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Who’s allowed to teach ‘Culture in America’? 

Inside one Barnard professor’s fight over who decides.
Professor Jonathan Rieder (left) and the Barnard liberal arts college in New York City

Kamira /

Sociology professor Jonathan Rieder (left) was shocked to learn that Barnard College canceled his "Culture in America" class because of his approach to talking about race.

Jonathan Rieder knows racism divides people.

He’s spent his entire scholarly career researching racial conflict and the language we use to discuss race, and he is a foremost expert on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. For much of his 30 years teaching sociology at Manhattan’s Barnard College, Rieder’s “Culture in America” course has been a staple. He invites students to unpack their own experience of American politics, privilege, and pluralism, while confronting “what they often find to be disturbing opinions,” Rieder says, on some of the most volatile disagreements in American life. Christian nationalists’ anti-gay views, the racial resentment of swing-state whites, and conservative Supreme Court decisions with which Rieder personally disagrees are just a few of the hot-button topics on the syllabus.

And that’s for good reason. Rieder wants students to ask themselves, “How do I know what’s true?” while he gives them the tools to answer objectively.

Rieder says he often tells his students at the beginning of class, “I don’t care if you are a Trumpian, a black nationalist or a libertarian. All viewpoints are welcome as long as you ground your arguments in evidence and rigorous methods.” 

But for almost a year, one particular viewpoint has been unwelcome in “Culture in America” — his own.

Barnard administrators canceled the course for the most recent academic year, with evidence reviewed by FIRE suggesting the decision was driven by disagreement with Rieder’s approach to teaching about race. And while the college said Rieder may be able to teach the course in the future, he has had to “rethink” the course content, presumably until his views more closely align with those of administrators.

Rap battles

Before landing at Barnard in the ’90s, Jon Rieder taught at Swarthmore and Yale, where he’d earned his Ph.D. He has an undergraduate degree from Harvard. 

His concerns about racism date to the early 1960s when he joined the NAACP youth group as a teen. After college, he taught special ed to some of the nation’s poorest kids from predominantly black neighborhoods in Boston and Philadelphia. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, he immersed himself in a Brooklyn neighborhood roiling with white racial backlash. He wrote his first book about his experience there, “Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism.” 

Over the following decades, his writing explored some of New York City’s most volatile racial storms: a racially motivated 1986 attack in which a gang of Queens-area white teens chased a young black man into traffic where he was killed; the 1990 black boycott of Korean grocers in Flatbush, Brooklyn; and the 1991 Crown Heights riot, when tensions between the neighborhood’s black and Jewish residents boiled over into violence. 

Along the way, Rieder said he learned just how much the words we choose to discuss divisive racial issues matter. He gained particular insight writing critically acclaimed books about the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“In my two decades of work on Dr. King, I had the honor of talking with his preacher colleagues, true heroes of the revolution, about the different ways they and Dr. King used the N-word,” Rieder said. “I’ve gone back and forth with Al Sharpton on his distinction between ‘crackers’ and ‘honkeys.’ I’ve listened as the iconic soul singer Mavis Staples explained to me why ‘the N-word can’t hurt me.’”

But in December 2020, Barnard Sociology Department Chair Mignon Moore and Provost & Dean of the Faculty Linda Bell began raising concerns about Rieder’s use of that word in both “Culture in America” and another course, “Music, Race and Identity.” 

Moore said some students of color were “uncomfortable” with Rieder quoting texts with the word “nigger” as a “white man with power.” She said those students felt he was “dismissive of their experience,” was not “connecting” with them, and felt “harmed” by his teaching. 

Rieder was puzzled by Moore’s claim since he had stopped quoting the word a few years previously. 

“I had temporarily embargoed quoting the n-word several years ago in order to rethink how to balance my own principled views of the matter and the objections of some students,” Rieder said. 

And, as it would turn out, the evaluations for the class that semester — in which almost half the students were students of color — were overwhelmingly positive, with the majority rating the course highly or “excellent.”

Concerned, Rieder asked to start an ongoing conversation with Moore about his pedagogy around race, but she shut it down.

“I don’t have anything to talk about with you talking about race,” she replied. “I don’t like the way you approach it.”

Bell, the provost, encouraged Rieder to reconsider “some of the more difficult material” he was teaching, and “shift [his] approach.”


The following October in a “Culture in America” Zoom lecture, Rieder was discussing a scene in the movie “8 Mile.” 

“I was setting up Eminem’s identity shifts in the final rap battle scene,” Rieder recalls. 

He quoted the lyrics verbatim:

You think these niggas gonna feel the shit you say?

I got a better chance joining the KKK.

“I was reading the lines of one of his African-American challengers who utters the word not as a slur but as a term of racial affinity.”

Regardless, Rieder said using the direct quote was accidental. 

“Alas, in the current climate, no mistakes are allowed.”

Three students filed a Title IX complaint against Rieder, alleging discriminatory harassment. After meeting with the students, Barnard properly determined Rieder’s expression was protected and the investigation was dropped. However, the incident received media coverage, including articles in the New York Post and the Columbia Spectator

“Barnard professor allegedly drops N-bomb in class,” one headline read.

Not a time for debate

Rieder’s exoneration has not felt like one. A series of subsequent meetings with administrators has ultimately led up to the cancellation of “Culture in America.”

While college departments have substantial power to guide course offerings, Barnard appears to have punished Rieder — whose faculty status is protected by tenure — at least in part due to his protected pedagogical choices. Rieder’s interactions with Moore in particular shed light on how Barnard administrators are balancing competing demands between faculty and students, by putting the rights of faculty they disagree with dead last.

“I understand that words can hurt,” Rieder said. “And I understand the deep wounds my students bring to this moment in American life. But to confuse a squabble over the meta rules about quoting a term of racial affinity with racial harassment trivializes racism.”

