In my post "Academia and 'Real Life',", I wrote about the fact that, despite the flip assumptions and assertions of some, academia is as real a world as any other. Unfortunately, this also means that academia shares in all the faults and contradictions of other social environments and institutions, and of our society as a whole. One of these is an attitude toward black people which is conflicted and contradictory at best, and racist and stereotype-riddled at worst. In this post I discuss both statistical evidence for and personal encounters with such racism.
I hesitated before posting this piece, both because of its partly personal nature and because I am on the academic job market and feared that it might offend potential employers. Unlike many who engage in blogging and other online exercises in self-display, I am well aware that my blog is my public face, though as a well published writer I also have other public faces which have long preceded this blog. But a potential employer who would be offended by what I have to say would most likely not wish to hire me in any case.
I was also concerned that I might be presenting a distorted or unfair picture of my experiences on the academic job market, since the egregious examples I recount here constitute a small proportion of the rather large number of job interviews I have had. But my partner Robert pointed out that if I can enumerate not one or two but several such outrageous incidents, involving a wide range of institutions from all over the country, they represent just the tip of the iceberg of many other occasions in which racism operated less blatantly.
My remarks focus on the humanities and particularly on English, since these are the disciplines with which I’m most familiar and because they are from my impressionistic viewpoint the disciplines in which the dynamics I discuss are most pervasive and egregious.
It’s a commonly held belief that academia is overrun with minorities. One symptom of this is the popular pastime among heterosexual white male academics of complaining that they lost a job to a minority or a female candidate. According to “Love Me, I Celebrate Diversity,” a December 2006 First Person column in The Chronicle of Higher Education by the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton (who has recently “outed” himself—his phrase—as William A. Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan and a former agitator in the cause of graduate student and adjunct rights), “Anyone who has ever been on an academic hiring committee has heard people say things like: ‘The last thing we need around here is more white males.’ Or, ‘We have to make sure that we don’t accidentally interview any white males.’ And academic job advertisements usually reflect that position.” Perhaps this is why the chair of the English department at an elite Northeastern university at which I taught several years ago proposed that the white husband of a black scholar another department was pursuing be taken on as an affirmative action hire, apparently because of his proximity to a black person. (After I raised objections, the man was instead brought in under the rubric of a spousal hire.)
Benton also claims that there is an academic bias in favor of “preferred minority groups” and that “the price of the slightest misstep on issues of race [means] social and professional ostracism, particularly if you [have] aspirations to work in higher education.” Ironically enough, I have as the wrong sort of black person apparently made such missteps myself. (The article can be found here.)
Such men often expect me to sympathize with the terrible unfairness of their not getting a job “because I was a white guy,” or at best “because they wanted a minority” or “they wanted a woman.” As one told me while we were classmates at the Iowa Writers Workshop, “You won’t have any trouble getting a job.” I must admire the resilience and perseverance of straight white men that, with so much stacked against them, they have still managed to dominate higher education.
A few statistics may help provide some perspective. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005 black persons reporting only one race constituted 12.8 percent of the U.S. population.
The Chronicle of Higher Education web site reports that between 1984 and 2004 the number of doctorates in all fields earned by black U.S. citizens at U.S. colleges and universities almost doubled, rising from 4.1 percent of all doctorates to 7.2 percent. Though this represents impressive progress, these are still not large numbers, either proportionally or in absolute terms. In 2004 26,431 doctorates in all fields were awarded to U.S. citizens by U.S. colleges and universities. Out of this total, in 2004, 1869 doctorates were awarded to black U.S. citizens. Of this number, 45.9 percent, or almost half, were awarded in various fields of education. The Chronicle lists these as Research and administration, Teacher education, Teaching fields, Other education, and Engineering. I don’t know the content of these categories. (This information may be found here.)
I read an article some time ago in Black Issues in Higher Education (which has since renamed itself Diverse Issues in Higher Education, to reflect a wider focus) that most of those, of all races, receiving doctorates in education are career educators seeking the degree for professional development and career advancement. That is to say, these are people who already have jobs, mostly in primary and secondary education. Those that are seeking jobs are primarily seeking positions in primary and secondary education; some are seeking positions in college and university education departments. (There is a fascinating recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on black people in education, which describes the way in which black students and faculty have historically been and are currently funneled into education, a low-paying, low-funded, and low-prestige field. It may be found here or here.)
