The (sorta?) short version: Last year, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Teachers College named Ansley T. Erickson published a well-regarded book about educational inequities in Nashville. Reviews and education experts called the book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, “impressive,” “a comprehensive history,” “meticulous and inspired,” a “rare balance of deep archival engagement and immediate contemporary relevance,” and “powerful and useful.” But American Historical Review assigned to review it a retired professor, Raymond Wolters, with widely discredited views on race. Some of those views: Postwar American academics’ desires to distance themselves from the Nazis made them overcompensate in their refusal to acknowledge biological racial differences. Today, Wolters believes, political correctness causes many scholars to continue to be dismissive of actual science. A sample from this essay (called “Why Have We Unlearned What We Knew in 1900?” published on a site called American Renaissance, which focuses on what it calls “race realism” and which flatly states as one of its grounding philosophical issues that “One of the most destructive myths of modern times is that people of all races have the same average intelligence”):
Culturism also gave rise to a new form of intolerance. In some colleges there have been efforts to silence those who give Darwinian or biological explanations for race and sex differences in achievement. Meanwhile, many colleges and school districts pay the expenses of students and teachers who attend conferences where leftist fanatics maintain that persistent racial and ethnic disparities are the result of “white privilege.” Culturists have also silenced candid discussion of other topics, especially feminism, homosexuality, trans-genderism, and gay marriage. We have moved beyond the days when the exceptions to free speech were limited to incitement, sedition, pornography, and blasphemy.
Shockingly, Wolters — alone among reviewers — took issue with Erickson’s book! (I haven’t actually done the data-crunching on this, but I am GUESSING he is also the only reviewer who has also written for nattily-coiffed, punchable-faced neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s web site! Nope, not linking, sorry! But it’s true!)
Wolters noted in his American Historical Review essay that Erickson had failed to address
“sociobiology,” which is often defined as the notion that social behavior comes from evolution. In practice, “sociobiology” is often shorthand for “racist fuckery.” In usage: “Sociobiology” means that if black people are downtrodden because they are dumb and uncivilized, hey, THAT’S JUST SCIENCE.
Wolters, like Erickson, has written about school desegregation. So they have that in common! But unlike Erickson, Wolters concluded that desegregation failed because of “the ignorance and uncivilized behavior of many blacks.” AGAIN, THAT’S JUST SCIENCE.
Many academics were horrified that AHR assigned a review to a person with such beliefs. One of numerous letters of protest to AHR, this one by Professor Zoe Burkholder at Montclair State, noted that it was “inappropriate and unfair that you selected a white supremacist who believes in black racial inferiority to review a civil rights history book.”
Some professors were not surprised.
How did the AHR debacle happen? From 1910-1980, it published *2* pieces by black scholars. Our profession is American. It’s built on racism.
— Brandon Byrd (@bronaldbyrd) April 18, 2017
The journal’s interim editor, Robert A. Schneider, published an apology:
The AHR deeply regrets both the choice of the reviewer and aspects of the review itself. As for the choice of the reviewer, I have reviewed the process by which he was placed on our ‘pick list’ of potential reviewers, and I have been reassured that we were not aware of his publicly aired and published views when he was selected. His university webpage reveals him to be a legitimate scholar with a fairly long and solid publication record; our database also confirmed his status as an academic who has published in credible scholarly venues. It is absolutely true, of course, that a little more digging would have turned up evidence that would have — and has — discredited him as a legitimate scholar.
Regrettably, we did not dig further. Worse yet, we did not investigate his views even when his review was flagged for my perusal. This is entirely on me. I recall lingering over that last sentence where he mentions sociobiology, wondering whether it was appropriate. In retrospect I should have lingered longer. As well, this sentence should have prompted me to look into his recent publications, which would certainly have convinced me to pull the review. Alas, I did neither, for which I owe both Professor Erickson and our readers an apology. We will be commissioning another review of her book.
