I asked the students how many of them have had more than one black professor. Two hands went in the air, with both students being African-American studies majors. The fact that there were hundreds of people in the room, yet only a couple of them have had more than one black professor (after taking several years of classes, half the room was filled with college graduates) made my point immediately and clearly.
I found this while lurking around and trying to find reactions to Obama’s brilliant and historic speech yesterday. It’s by Boyce Watkins at Blackprof.com.
I realized two things while reading this article:
1) Oh, dear Lord! I have never had a black professor the entire time I’ve been in college. Uaaagh! That just seems impossible. I’ve been in college for years! My last two years of high school were at a community college, and now I’m a college junior. (Now I’m at the University of Oregon, a college which I loathe.) I’ve had about a bazillion professors. I’ve had great professors and terrible professors, professors that crushed my dreams and professors that dared me to aim high. Not a single one has been black, though. I’ve had an Iranian professor of economics and a German professor of political science… and, uh, a Japanese professor of Japanese. But, I don’t think I’ve ever had a black professor of anything. That’s really, really scary.
2) Watkins has an important point: integration cannot happen through osmosis. An all-white board is going to be biased towards white candidates, and I really want to emphasize that that does not make them bad people at all. If we’re going to end racism in this country, we need to be frank about our limitations. We don’t appoint all-white juries to try black defendants (or, at least, we shouldn’t) because fundamental questions about identity and empathy come into play. It’s easier for ourselves to pick somebody who looks like us and reminds us of ourselves when we were young. That’s only because we’re human.
Sometimes you just have to force the system open, and yes, that can mean considering race as a credential in itself (though, obviously, not overriding qualifications of experience or professional accolade). If the school’s faculty does not reflect, adequately, the school’s student body, then the school is not doing its job. By not letting in black academics and thus not allowing their ideas to mix in with those out there, universities not only promote a dangerous policy of institutional inertia, where intellectuals are unable to see their own assumptions through the lens of background and culture, but deprive their students of a fundamental right to be mentored by people who can empathize with their story and upbringing. My biggest concern, however, is that such policies, of letting integration happen on its own (it never does), tell students that black people were not meant to be smart by trotting out an unblemished slate of cerebral Caucasians, often alongside a celebrated and racially mixed football team. That’s pathetic; it sends the message that black people were meant to be gladiators and never warriors.
…By focusing on “black” I’m really erring by not giving plenty of other cultural groups (Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, American Indians, etc., without even broaching the equally important subjects of religion, sexual orientation, cultural outlook and ideological/intellectual stripe) their due. So, fill in the blanks, because the same rule holds for all. By presuming that our universities are integrated in name–and ignoring when they are not integrated in actuality–a university chokes its own intellectual environment, leaves the same bland theories unchallenged, and deprives young people of all kinds the fundamental message that they’re Americans too, and they have the same right to learning, and being smart, as everybody else. Just as not every white kid dreams of being a hedge fund manager, not every black kid hankers to become a football player. (Go down the list of stereotypes if you want to make that sentence longer; it will still hold.) We can’t create an environment of universal academic freedom without active effort, and the lack of such–called “negligence”–is better than overt racism but is not what will heal America.