Since, as far as I can tell, most of those complaining about the plethora of minority candidates stealing their jobs are in the humanities, it’s worth pointing out that, again according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, only 3.4 percent of all doctorates awarded to black U.S. citizens in 2004 were in Letters, which would presumably include English. That adds up to a grand total of 63 doctorates per year, to which one can add the seven doctorates (0.4 percent of the total) awarded to black U.S. citizens in Foreign languages and literature, the 49 doctorates (2.6 percent of the total) awarded in History, and the 51 (2.7 percent of the total) awarded in “Other humanities.”
According to the Report on the MLA’s 2004 Survey of Hiring Departments, 16.9 percent of those hired in full-time positions, tenure-track and non tenure-track, by four-year English departments advertising in the MLA Job Information List (JIL) were “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic.” This would include black, Asian, and Native American job recipients. I am not sure why the MLA does not break down their ethnic categories in a more detailed and informative way. Nor, crucially, do they give any indication of how many of these “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic” job recipients are U.S. citizens. Immigrants and foreign students are not minorities in the same way that native-born individuals of the “same” race are. I would not be surprised if many of the “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic” job recipients were not U.S. citizens. (When I was a graduate student at Harvard University in the late Nineteen Eighties, students and faculty from Mexico and Spain were counted as “Hispanic.”) 14.4 percent of those hired in full-time positions, tenure-track and non tenure-track, by two-year English departments, both JIL and non-JIL, were “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic.” 11.7 percent of those hired by four-year foreign language departments that advertised in the MLA Job Information List were “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic.” Again, this category includes black, Asian, and Native American job recipients, and there is no breakdown of the proportion of U.S. citizens and non-citizens. The report also does not make clear how they define their categories. For census purposes, while people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent are considered white, South Asians fall into the category of Asian and Pacific Islander, and so would also be included in the report’s “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic” category. For all hiring categories, the statistics include job recipients with doctorates, MFA degrees, and master’s degrees. This information may be found on the MLA web site.
I was unable to find any demographic information regarding recipients of MFA degrees in creative writing. This doesn’t surprise me given the extent to which, like Margaret Thatcher, creative writing programs like to pretend that there is no such thing as society.
As the data I have presented above should make clear, the number of black Americans receiving doctorates in any field and who are on the job market in any given year is rather small. The number receiving doctorates in the humanities is even smaller. Furthermore, most black people receiving doctorates, probably including those receiving doctorates in education, work in some version of “black studies.” They are thus for the most part not in direct competition with white job candidates, except for those few whites who also do some variety of black studies.
Black people are not represented on American academic faculties in anywhere near their proportion of the general population or of the college and university student population. In the words of “The Snail-Like Progress of Blacks into Faculty Ranks of Higher Education,” a 2007 article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education:
“According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, in 2003 there were 33,137 African Americans serving in full-time faculty positions at colleges and universities in the United States. They made up 5.3 percent of all full-time faculty in American higher education. [Note that this includes both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.] Thus, while blacks are 12 percent of the total enrollments in higher education, the black presence in faculty ranks is less than half the black student enrollment figure.
“In considering these statistics it is important to note that approximately 60 percent of all full-time faculty at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are black. [There are 105 historically black colleges and universities in the United States, comprising 89 public and private four-year institutions and sixteen public and private two-year institutions. Many other institutions of higher learning are predominantly but not historically black.] The thousands of black faculty members at these institutions mean that the African-American percentage of the total faculty at the nation’s predominantly white institutions is significantly less than the 5.3 percent total for full-time faculty nationwide.” (This article may be found here.)