This apology is good, not great. The good: Schneider put his apology after the letters taking him to task, which makes clear precisely what he did wrong. He does not obfuscate. He apologizes to all AHR’s readers, not just to the book’s author. He promises to publish another review. He promises to revisit the journal’s commission guidelines. He takes responsibility (“This is entirely on me”) and even points out that the review was flagged (though not by whom) — someone on his staff was troubled enough to say, “Dude, look at this.”
The not-great: The long sentence about Wolters being a legitimate scholar. All you had to do was Google to see that the man has written for heinous web sites and believes in scientifically biased and hateful ideas. The “I have been assured” we had no clue about his “publicly aired and published views” observation is like an illustrious journal of cosmetology protesting that it had NO IDEA Bugs Bunny did not have an actual degree from an accredited salon program when it let him give an INNNNNTERSTING MONSTER AN INNNNNTERESTING hairdo.
An excellent apology would have skipped the feeble self-justifying and gone straight to the second graf, which starts, “Regrettably, we did not dig further.”
Incidentally, Insider Higher Ed might want to take a little look in the mirror too. What’s up with the phrasing, “a professor who has been criticized by many as a white supremacist”? No, he is a white supremacist. Your own tortured use of the passive voice should be telling you that you have written a problematic sentence.
But hey, let’s end on a positive note. AHR will not be deleting the review. Schneider told Insider Higher Ed:
We did indeed consider retraction as an option but, in consultation with the [American Historical Association, which sponsors the journal] and Oxford University Press, we decided not to go this route. There were several considerations, but one in particular speaks to a fundamental principle: in a sense, it would be ‘convenient’ for us to retract this clearly egregious review — everyone would like to go back and eliminate their mistakes. However, this would not only be self-serving, it would also amount to effacing evidence — something historians especially are loath to do — of an error.
Erickson was cool with this. As she told Inside Higher Ed:
I appreciate the apology and the plans for a new review. A retraction would be largely symbolic. The original text would continue to circulate in print and digitally. And as it does, it serves as a useful reminder of the AHR‘s participation in this problem. I care more about the actions that come next. For the AHR and other scholarly journals who have published false assertions of ‘sociobiology,’ this episode is a clear prompt to scrutinize their book-review processes (and their broader editorial and peer-review processes). They must identify and work to change the mechanisms — including the underrepresentation of people of color in the profession — that produce spaces where racism can be moved along through the pipeline rather than be recognized and interrupted.
We at SorryWatch have noted many times that deleting vile articles post-apology is bad form. (The exception is when leaving the article online could cause someone greater harm, as with the Daily Beast’s coy clue-dropping about the identities of closeted Olympic athletes entrapped by a dickweasel of a sniggering journalist. In that case, it was proper for the original piece to be taken down. Conveniently, since The Daily Beast’s numerous terrible apologies were so self-aggrandizing, non-specific and all-around crappy, we lose the truth of the full horror they actually committed. Deletion works in their favor. Oh well.) In general, we feel it is important to leave a historical record of a screw-up. We applaud AHR for leaving up the review by Professor Atrocious.
Retraction is, as many have said, the nuclear option when it comes to correction. It should be used sparingly, if at all. The Committee on Publication Ethics’ guidelines only recommend retraction when a paper demonstrates “clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error); the findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication); it constitutes plagiarism; it reports unethical research.”
“Poorly thought out work that should never have been commissioned or published” isn’t anywhere on the list. Neither is “I really, really don’t like that paper.” We’ve seen this before, in the case of a paper about the alleged effects of genetically modified food on rats. In that case, the editor of the journal cited COPE guidelines in retracting the paper — but as we noted, the retraction really wasn’t justified. That doesn’t mean, however, that an editor should just shrug and move on. If an editor has grave concerns, they can add a note — or something formal, like an Expression of Concern (oh, the capitals!) — so that readers have the full picture.
And that’s what AHR seems to be doing. Good. But. It is devoutly to be wished that all academic journals and institutions use this opportunity to examine their own unexamined biases in choosing reviewers and failing to see problematic content before it is published.