One afternoon last August, the columnist Murray Kempton of Newsday stood on a street corner in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, discussing academic politics with a middle-aged black man. Kempton had come to the riot-torn neighborhood in a city van to witness an outdoor press conference called by Mayor David Dinkins. Afterward, he joined the feeding frenzy of reporters who mingled with neighborhood onlookers, seeking an authentic voice of “black rage” to explain the preceding days of anti-Jewish rioting. Wearing a light gray-flannel suit, smoking a pipe, taking notes with a fountain pen, Kempton would have cut a striking figure on that stretch of Eastern Parkway under any circumstances. When he held up his looseleaf notebook and displayed a sticker that read, “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media,” he looked as if he had stepped out of a New Yorker cartoon—especially as he is famously liberal (if in a somewhat heterodox sense) himself.

In any case, his interlocutor seemed to agree with the sticker. Circling around in front of Kempton, the slight man with graying dreadlocks and a tam-o’-shanter woven of the African nationalist colors of red, green, and gold, kept pointing at the journalist and proclaiming: “I’ve heard his story, now I want history, because my story is a mystery.”

“That’s right,” another man said. “Let’s talk about the curriculum of inclusion.”

“You mean Leonard Jeffries?” Kempton asked.

“Yes sir,” said a teenager. “Leonard Jeffries said everything that is correct.”

“That’s what this is all about,” the dreadlocked man declared.

The statement was not without substance. What the man on the street corner meant was that the mayhem in Crown Heights—the four days in which blacks marched and rioted against their Jewish neighbors, leaving one slain, many injured, and the rest terrorized by chants of “The black Hitler has arose now”—was a sort of objective correlative to the struggle for multicultural curricular reform being waged in the academy by “Afrocentrists” like Leonard Jeffries, Jr. The chairman of black studies at the City College of New York (CCNY), Jeffries has dismissed all of Western civilization as a barbaric, white supremacist rip-off of and conspiracy against African peoples and culture.

For exactly two weeks before the riots broke out, Jeffries was featured in banner headlines in New York newspapers, not as an advocate of educational reform, but as a racist demagogue. The media uproar was occasioned by a speech, delivered on July 20, 1991 at the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival in Albany, in which Jeffries blamed Jewish conspiracies for everything from the slave trade to the negative depiction of blacks in Hollywood movies to setbacks he himself had suffered in his efforts to impose an Afrocentrist social-studies curriculum on New York state’s grade-school students. The two-hour speech included nasty anti-Semitic swipes at Diane Ravitch, formerly of Teachers College and now an Assistant Secretary of Education, the sociologist Nathan Glazer of Harvard, former New York City Mayor Edward Koch, and even the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of the City University of New York, whom Jeffries seems to take for a Jew.

Jeffries framed his speech as a defense of a commission appointed by Thomas Sobol, the state Commissioner of Education, to rewrite the New York public-school social-studies curriculum.1 He spoke at a time when there was still heated public controversy over the report issued by that commission. Entitled “One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Independence,” the report called for a revision of social-studies syllabi along lines so radically multicultural that Schlesinger, another member of the commission, refused to endorse it, stating that it was “saturated with pluribus and neglectful of unum.” Jeffries thought quite the opposite. He had been a consultant to an earlier Sobol commission, and had contributed to a report too militant to be adopted. But his beef in Albany was largely a personal one. He painted himself as a man vilified by a widespread conspiracy to maintain a white-supremacist curriculum. He compared himself to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as a likely target of white assassins—never mind that Malcolm X was slain by fellow black Muslims—and declared: “So death is not a thing. I’m not gonna back down, no matter what.”

For the most part, however, Jeffries picked on the Jews, and invoked something called “The African Holy Ghost” as his source of strength in resisting “devilish” Jewish efforts to annihilate him. His charge that Jews had masterminded the slave trade from headquarters like the synagogue of Amsterdam was only one piece of his wide-ranging, two-hour rant. Denouncing Diane Ravitch, for example, as the “ultimate, supreme, sophisticated, debonair racist—pure and simple,” he declared:

In fact, she is the new standard. The old standard was a Bible Belt Texas rural family. That’s the standard for the textbooks that went into the schools for generations. Now the new standard is not a Bible Belt Texas family but a sophisticated Texas Jew. And that standard is not good enough either—because many people, such as the Ravitches, who happen to be Jewish, have blinded us on the attack coming from the Jewish community—systematic, unrelenting. And until we can look at it and deal with it, there’s no efforts we can make that’re going to be successful. Not anti-Semitic to raise the issue—but if you do not deal with it, you’re fooling yourself.