Cathy A. Trower and Richard P. Chait, authors of the article “Faculty Diversity,” in the March-April 2002 issue of Harvard Magazine, state that almost half of all black faculty in higher education teach at historically black colleges and universities. Many others teach at institutions that are predominantly but not historically black. They also point out that, although black faculty constitute 5.3 percent of all full-time higher education faculty, tenure-track and non-tenure-track, “The proportion of black faculty at predominantly white colleges and universities today—2.3 percent—is [much smaller and] is virtually the same as in 1979. Even in fields with a relatively ample supply of minority scholars, such as education and psychology, the proportion of black and Hispanic faculty positions at predominantly white institutions barely approximates the percentages of nonwhites who hold doctorates or professional degrees in those fields.” Black faculty members hold lower academic ranks than whites, are less likely to be tenured than whites, and are more likely than whites to work at less prestigious institutions. (This article can be found here.)
And yet despite all this, somehow black people are always taking white men’s jobs. When it comes to hiring committees there is always a shortage of minority candidates, or at least of “qualified” minority candidates. When it comes to white male job candidates who feel themselves to be the victims of reverse discrimination, there is always a glut of minority candidates, though of course these candidates are never “qualified.” Both share the assumption that minority candidates are almost by definition not “qualified.”
In July 2003 I read a very dismaying First Person column in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Other Candidate” by the pseudonymous “Ben Jackson.” (It can be found here.) According to Jackson, a (white) faculty member at the institution where he had unsuccessfully applied for a position had explained why he had lost out to “the other candidate”: “‘He’s a black guy,’ he said. ‘You know how it is.’” Jackson goes on to write, if a bit shamefacedly, that “If there’s a minority candidate, he or she will be highly favored….They had to take the black guy.” Of course they did.
While admitting the potential racism of his assumption that he did not get the a job because he was white and “the other candidate” was black, while admitting his guilt about harboring such assumptions, and furthermore while listing numerous reasons why he might not have gotten the position, Jackson nonetheless holds to and perpetuates the idea that a black candidate in academia gets a job over a white candidate simply because he is black. Jackson hardly acknowledges that, had “the other candidate” been white, while he would undoubtedly have been disappointed, and even upset that someone he less experienced got a job that he wanted and had even been encouraged to think he had a good shot at getting, such a disappointment would simply have been part of the normal academic job search process, which is inscrutable to the point of irrationality, and in which straightforwardness and honesty are rarely to be found. If “the other candidate” had been equally less experienced than he, but white, how would Jackson then have explained the situation?
Though Jackson’s article disturbed me, I was appalled by the comments in the forum that The Chronicle of Higher Education set up on the topic (as far I can tell, the forum is no longer accessible). Almost every respondent unselfconsciously and vehemently displayed his wounded sense of straight white male entitlement. I read complaint after complaint that some (doubtlessly undeserving) minority had taken “my job.” Some were quite explicit about the degree to which the usurping minority was undeserving. Even with the pervasive nepotism of the academic job market (and I doubt that the beneficiaries of that breed of preference need worry about anyone taking “their” jobs), I wasn’t aware that so many specific jobs were, apparently insufficiently, reserved for so many specific white men. The unthinking racism, and the unthinking display of that racism (encouraged by the anonymity of the forum, and the assumption that they were speaking to and among their own kind—I felt very much excluded from the conversation), was depressing and infuriating.
In the introduction to Diversifying the Faculty: A Guidebook for Search Committees, published in 2002 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, author Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner notes that
“Although the pool of minority faculty is underdeveloped, studies have shown that it is also underutilized (Turner and Myers 2000; Smith, Wolf, and Busenberg 1996). Moreover, within the higher education community, myths and misconceptions dominate the conversation about the recruitment of faculty of color. It is often asserted, for example, that potential applicants are unqualified, widely sought after, or unavailable. It is important that campuses move beyond such mistaken notions. These myths, stereotypes, and assumptions help maintain the status quo and create significant barriers to achieving a racially and ethnically diverse faculty.” (This piece can be found here.)