In one of the first meetings about the course’s content, Moore did not dispute the claim of the three students who accused Rieder of racial harassment that his “curriculum was racist,” because, for example, he improperly suggested that socioeconomic class was a bigger issue than race, and used “bigoted language.” She said the students complained that Rieder shared his “beliefs and philosophy” without providing citations for each of his assertions.

Rieder then asked Moore what allegedly bigoted language the students objected to, and the exchange — which FIRE has reviewed — is worth quoting at length.

Rieder: Was there a concrete example of my bigoted language? That’s what I was trying to grapple with.

Moore: No. This is what they said. This is after the fact. So, no. I supported them. I said: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I appreciate it. You have a right to feel safe in the classroom. I don’t have any authority over professor Rieder, you should let the provost know how you feel.”

Rieder: Was there ever a discussion of saying “Look . . . Why don’t you continue your discussion with Rieder?”

Moore: No. I don’t think they should’ve continued with you, because I don’t find that you listen. 

I find that you have a perspective and that is it. And when you tell people you want to have a discussion, you really don’t want to have a discussion. You want a space to share your perspective. You do not seem amenable to changing your perspective. And so, no. I think it’s harmful for people to engage with someone who is not really listening to them but waiting for them to finish talking so they can tell them why they’re wrong. And that is how I feel you are around this question. 

And so I suggested they have limited contact because it is very stressful to talk to someone who is your professor who has authority over you and with whom you disagree. They were feeling uncomfortable. They were feeling harmed. … This is a real problem for students this term, this year, of having anxiety, of being cooped up with their own ideas, of having no social spaces, so they’re left in their world with their own ideas, so this is not a time to have open debates about things that are very personal to people. So my goal was to minimize that. I don’t want anyone harming themselves. I don’t want anyone feeling bad about themselves. These are students with very high GPAs. 3.6, 3.7, 3.8 cumulative GPAs. I didn’t want them to feel negative about themselves because of how they’re experiencing your class.

In March of last year, Moore told Rieder “Culture in America” would officially be canceled. She cited a pattern of “students feeling harmed [and] feeling very uncomfortable with the way you teach that course,” mentioned “negative student feedback,” and said Rieder did not teach race “in a neutral way.”

Yet, Moore’s statements embody the same closed-minded tendencies with which she charged Rieder. Her responses make clear she didn’t “want to have a discussion” with him, and she did not “seem amenable to changing [her] perspective” about the issues, deferring to the “feelings” of some students over “open debates” for the class as a whole.

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When the president of Hamline University recently conveyed the same view — that avoiding offending a student should take precedence over academic freedom concerns — she was subject to blistering worldwide criticism, and Hamline’s full-time faculty demanded she resign her post.

Sadly, at Barnard, it was professor Rieder who was penalized.

Despite a letter last May from FIRE to Barnard President Sian Beilock, detailing our serious academic freedom concerns about the course cancellation, Barnard has never formally responded. Perhaps unsurprising given that Barnard ranks a dismal 167 of 200 schools on FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings, rating schools that promise free expression and academic freedom.

“Culture in America” remains canceled. Administrators have left open the possibility of its reinstatement, but only if Rieder changes his course content and consults with Barnard’s Committee on Engaged Pedagogy. Effectively, Rieder must agree to be re-educated.

‘Marching on the English department’

Rieder worries about ideological diversity at Barnard.

He quotes a great one-liner of one of his late colleagues, and fellow liberal, Todd Gitlin: “While the right has been busy taking the White House, the left has been marching on the English department.”

“For Barnard to cancel this course, at this critical point, on the flimsiest of pretexts, is unsupportable,” Rieder said. “It’s a disservice to students. And it’s definitely not ‘Bold Barnard’ as the college likes to brand itself, but ‘Nervous Barnard.’” 

Rieder says he believes words can cause harm, but he also believes that efforts to suppress them on campus are harmful, particularly since they treat students as fragile, sanitize history, and undermine efforts to counter racism and other social injustices.

“Culture in America” remains canceled. Administrators have left open the possibility of its reinstatement, but only if Rieder changes his course content and consults with Barnard’s Committee on Engaged Pedagogy. Effectively, Rieder must agree to be re-educated.

Activist and CNN commentator Van Jones powerfully explained at the University of Chicago why it is especially important for students who care about social justice not to avoid words that offend them:

There are two ideas about safe spaces. One is a good idea and one is a terrible idea. The idea of being physically safe on a campus. . . . [I’m] perfectly fine with that. . . . But there’s another view that is now, I think, ascendent which I think is just a horrible view. Which is that I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally. I just need to feel good all the time. And if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else including the administration. And I think that is a terrible idea for the following reasons: I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. … I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that’s what we need from you in these communities.

This emboldening message accords with the “bold” vision of Barnard: repudiating traditional stereotypes that women need protection, and imbuing its female students with the self-confidence and analytical and oratorical skills to tear down discriminatory ideas, rather than permitting such ideas to tear the students down.

“I understand that words can hurt,” Rieder said. “And I understand the deep wounds my students bring to this moment in American life. But to confuse a squabble over the meta rules about quoting a term of racial affinity with racial harassment trivializes racism.”

Rieder said discussions of race at colleges like Barnard, with its “often rarefied debate on gender and race and esoteric jargon of cultural theory, and its misplaced calls to ‘decolonize the classroom,’ — have become disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people, including people of color, including those who enroll in ‘Culture of America.’” 

That fact, he says, “has been to the detriment of rigorous academic analysis, detrimental to the left, and detrimental to the cause of true diversity.”

That’s something Rieder is committed to keep teaching.

For as long as he’s allowed.

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