography from cities like New Orleans, Baltimore and Charlottesville, Va., is necessary and urgent.So far, so fairly obvious. That said, the column becomes harder and harder to parse, limn, scan or paraphrase as it proceeds. By the end of paragraph 3, the professor is saying this:
However, in our national discourse on slavery’s legacy and racism’s persistent grip, we have overlooked a crucial fact: Our history of human bondage and white supremacy is not restricted to the South.
MILEY: Historians of the United States are continually unearthing an ugly truth: American slavery had no bounds. It penetrated every corner of this country, materially, economically and ideologically, and the unjust campaign to preserve it is embedded in our built environments, North and South, East and West. Detroit is a surprising case in point.In that passage, Professor Miley almost seems to say that there exists an "unjust campaign to preserve" slavery.
That may not be what she meant. She may mean to refer to some historical "campaign to preserve" slavery—some such campaign in the past.
Whatever she means, she says this unjust campaign to preserve slavery "is embedded in our built environments," and she cites Detroit as "a surprising case in point." So far, she hasn't explained what this means.
As it turns out, what does she mean? She seems to mean that many cities and counties in Michigan bear the names of people from past centuries who supported slavery, and even tried to defend it against abolition. This includes the politically famous Macomb County, Michigan, which is apparently named for William Macomb, "the largest slaveholder in Detroit in the late 1700s."
For ourselves, we didn't know that; apparently, neither did anyone else. The professor cites a Detroit journalist who "began a catalog of these names" in 2012, suggesting that these connections weren't widely known before that time.
At any rate, it seems that a question has emerged by this point in the professor's column:
Does it matter who Hamtramck, Grosboeck or Livernois, Michigan is named for? Different people may have different answers to that question. It never becomes entirely clear what the professor thinks.
In large part, that's because her column becomes more incoherent as it proceeds. Go ahead! Tell us what's being said here:
PROFESSOR MILES: Detroit is just one example of the hidden historical maps that silently shape our sense of place and community. Place names, submerged below our immediate awareness, may make us feel that slavery and racial oppression have faded into the backdrops of cities, and our history. Yet they do their cultural and political work.Question: Is it true that some set of "hidden historical maps" "silently shape our sense of place and community" in some way? Do you even feel sure you know what that means?
Do "place names, submerged below our immediate awareness," really "make us feel that slavery and racial oppression have faded into the backdrops of cities, and our history?" Do you feel sure you know what that means?
If these place names are "submerged below our immediate awareness," how can they make us feel anything? If the "historical maps" in question are "hidden," do you understand how they could "shape our sense of place" at all?
Is it true that "place names, submerged below our immediate awareness," are doing some sort of "cultural and political work?" What sort of political work are those place names doing? Do you have the first farking idea what this professor is saying?
Do you know what the professor is saying? For ourselves, we have no clear idea. We'd have to say that her work, while quite emotive, isn't obsessively competent. Sadly, that's par for the course when the New York Times decided to publish pseudo-progressive professors.
Work like this is par for the course at the New York Times. As this professor continues, so does the clarity shortfall:
PROFESSOR MILES (continuing directly): The embedded racism of our streetscapes and landscapes is made perhaps more dangerous because we cannot see it upon a first glance. In Detroit and across the country, slaveholder names plastered about commemorate a social order in which elite white people exerted inexorable power over black and indigenous bodies and lives. Places named after slaveholders who sold people, raped people, chained people, beat people and orchestrated sexual pairings to further their financial ends slip off our tongues without pause or forethought. Yet these memory maps make up what the University of Michigan historian Matthew Countryman has called “moral maps” of the places that we inhabit together.In what way are the names of those streets and communities actually "dangerous?" The professor seems to acknowledge that people don't know the racial history of the people for whom those places are named.
If so, where is the "danger" in those names? What "work" are those place names doing?
At this point, one paragraph remains in the professor's column. In it, she seems to say that we should eliminate these dangerous names, although even that isn't clear.
Her apparent suggestion would make more sense if she'd explained what the "danger" is. Absent that sort of clarity, we will offer two points:
First, it's maddening to see pseudo-progressives offer work of this type in place of serious efforts to improve the lives of black children. The Times tends to offer this kind of emotive incoherence in lieu of serious work about the nation's public schools, to cite one groaning example. To the Times, a jumble like this is close enough for gonzo-emotional work, especially where race is involved.
Second point: this is exactly the sort of thing people predicted when the first Confederate statues started coming down. All the way down to Donald J. Trump, hacks predicted that our silly liberal tribe would start running through the streets, suggesting that statues of Washington and Jefferson also had to come down.
Our tribal apologists insisted that Donald J. Trump was being crazily wrong, as usual. Along have come the Harvard-educated professors to show the world that Donald J. Trump was understating our capacity for lazy, incompetent, low-IQ work—work of the type which makes many others roll their eyes at our underwhelming tribe.
The New York Times has long had contempt for the nation's low-income kids. By way of contrast, it loves the kind of Harvard-educated professor who offers them emotional word clumps like this.
Should Hamtramck, Michigan get a new name? Everything is possible! What doesn't seem possible is this:
The New York Times doesn't seem able to find a professor who 1) is highly-credentialed and 2) can express herself clearly. Beyond that, the Hamptons-based gonzopaper doesn't seem able to give a fig about the seriousness of race.
That column today is barely coherent. Do you think club members at the Times were actually able to tell?