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What distinguishes Leonard Jeffries from any number of other crackpots on the racial hustings these days are his academic credentials. Jeffries received tenure and became chairman of his department in 1972, the year after he won his doctorate from Columbia. He has never published, but he seems less interested in having a reputation among scholars than in exercising an influence on black identity in the streets. He insists on the honorifics “Dr.” and “Professor”; with his City College title and in his West African cap and flowing robes, lugging around a pile of books—he calls them his “ammunition”—he unleashes diatribes on the lecture circuit which have their share of lucid moments, factual or interpretative historical accounts that are unobjectionable, if hardly scholarly. He possesses wit, oratorical flourish, even charm, and uses his hybrid academic/African authenticity to play the college-accredited shaman, tapping black rage in the streets. And the longer he gets away with it, the more legitimate he appears—the more he appears to be speaking a truth which the powers-that-be cannot deny. After all, if he were a charlatan, “they” would have stopped him by now, would they not?

But the answer is that they would not—and the reason goes to the heart of the crisis in racial politics today, both on and off the campuses. Jeffries wraps himself in the convenient and congenial mantle of multiculturalism, in precisely the same way that the one-time Klansman and Nazi, David Duke, wraps himself in the mantle of the Republican party. And, again in the same way, he gives multiculturalism a bad name. But it is not through the logic of multiculturalism, or political correctness, or affirmative action that Jeffries holds on at CCNY. It is through the power of intimidation. He speaks in the rhetoric of contemporary academic discourse, and enjoys the cover of academic freedom and tenure, but he is no more “about” those things than the rioting in Crown Heights was about a multicultural reform of the pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade social-studies curriculum in New York state. He is a black supremacist, who uses his classroom to teach his notion that the skin pigment melanin endows blacks with physical and intellectual superiority, and that the “ice people” of Europe are thieves who have consistently visited “destruction, domination, and death” on the “communal, cooperative, and collective” “sun people” of Africa.

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Jeffries’s Albany audience received his speech warmly, but the wider world might never have been the wiser if the state-owned cable-television channel, NYSCAN, had not aired a videotape as part of its public-service coverage of state-sponsored programs. That was how Fredric Dicker, the New York Post‘s Albany correspondent, came across it. He “broke” the story on August 5, two weeks to the day before the roving gang of young blacks in Crown Heights, angered by an automobile accident in which a black child had been killed by a car driven by a Hasid, spotted a man in a black hat crossing the street, shouted, “Kill the Jew,” set upon him, and left him dying of knife wounds.

In the period between the Post‘s story and the stabbing death of Yankel Rosenbaum, Leonard Jeffries had become something of a folk hero in the martyrology of New York’s militant black community. While the leaders of Jewish organizations, several newspaper editorial boards, and white elected officials, from New York City Council members to Governor Mario Cuomo, tripped over one another to issue vigorous denunciations of the man’s bigotry, black officials were largely silent, and a number of Jeffries’s colleagues, as well as various black clergymen and the black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, rallied to his defense. Not one of the sixteen black members of the state Assembly would sign an open letter denouncing the speech.

The color divide over Jeffries came as a shock to many liberals and civil-rights advocates who had assumed that racism was racism whether practiced by blacks or whites. The fact that the vast majority of influential black leaders closed ranks in silence or in vocal support of Jeffries left deep wounds in the civil-rights community that have yet to be fully examined or even acknowledged. But Jeffries’s boosters were unrepentant. They seized the offensive, claiming that he was being pounced on unfairly; his remarks were protected by freedom of speech and his tenured job, on the public payroll, was protected by academic freedom; charges of anti-Semitism were nothing but a smear campaign by people who could not face the “truth” he had to tell; the “attack” on him was just a diversionary tactic by those determined to destroy multiculturalist educational reform, a civil-rights cause for which he was being made a fall guy.