The idea that black candidates get some kind of free pass in academic hiring is racist nonsense. Though my professional qualifications are substantial, I have found my race to be nothing but an impediment in my search for a teaching position in creative writing. Usually it is clear that I am being interviewed only so that the institution can say that they interviewed “a minority” before they go on to hire a white man, or on occasion a white woman. A special set of “black questions” is often reserved for me during interviews, questions I am quite certain are not asked of the white candidate (“the other candidate”) who is eventually hired, and questions to which I never provide the right answers.
During a campus visit at the flagship university of a Great Plains state with very few black people and a great deal of corn, the chair of the department told me, quite out of the blue, that “some black faculty run to the affirmative action office any time they’re passed over for a raise or a promotion.” Perhaps it was a warning not to follow in their footsteps, but that’s what I would do if I were “passed over.” He also explained to me that the department had had “a black faculty member” who was “very angry,” and took her anger out on her students and her colleagues. All of the students I met during my visit seemed very pleasant and eager to learn, but her colleagues seemed a quite reasonable target for her anger. I wondered what this woman had to do with me, but apparently all black people are interchangeable. During my formal on-campus interview at this same institution, the chair of the search committee (not the same individual) said “We will of course say and do racist things without meaning to. How would you respond?” Had I been less nonplussed, I would have replied, “Oh, are you planning something? A cross-burning, perhaps?” It had apparently not occurred to the members of the search committee that by taking thought they could easily avoid saying and doing “racist things.” Instead, their racism was my responsibility, while they gave themselves carte blanche to behave as badly as they wished, because of course they would never mean to. Considerately enough, they did arrange a dinner for me with "members of the local black community." I hope that they arranged meetings with members of the local Caucasian community for their white job candidates.
During a more recent MLA interview with a large urban public university in the Northeast, I was asked how I would teach a class on prosody, which I proceeded to explain. I was then asked how I would incorporate “cross-cultural poetics” into such a course. Though I knew what was meant, I pretended that they were actually referring to other cultures, and replied that I wasn’t familiar enough with, say, Chinese poetics, to confidently teach it. Someone then brought up the example of a black American student who used black vernacular as a political gesture. I had to explain that American black people are not “cross-cultural.” We are Americans, just as are white people. Indeed, the presence of black people, paradoxically both central and marginal, is one of the things that distinguishes American culture from its European antecedents. I also explained that millions of people use black vernacular every day, and it’s neither political nor a gesture. Having lived in the South for several years, I can now add that it isn’t even specifically black. It’s just the way that poor and working class Southerners speak, and most American black people have relatively recent Southern roots. (As a black member of the audience asked a black member of the Oakland, California school board regarding their proposal to teach “Ebonics” in the Oakland public schools, “What language are we speaking now?”) During this same interview the chair of the department complained that all the poets I taught in my introduction to creative writing course were canonical.
Many of these questions are actually illegal, or at least against procedural rules. Many state institutions have rules that all job candidates are to be asked the same set of questions. This has not been the case in my experience.
Several years ago I applied for a teaching position at a progressive public college in the Pacific Northwest which requested that applicants supply a “Statement of Multicultural Experience.” I responded that if they meant substantial experience in a foreign culture, I had none. If, however, by “multicultural” they meant “minority,” then I, as a black person raised in poverty in the ghetto and attending and teaching at predominantly white and predominantly upper class educational institutions since the third grade, was the very embodiment of multicultural experience. This was apparently not the correct answer. I suppose that white applicants can just write the equivalent of “Some of my best friends are African American/Asian/Hispanic/Native American.”
If one is black, one is particularly disadvantaged if one doesn’t do some recognizable version of “black studies”—black literature, black history, black sociology. (I’m fairly sure that there are no such fields or subfields as black physics or black mathematics.) “Black” topics are presumably the only ones with which black academics can be trusted. They are also usually thought sufficiently trivial that any available black person can teach them. I was once almost offered, until I made clear my lack of interest, a position as director of black studies at the main public university of a Rocky Mountain state with an infinitesimally small black population. I hadn’t applied for the position, but received a call from a woman I’d met briefly during one of my several sojourns in graduate school. Apparently their search process had consisted of asking, “Does anyone know a black person?” Although I made it clear that I had no background in black studies and didn’t have a PhD, I was told that didn’t matter. What they wanted was someone who could be “a role model to students,” presumably of a black man who was neither a rapper, a basketball player, nor incarcerated. Soon afterward, having applied for a creative writing position at the flagship university of an Appalachian state, I was offered a black studies position, although, again, I made it clear that I had little background in the field. My biological background was apparently sufficient. “The other candidate,” who got the job for which I had actually applied, was a heterosexual white man.
