The Aoki Controversy: New Essay in Perspectives Online Offers a Historian’s View

Donna Murch, associate professor at Rutgers University and author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland (2010), has contributed an essay on the new headline-grabbing book by Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Many historians have been following the controversy surrounding this book, which burst onto the scene in late August with a series of headlines that were as sensational as they were definitive: 

“Richard Aoki, Man Who Armed Black Panthers, Was FBI Informant”
Huffington Post“The ‘Japanese Radical Cat’ Who Spied on the Panthers for the FBI”
Mother Jones

“FBI Informant Armed the Black Panthers before Shootouts with Police”
Business Insider

In Subversives, Rosenfeld claims that Richard Aoki, an influential member of the Black Panthers, was informing on the group for the FBI. Many print and digital publications are following Rosenfeld’s lead uncritically, presenting his book’s sensational claim as established fact, based on rock-solid evidence. In activist and academic circles, however, the claim is being held up to intense scrutiny.

The Chronicle of Higher Education last Friday summarized the reaction among scholars to Rosenfeld’s claim. At the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, Diane C. Fujino (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) asserted that Rosenfeld’s article and book “fail to meet the burden of proof.” At the Rafu Shimpo, the filmmakers behind the 2009 documentary Aoki offer their rebuttal. Rosenfeld has responded to Fujino, and both of them discussed the issue on “Democracy Now!” (video here).

In her timely essay in Perspectives Online, Donna Murch, who was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education piece linked above, makes note of the controversy surrounding the evidentiary basis of the Aoki claim, but delves further into the heart of the matter by asking why Rosenfeld does not engage recent scholarship on the Black Panthers and student movements, and discusses what his analysis might have gained from those accounts.

In the process, Murch also addresses perennial questions about the relationship between journalism and history, questions that interested readers can further explore in Nicholas Lemann’s “History Solo: Non-Academic Historians,” a classic article he wrote for the American Historical Review.

Donna Murch’s essay, “Countering Subversion: Black Panther Scholarship, Popular History, and the Richard Aoki Controversy,” is online now.

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