Evidently, many people felt that if Jeffries was on the “right” side in the culture wars, it did not really matter that he was an anti-Semite: as Juan Gonzales, a columnist in the Daily News, wrote in early August, “Those who want to punish [Jeffries] for his beliefs and remove him from the classroom are using some of his crudest and inexcusable statements, in some instances out of context, to silence a growing revolution in education.” For others, the matter was far simpler: it is a common article of faith in the pro-Jeffries camp that a black man cannot be a racist. And then there were those who suspected Jeffries might be out of line, but who saw the public ire arrayed against him as utterly disproportionate to his offense.

Jeffries himself was in Africa when word of the speech hit the streets. When he returned on August 14 he found hundreds of supporters gathered at the airport. There had already been a march of 500 in Harlem, and the next day saw a rally at the Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn where several thousand fans gathered to cheer as they watched a rerun of the Albany speech. On that occasion, the New York Times reported, the crowd was brought to its feet by the activist reverend, Herbert Daughtry, who brandished his fists and cried: “Up, you mighty race! Up, you mighty race! Fight, you mighty race!”

Wilbert Tatum, publisher of the Amsterdam News, has said that “the extent of the attack against Len just got the black middle class’s back up like nothing else in a long time.” Tatum, who calls Jeffries an old friend, insists that neither he nor his Jewish wife and children found anything anti-Semitic in the Albany speech. In his newspaper, Tatum published a report on another Jeffries speech, this one given in Harlem, on the “curriculum of liberation”:

“Let me clarify my views,” Dr. Jeffries said, after a long exegesis on the role of Jews in the African slave trade, “if they say we are destroying Western civilization with our proposals, then I say let it happen quickly, because Western civilization is nothing more than an institutionalized, sophisticated form of barbarism.”

The Amsterdam News also ran an ad for “The Committee to Defend Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.,” which gave as its contact address the CCNY blackstudies department office. The ad expressed support for Jeffries’s statements in the name of “the African people of Africa, America, and around the World,” and warned that “the Black Community is holding all responsible ethnic groups and media accountable for any threats, slander, and misquotes attributed to Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.”

A blunter message was distributed on the CCNY campus and in surrounding Harlem neighborhoods in the form of an unsigned flyer warning that “the New York Post and the Jewish people” were being considered the responsible parties. That notice ended with the ironic reminder that “freedom of speech is the law.”

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Freedom of speech, however, has never been a significant issue in the Jeffries affair. Whatever Jeffries and his defenders may claim to the contrary, no one has ever disputed his right to spew racist doggerel. The question instead was whether in so doing he had violated his trust and responsibilities as department chairman, whether City College could and should remove him from that honorary position, and whether the school could fire him without violating his tenure. The answer in each case was yes, but City College had so consistently refused to take any action against Jeffries that one would almost seem justified in suspecting a conspiracy at work to protect him.

Before the Crown Heights riots knocked Jeffries out of the news, the president of City College, Bernard Harleston, who is black, announced that he would conduct a thorough review of the professor’s behavior. In mid-September he ordered the provost, Robert Pfeffer, to determine Jeffries’s fitness to continue as chairman. Such a review might reasonably have been expected to cover the Albany speech, to examine whether or not Jeffries’s scholarly apparatus in the classroom was as rickety, his delivery as manic, his racism as vigorous as in an off-campus pulpit, and to poke around a bit in his past to learn how he had been doing his job and what his reputation was among colleagues at CCNY and elsewhere.

Contacted by phone at that time, an agitated Jeffries told me, “There is no investigation. There is no investigation.” As it turned out, he was, for once, very nearly right. While Harleston had promised the public a “thorough review,” his instructions to Pfeffer stated that “the ideas [Jeffries] has expressed, including the speech he recently delivered in Albany, are not germane to this review.” Harleston also forbade the provost to consider anything in Jeffries’s record prior to June 1, 1991, when a previous review had cleared him of any outstanding charges. At that time, Jeffries’s department had unanimously voted to support the trustees’ renewal of his chairmanship for a standard three-year term.

As a result, Pfeffer was left with nothing to review but Jeffries’s summer vacation, much of which had been spent in Africa, and “the impact his public statements have had, if any, upon the present operations of the college, and his department.” The provost was particularly urged to poll Jeffries’s colleagues in black studies, but that was not much different from asking Jeffries what he thought of himself. The department he put together stands squarely behind him, so much so that when he announced in the fall that he believed a secret society of Jewish faculty members was operating in the college, the black-studies department called upon the CCNY faculty senate to investigate “a clear pattern of manipulation of decision-making by a small self-selected group of faculty who have acted in a ‘concert of mutual interests’ under the guise of either a fraternity, a Kabala or a Cabal.”