Black academics are expected to stay in the box marked “black,” and if they are not already in that box, they will be placed in it. As someone whose other academic specialization, besides creative writing, is Anglo-American modernism, this also puts me at a disadvantage. I am insufficiently “black,” and furthermore, by studying and teaching something insufficiently marginal and not marked as “minority,” I am trespassing on the territory reserved for white academics.
On the other hand, my very existence as a black person seems somewhat blinding to some academics. After one interview with a small Northeastern urban public university in which we primarily discussed creative writing pedagogy, a friend who knew a member of the interview committee told me that she thought that I was an “in your face black gay man,” though neither topic had come up during the conversation. My skin color matters far more than my experience and qualifications as a writer and a teacher. I am either not black enough (because I don’t do “black studies,” and because I don’t perform a recognizable version of blackness, reassuringly placing myself as “other” and thus unthreateningly irrelevant), or, simply by virtue of the fact that I am a black man, I am too black, by definition “not one of us,” perhaps even a bit scary.
It’s ironic how often such judgments of the sufficiency or the excessiveness of my blackness are made by white people. It’s doubly ironic that many the white people who make such judgments, who engage in such categorizing and outright stereotyping, are people who consider themselves to be liberal and even progressive. Indeed, they sometimes engage in such stereotyping in the name of progressivism, in the supposed interest of “cultural sensitivity” or “multiculturalism.” In a graduate course on teaching composition that I took at a large public university in Chicago, we were assigned an article that explained that different ethnic groups thought in different patterns. Helpfully enough, the article even included illustrations. White people, of course, thought in straight lines, while Asians thought in spirals. I don’t recall in what shape black people thought, but at least one ethnicity thought in zig-zags. Student teachers (presumed to be white) were to learn to make allowances for the fact that “they” didn’t think like “us.” In the chapter "Teaching Culturally Diverse Students" of the twelfth edition of McKeachie's Teaching Tips, published in 2006, teachers are informed that apparently rambling, roundabout students responses "might represent an ethnic 'circular' style of oral communication rather than a more linear 'Western' one (Gudykunst, 1998). Western thought and language tend to proceed in a linear fashion." But "The student's reply may reflect an oral tradition deriving from a preliterate period in which knowledge was passed on orally." In this view, "ethnic" students would seem to be some kind of anthropological curiosity. I'm not sure how "Western" students' rambling responses are then to be accounted for.
On a similar but almost laughable note, I was standing on the sidelines at a dance at a low-residency creative writing program in the Northeast at which I briefly taught many years ago when the director came up to assure me, “Don’t worry. We’ll be playing some African music soon.” I was greatly relieved.
At the same elite Northeastern university I have mentioned above, the chair and the director of graduate studies of the English department proposed that the already rather flexible requirements for acquiring an MA degree (for those students unable to complete the PhD program) be waived, because minority students had such a hard time making it through the doctoral program and should be awarded something for their efforts. It never occurred to them that the patronizing assumption that minority students couldn't cut it, thus requiring some kind of consolation prize, might be one of the impediments to minority progress in the program.
Such multicultural stereotype-mongering is not limited to white people. Some “Afrocentric” black educators say that black people are not good at math because our minds don’t work in that cold, abstract manner. (I read this in Time magazine several years ago.)
Multiculturalism is just a new word for segregation, keeping all the minorities safely in their places. As a black college friend of mine once observed, “People of color. Where have I heard that before?” Notions of cultural sensitivity are too often just new ways of seeing black people as other, as inscrutably and reassuringly alien: “It’s just their culture, nothing to do with me.” To slightly modify an old and tiresome slogan, “It’s a black thing. I don’t have to understand.” And so they don’t.