Afro-Centrism Advocate In the Eye of New Storm
A leading proponent of Afro-centric education has come under fire in recent weeks for remarks he made denouncing Jews and whites during a cultural festival in New York State.
In a speech broadcast on state-run cable television in July, Leonard Jeffries Jr. told participants at the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival that "rich Jews" had helped run the slave trade and that they now control Hollywood in a conspiracy with the Mafia for "the destruction of black people."
Mr. Jeffries, who is chairman of the black-studies department at City College and once served as a paid consultant to the state's effort to re-examine its treatment of minorities in the school curriculum, also repeatedly said that whites in general suffer from "racial pathology," according to press accounts of the speech.
"You can't trust the white boy," he was quoted as telling the audience. "These white folks, even good ones, you can't trust."
Throughout the speech, he also invoked epithets for public figures ranging from George Washington to two contemporary critics of Afro-centrism: the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Diane Ravitch, the U.S. Education Department's new assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.
Mr. Jeffries called Ms. Ravitch "a Texas Jew," "Miss Daisy," and "an ultra-sophisticated, debonair racist."
"He's right about two things," Ms. Ravitch said in response last month. "I am from Texas and I am a Jew."
"But my friends tell me I am neither ultra-sophisticated, nor debonair, nor a racist," she said.
Consulted on 1989 Report
Mr. Jeffries's comments drew outraged reactions in the state and around the country after The New York Post published a story about the speech.
Governor Mario M. Cuomo has called on officials of the City University of New York, of which the City College campus is a part, to "take action [against Mr. Jeffries] or explain why they don't," and many newspaper columnists and other commentators have labeled Mr. Jeffries a bigot.
The furor closely follows reinvigorated debate tiffs summer over efforts in New York State to revise the public-school social-studies curriculum to better reflect the contributions of minorities and nonwhite cultures.
Mr. Jeffries served as a consultant to a task force, appointed by the state education department, that pointed up the need for such revisions in a controversial 1989 report.
That report, "A Curriculum of Inclusion,'' described African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Ricans, other Latinos, and Native Americans as "victims of intellectual and educational oppression" stemming from what it said was a "systematic bias toward European cultures and its derivatives" in New York's school curricula.
The 1989 report was never formally adopted by the state board of regents, but it led to the formation of a second task force that made recommendations this summer on infusing multicultural perspectives into the social-studies curriculum. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991 .)
Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol, who appointed both task forces, called Mr. Jeffries's July remarks "most unfortunate."
"It is important that all of us of whatever background learn to live well together," the schools chief said in a statement. "His apparent expressions of racial hatred do not further progress toward that goal."
Others have come to Mr. Jeffries's defense. A rally was held in support of him last month at a Brooklyn church, and at least one colleague, Donald Smith, the chairman of the education department at Bernard Baruch College in New York City, has been quoted defending him as "a fine scholar."
Mr. Jeffries did not return telephone calls for this story.
'Ice People' and 'Sun People'
The July 20 lecture did not mark the first time Mr. Jeffries has made remarks considered inflammatory.
For example, he had also referred to Ms. Ravitch as "Miss Daisy"--a white film character who employs a black chauffeur--last year during a national conference in Atlanta on Afro-centric education. (See Education Week, Nov. 28, 1990.)
Mr. Jeffries has also sparked debate by advancing a theory that Europeans, whom he calls "ice people," brought the world "domination, destruction, and death." In contrast, he has said, blacks---"the sun people"--are made superior by the amount of melanin in their skin.
The scholar's past racially charged statements, however, have not generated the widespread outrage that followed his recent speech.
"I guess it was the fact that the remarks Dr. Jeffries made were on a cable-TV station and many people saw it," said Chris Carpenter, a spokesman for the New York Education Department. "The issue has become: Should somebody who's being paid by the public be saying these things and should these things be broadcast on cable TV?"
Mr. Carpenter noted that Mr. Jeffries had not been asked to participate in the work of the second state task force on the curriculum, and that he would not be involved in a new panel that will follow up this summer's report.
Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 15Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Afro-Centrism Advocate In the Eye of New Storm