What Pfeffer learned in his review remains unknown. When at the end of October the trustees came to vote on the renewal of Jeffries’s chairmanship, the president’s office, noting the confidentiality of personnel matters, refused to release the review. Trustees were only allowed to view a report afterward, and even then only in the presence of an aide to Harleston. But by then anything they might have learned would be too late. They had already voted to renew Jeffries’s chairmanship for an unprecedented one-year probationary period. The president had told them that Jeffries was clearly bad news for both race relations and public relations—at a time of dire fiscal crisis for the college, alumni contributions had taken a big hit on account of him—but Harleston also said he feared unrest on campus, and even a riot in Harlem. Rather than do the right thing, he advised the trustees to cave in to this hint of menace. As they voted, Leonard Jeffries harangued a cheering crowd of several hundred on the sidewalk outside.

“Keep in mind,” Harleston told reporters afterward, “that at this particular time in the history of the city there’s a lot of tension.” He does not seem to have kept in his own mind that Jeffries was a major contributor to that tension.

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Bernard Harleston has a long history of being soft on Leonard Jeffries. At least as far back as 1984 he sat on his hands after Jeffries launched an anti-Semitic attack on a professor who was being interviewed for a job as director of international studies. The candidate, a graduate of Brooklyn College, subsequently withdrew his application and went on to a prestigious job elsewhere, but not without recording the experience that had turned him away.

“On two occasions,” he wrote to Harleston, “one public and the other private, patently racist and anti-Semitic remarks were made to me. You personally were accused of being no more than a ‘tool’ of white Jewish power brokers.” The candidate went on to list other offenses, including the “paranoid” insistence of his harasser that funding sources like the United States Information Agency and the Agency for International Development were “intelligence agencies.” He concluded prophetically:

Colleges and universities in this country are places where we strive to dispel the darkness, not propagate it. City College historically has been one of our great institutions of higher learning. If forces of darkness are allowed to go unchallenged at City, then the institution will suffer irreparable damage.

Harleston did nothing. The faculty of the political-science department mailed the ex-candidate a letter of apology, deploring the treatment he had received, but there is no evidence that the offending party was ever held accountable. This summer, when the furor over Jeffries’s Albany speech was in the news, the former candidate dropped a line to Ann Reynolds, chancellor of the City University, to remind her of his experience and to establish clearly for the record that Jeffries had been his antagonist.

Harleston’s inaction in 1984—and there may have been earlier instances—set a precedent which Jeffries took to heart. As the years went by, charges of misconduct, race-baiting, and harassment piled up, as well as criticisms of his conduct in the classroom, from excessive tardiness to intimidation and the teaching of patent falsehoods. Occasionally these charges were investigated, and occasionally there were mild censures of Jeffries’s language or tone, efforts to assure the public that the school did not necessarily endorse everything its professors said. Clearly, CCNY wished to avoid trouble; but that does not mean, as Harelston likes to claim, that he was unable to take firmer action.

According to Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, “it would be acceptable to initiate dismissal proceedings” if Jeffries taught in his classroom what he has been preaching outside it—that Jewish conspiracies are to blame for black suffering, for instance. Kurland also notes that “there have been cases of racial harassment, or abusive language directed against a particular individual, that have led to dismissal of tenured faculty.” A strong case might have been made against Jeffries on either basis if the school had wanted to make it. For numerous eyewitness reports from Jeffries’s classroom suggest that his teaching has been, if anything, more uncontrolled on campus than off.

Harleston, like Jeffries, has invoked academic freedom and the school’s policy of hands-off respect for the activities of tenured faculty. But that is not what has constrained him from dealing appropriately with Jeffries. As was made clear in a case in federal court last fall, Harleston did find it within himself to punish a white professor for his racist views, even though there was no hint of evidence suggesting that the professor, Michael Levin of the philosophy department, had ever sought to teach his views in his classes.

