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Advocacy, the Academy, and Mushy Thinking

by  David A. Lehrer

July 1, 2011 | 4:17 pm

Ethnic and religious advocacy groups’ reports are not known for their academic rigor or careful sourcing—-those qualities are neither part of their mission nor their goals. Their aims are, understandably, more narrow and self-serving.

Academic centers at universities, on the other hand, ought not to be in the business of hyperbole and exaggeration, especially in the sensitive field of racial and ethnic advocacy. And yet, last week an academic unit of the University of California, Berkeley—-the Center for Race and Gender (“CRG”)—-authored sections of a religious advocacy group’s report that are, literally, the antithesis of intellectual, rigorous, or even quasi-academic research—-they are, instead, inflammatory and irresponsible.

The Council on American Islamic Relations just issued its first annual report on Islamophobia in the United States, Same Hate, New Target. The report is a troubling cataloguing of incidents of vandalism, nasty rhetoric and violence directed at Muslim Americans that have occurred across the country during 2010.

As in many of these types of anecdotal, “trend in bigotry” reports, the incidents vary from the incidental (“opponents of the proposed mosque cited fear of radical Islam as a motivation for opposition”) to the serious (“firebomb planted and detonated outside mosque while approximately 60 people were inside”). The report’s conclusion is that on a 1 to 10 scale (with 10 representing “the worst possible situation for Muslims”) Islamophobia in America stands at 6.5.

The report lacks any polling data or other metrics that would confirm the rather dire picture it portrays; it presents the “Islamophobic” incidents and works from there. Given the nature of CAIR and its agenda it is hardly surprising that it reaches the conclusions it does or that its methodology leaves something to be desired.

What is most troubling in the report are the sections written by the study’s co-author, Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender (“CRG”). The CRG purports to be a center of research:

The Center for Race and Gender (CRG) is an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California Berkeley that fosters explorations of race and gender, and their intersections.  CRG cultivates critical and engaged research and exchange among faculty and students throughout the university, between the university and nearby communities of color, and among scholars in the Bay Area, in the US, and around the globe.

CRG’s two sections of the report are as distant from the kind of document one expects from an “academic” unit of the one of the world’s great universities as a high school student’s term paper is from a doctoral dissertation. They are insulting in their assertions, their methodology and their inanity. They offer facile assumptions and claims of causality without any evidence whatsoever——the very antithesis of what academic research is all about.

We are not statistical mavens, but we do know that at their heart the quantitative research and methodology that academics utilize are aimed at testing hypotheses in such a way that valid inferences can be drawn from empirical evidence. The last thing academics—-quantitative or otherwise—-ought to be doing is make assertions and claim causality without offering evidence to buttress their claims. You don’t need a PhD or an academic posting to be a blowhard.

The academics at the CRG must be operating under different rules. Their sections of the report are conclusory, undocumented, inflammatory and call into question the judgment of any “academic” who signed off on this document.

Admittedly, race and gender studies are fraught with mushiness and jargon that boggles mere mortals’ minds (“intersectionality” is one such bit of choice verbiage); but even in that realm this report is a lulu.

The report baldly asserts with no footnotes, citations, or other corroboration the following daisy chain of causality and allegations of venality.  Islamophobes in the United States have as their aim “the disenfranchise[ment] of the growing American Muslim community” which will lead to “isolation and distrust of the American Muslim community by the broader American society” which “isolation can push American Muslim youth toward disenchantment and marginalization, which can be manipulated into senseless extremism and violence.”

Just in case the reader might miss the incendiary assertion, the CRG makes it clear it’s all about money and nefarious legislators who, ultimately, will be responsible for the violent blowback—-“Islamophobia can be seen as designed, in part, to attempt to promote radicalization in American Muslim community, providing further rationalization for the ‘domestic war on terror’ and all the funding and resources connected to it.”

Get it? If you are defined as an “Islamophobe” you are really interested in promoting violence so you can enact laws to prevent violence and terror. It doesn’t make sense in a short version, and is equally illogical in its long form.

The report proceeds, with an equal absence of rigor, to ascribe the success of Tea Party candidates in 2010 to, you guessed it, Islamophobia. “Islamophobia worked as planned and Tea Party and Republicans in general rode the effects to statistical margins of victory in key races.” No analysis, sourcing or other effort to buttress an assertion that flies in the face of analyses that ascribe the Tea Party successes to multiple, complex, reasons—-including the economy, the high unemployment rate, the House vote on Cap and Trade, etc. 

Either the budget crisis in California has already taken a toll on the intellectual heft and rigor at the University of California’s flagship school, Berkeley, or the CRG is an enclave that is patronizingly allowed to “do its thing” without the minimal trappings of academic inquiry. Either explanation is not particularly satisfying.

Whatever the reason, the CRG’s report is an embarrassment to the great name of the University of California and shouldn’t be tolerated; especially when funded by increasingly scarce tax dollars.

 

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