The Illusive Conversation: Race in America’s Classrooms
by David J. Leonard | @DrDavidJLeonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
In the aftermath of the savage murder of 9 African American men and women in Charleston, SC there was lots of public discussion of America’s unresolved racial acrimony. In the wake of Rachel Dolezal, there were daily debates about privilege, identity, and the unresolved issues of race in America.
In the days following uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, and the brutal attack of Dajerria Becton in McKinney, and the killing of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, Christian Taylor there were a slew of articles and public discussions of police violence, poverty, segregation, and America’s continued racial divide.
You would think from these recent events, times-were-a-changing; that long overdue talk was going to finally happen. If this conversation is happening, the revolution has not reached America’s colleges and universities.
While colleges and universities have never fully invested in African American Studies, and Ethnic Studies, the most recent budget crisis has led to tightened budgets, divestment, and a lack of growth. Irrespective of the “calls for yet another conversation about race,” and the persistence of racial inequities, addressing racism on and off campus has not been a priority. State legislatures across the nation responded to the purported STEM crisis with a steady stream of investment; The crises of poverty, police violence, housing and employment discrimination, and systemic anti-Black racism has not compelled investment.
The ‘racial strife’ and tension the news media spotlights has not led to widespread support of new faculty to foster these necessary racial conversations; no financial investment in departments committed to developing curriculum to prepare the next generation of students to be racially literate. In a moment where the needs couldn’t be clearer, colleges and universities have prioritized recreation facilities, athletics, bloated administrative costs, and professional programs.
If you had any hope that higher education will see the writing on America’s racial wall,, look no further than the cases of Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, Shannon Gibney, Zandria Robinson, Brittney Cooper, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and others outside the news cycle. The hostility and opposition is daily, impacting tenure and promotion, retention, and the overall experiences of faculty of color.
“Things that were previously simple are not so easy to explain anymore. We’ve metaphorically moved ‘from simple addition to calculus’ in the study of social sciences,” notes Safiya U. Noble, assistant professor in the Department of Information Studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. “Yet, I am doubtful that my counterparts in the math department have to employ the kind of pedagogical strategies we do, as Black women faculty in the social sciences and humanities, to have students comprehend the research and accept it from us as legitimate experts.”
Upon teaching her first general education course, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, spoke of a loss of innocence for teaching about race: “I was met with hostility, anger, fear as well as excitement and enthusiasm. Those feelings came through in my evaluations, with references such as, I was too political, brought up too much about race and inequality; my approach to teaching was elitist and angry.”
The level of racial hostility and white student resistance for all things racial can be seen in the faculty evaluations. Resembling an online comment section and Twitter, evaluations are rife with racism and sexism. Countless studies have documented how racism and sexism shape the classroom and infect evaluations. Black faculty members are routinely criticized for being “hostile,” “angry” and “unprofessional.” Claims of bias and critiques lamenting the focus on race and racism, despite that being the theme of the course, are commonplace.
The recent events in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Texas, and elsewhere make clear the stakes and the importance of this work. It highlights the necessity of racial literacy, diversity, critical multicultural education, and ethnic studies. It points to the importance of dealing with whiteness. According to Stephany Spaulding, “Without Critical Whiteness Studies, we will continue living in a society that blindly privileges particular ways of organizing institutional practices and structures.”
From the lack of investment in creating diverse places of learning, to the open hostility directed at the faculty, particularly women of color, to the rampant racial complacency from white America and its liberal institutions of advanced thinking and learning, it is clear that colleges and universities are not well-positioned to address the problem of the twenty-first century: Racism.
The question remains will colleges and universities seize upon these opportunities? Will the public at large grab hold of this moment? Will white faculty and students demand not only conversations about race, but a financial and cultural investment, and institutional change? Or will colleges and universities refuse the responsibility to provide those ill-equipped to have these conversation with the necessary tools?