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The problem of Michael Levin has shadowed Leonard Jeffries for years, ever since Levin began publishing his belief that blacks are genetically less disposed to intelligence than whites, and that white store owners, for example, are rationally justified, out of fear of crime, in discriminating against blacks simply on the grounds that they are black. Such theorizing is something of a hobby for Levin; the students in his philosophy classes, when polled by the New York Times last year, expressed unawareness of his fascination with race. The Times even found a black South African woman in one of his classes who sang Levin’s praises.

Levin says he is not a bigot or a hater, and prefers to be called a “racialist” rather than a racist, but he accepts either label. He does not attach his racism to any broader political agenda, describing it rather as a matter of “moral philosophy.” Although he speaks as a professor of philosophy, he does not claim to speak for philosophers in general, as Jeffries claims to speak for blacks, and he has no apparent following. When the CUNY trustees voted on Jeffries’s chairmanship in October, a handful of Jews chanting, “Jeffries has to go!” were confronted by blacks chanting, “Levin has to go!” The Jews fell silent a moment, then started shouting, “Levin and Jeffries have to go!”

Levin is a vigorous supporter of Jeffries’s right to say whatever he likes, but Levin and Jeffries are not, in fact, the same thing. Nor has Harleston treated them equally. Jeffries’s classroom teaching has drawn complaints, but he has been exonerated, while Levin, whose students were unaware of his controversial views, had to sue Harleston to get an injunction against the college to prevent further stigmatization and damage to his academic reputation. Levin’s brief rested on two basic charges: that the school had failed to provide proper security to prevent disruption of his classes by activists, and had refused to enforce the campus code against such agitators; and that the school had undermined Levin’s teaching by writing letters to all enrollees, warning that he was “controversial” and offering them the opportunity to enroll in sections of his courses taught by other professors. Levin argued that the administration’s practices violated his civil rights, and Judge Kenneth Conboy agreed.

Conboy’s decision came in mid-September, and Harleston immediately initiated an appeal. That action did not square with the decision a month later to renew Jeffries’s chairmanship. On the contrary, Harleston was effectively implementing a double standard, fighting for the right to keep punishing Levin’s racism while rewarding Jeffries’s. Since the faculty senate had discouraged disciplinary action against both men, Harleston was clearly acting not on principle but on his own feelings, or on some broader sense of what would be acceptable to the campus, including the sense of who would be most likely to riot if he displeased them.

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Harleston now claims that he will ask the trustees to revoke Jeffries’s chairmanship in June. In fact, he says, that was the plan all along, implying a secret understanding with the trustees to buy time while he sought a replacement. But the delay—with its absurd hint that this is not an open-and-shut case—has only strengthened Jeffries’s hand. His career as a self-proclaimed martyr of the black-liberation struggle continues to thrive. Throughout the fall of last year he followed a hectic lecture schedule, traveling the country to deliver his standard two- and three-hour stump speeches. Reports suggest that he has toned down his references to Jews—enough, at least, to permit his audiences to go away thinking his reputation as a racist has been exaggerated.

In the end, 1991 was a good year for Leonard Jeffries: he parried the biggest attack on him yet, and gained a much wider hearing than ever before. It did not even seem to matter that the morning after CCNY renewed his chairmanship, a student reporter from the Harvard Crimson, a black Jew named Eliot Morgan, went public with charges that Jeffries had threatened his life during an interview.

Morgan filed a complaint with the Manhattan district attorney, but the case—one man’s word against another—will probably end inconclusively. Jeffries may boast about having the courage of his convictions, but he has flatly denounced a former student’s recent testimony that he told a class that “Jews were dogs,” as well as reports in the black magazine, Emerge, that he rejects whites and even light-skinned blacks as students. In late January, he was due to deliver a keynote address to a conference of Holocaust revisionists in Los Angeles, where ironically he was to share the bill with a rogue’s gallery of leading white supremacists. He withdrew at the last minute, following a public outcry, and described himself as the victim of a “media lynching.”

Only then did Harleston announce that he was looking to replace Jeffries, complaining that he was finding no takers for the job. That is hardly a surprise; Jeffries created his department in his image, and assuming he is removed in June, he will in all probability still remain on the scene to bully any new titular head. Thus has City College reaped the consequences of two decades of harboring, protecting, and rewarding an unabashed racist and demagogue.

1 See “E Pluribus Nihil,” by Midge Decter, COMMENTARY, September 1991.

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