April 13, 2006 - Issue 179

Racism Is Alive and Well in the Academe
by Abdul Karim Bangura
Guest Commentator

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When in the fall of 2001 Harvard University President Lawrence Summers staged a confrontation with prominent African American Studies Professor Cornel West, browbeating him for what Summers characterized as spending too much time on political activism and spoken-word poetry, missing too many classes, and contributing to grade inflation, West was the one that ended leaving Harvard for a post at Princeton University, as the overwhelmingly White faculty did relatively nothing about West’s case. However, when Summers gave a speech at a January 14, 2005 National Bureau of Economic Research conference on workforce diversity, in which he attributed the under-representation of women in science and engineering to gender differences in “intrinsic aptitude,” describing “socialization and continuing discrimination” as “lesser factors,” he set the stage for his demise as president of Harvard.

Immediately, many of Harvard’s senior female professors began complaining vigorously about the fact that under Summer’s presidency, the percentage of tenured offers made to women by the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences had dropped dramatically. And when Summers pushed out Arts and Sciences Dean William C. Kirby, Summer’s demise as president at Harvard became inevitable. On March 15, 2005, members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a 218-185 motion of “lack of confidence” in Summers’ leadership, with 18 abstentions. A second motion that offered a milder censure of Summers passed 253 to 137, also with 18 abstentions. In July of 2005, the only African American board member of Harvard’s Corporation, Conrad K. Harper, resigned stating that he was angered both by Summers’ remarks about women and by Summers being given a salary increase. Finally, on Tuesday, February 21, 2006, Summers announced his resignation.

A profitable question, therefore, is the following: Why did the overwhelmingly White faculty fail to stand up for West the way they did for the White female professors and Dean Kirby? One possible answer is that West, being African American, would not get the type of support a White professor would get at a predominantly White academic institution because racism is alive and well in the academe.

That racism permeates the academe is not a farfetched proposition. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity, the United States Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, only five percent of all faculty teaching in higher education institutions is Black. Moreover, the American Council on Education reports that half of these Black professors are teaching at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Therefore, only a little more than two percent of the faculty teaching at predominantly White colleges and universities is Black.

Black professors teaching at such institutions often face significant challenges. According to professor of sociology Earl Smith of Pacific Lutheran University and professor of political science Stephanie Witt of Boise State University, Blacks employed by predominantly White institutions experience higher levels of stress than do Whites, as a result of marginalization and isolation. Additionally, Dr. Yolanda Moses, president of City College of New York, contends that Blacks have the lowest faculty progression, retention, and tenure rates in academe. In fact the United States Department of Labor reveals that most Black educators are teaching in part-time capacities as adjuncts, rather than as full, tenured professors. Black professors also tend to face questions about their qualifications and credibility, not only from their peers, but from students as well. According to professor of communication Katherine Grace Hendrix of the University of Memphis, White students often apply more stringent standards when assessing the credibility of Black professors than they do assessing the credibility of White professors. Further, White students more regularly ask Black professors about their credentials and educational backgrounds than they do White professors.

Finally, Black professors face a great deal of stereotyping. According to professor of communication Brenda J. Allen at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a common stereotype of Black women is the “Mammy” – the nurturer and the caretaker who is expected to solve everyone’s problems. Allen argues that this stereotype is especially prevalent for Black female faculty, who often find themselves tending to the problems from all over the campus community. In addition, according to Allen, Black women can be perceived as “Matriarchs,” aggressive, overbearing, arrogant, controlling, self-centered, and uppity as a result of their success. Even more, in an analysis of White students’ stereotypes of Black women by professor of women’s studies and sociology Rose Weitz at Arizona State University and Wakonse fellow Leonard Gordon at the same university, the students primarily characterize Black women as loud, aggressive, argumentative, stubborn, and bitchy.

Abdul Karim Bangura is currently a researcher-in-residence at the Center for Global Peace and a professor of International Relations and Islamic Peace Studies in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, a Ph.D. in Development Economics, a Ph.D. in Linguistics, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science. He is the author and/or editor of 52 books and more than 350 scholarly articles. He is fluent in about a dozen African and six European languages, and he is currently studying to increase his fluency in Arabic and Hebrew. You can contact him via the American University Website.

 

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