A few days ago I called Houston Baker a “thuggish hack,” and mentioned him as an example of “the lost honor of academia.” It seems to me that the information readily available on the internet supports those views (examples can be found here and here). Still, I was struck by how bad his situation is. Here’s a man who can be immediately classed as a questionable outsider simply on account of his appearance and ancestry. He’s been loaded with honors (presidency of the Modern Language Association, a string of endowed chairs at top universities) by intellectual snobs who aren’t likely to have any real respect for him and on some basic level must view the whole thing as a charade and his presence as a tiresome imposition.
It’s hard to turn position, honors and money down, but he can hardly be unaware of his situation. How would that feel? How would you explain it to yourself? The New York Times Magazine touches on his feelings about his position in the academic world and America generally (he’s always on edge), and says that he holds “an exceedingly pessimistic view of American social progress where race is concerned.” An economist might explain the posture he’s adopted as a strategy for maintaining the value of the “black studies” franchise, and there’s something to that. He means something by it, though, and it’s hard to see how someone in his position could be other than pessimistic.
I really get the impression that this whole compulsory integration thing was a bad idea. And to that extent Baker’s pessimism about where things are going is justified. Certainly it’s justified as to his personal situation.