Much of what I’ve learned about the intersection of American and African-American history, I’ve learned as an extracurricular activity. Whether it was the emergence of the formerly enslaved into positions as governor or members of Congress during Reconstruction, the backlash to that progress post-Reconstruction, or the heroism of scores of African-American soldiers who fought even as they were denied their basic rights as citizens, this history has been marginalized.
In much of academe, the saga of African-Americans’ enslavement and oppression is relegated to an undervalued major or electives. The struggle of black Americans against those who have long deemed them inferior — including U.S. presidents, the Supreme Court, and much of the academy — has been largely excised from our essential texts even as it informs the ways in which black Americans are still regarded today. This unexamined legacy of intolerance continues to express itself at even our most elite colleges, where meaningful dialogue about race has been avoided, if not disdained.
Well into the 20th century, leading universities, museums, scientific societies, and journals circulated studies purporting African inferiority, an idea at the heart of the nascent field of anthropology. In 1921 more than 300 delegates from around the world attended the Second International Congress of Eugenics, a pseudoscientific movement predicated on white supremacy. The influential congress was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, with its president, Henry Fairfield Osborn — a leading paleontologist and a former dean at Columbia University — presiding. Among the notables in attendance were Herbert Hoover; Alexander Graham Bell; Gifford Pinchot, the conservationist and future governor of Pennsylvania; and Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin.
For a significant part of the 20th century, most major American institutions — including New York University, where I teach — embraced assumptions that justified African-American exclusion. In 1927, nearly a century after NYU’s founding, the NAACP challenged the university’s discrimination against black students, who were denied access to dormitories and classes. In defense, in a statement to The New York Times, the university responded: "New York University reserves the right to use such discrimination in the selection of students for admission to dormitories, classes or courses as seems advisable to promote the interests of the greatest number." Two years later, NYU commanded national headlines for appeasing the University of Georgia’s demand that Dave Myers, a black star player for the football team, be benched for a game against Georgia.
Likewise, NYU’s home, in Greenwich Village — long considered a bastion of liberalism — had once been populated mostly by blacks until they were terrorized and run out by white mobs during the Civil War draft riots. Long after emancipation, the tools of oppression — legal and extralegal, North and South — were employed to keep blacks at the bottom of society. But this history, like most unpleasant racial narratives, usually goes unacknowledged while places like NYU and Greenwich Village are inaccurately regarded as longstanding citadels of inclusion. Few students are exposed to the depth and breadth of American racial intolerance or the academy’s complicity in it.
How can universities address intolerance without so much as acknowledging the extent to which it was legitimized and advanced by the academy? The seeds of some of the more pernicious scholarship on race continue to flower. In recent decades, traces of a warped ideology grounded in theories of black inferiority could still be found in best-selling books like The Bell Curve, by two Harvard-educated men, one of whom had been on Harvard’s faculty. Though eventually debunked, The Bell Curve, upon publication in 1994, was exhaustively debated on the pages of leading publications. The authors were merely repackaging ideas that had flourished in the academy for more than a century, including at Harvard, where Louis Agassiz, a leading 19th-century naturalist, had long argued that blacks were "a degraded and degenerate race." Agassiz founded Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and co-founded the National Academy of Sciences.
Without the context of history, many will never fully appreciate the tragedy of the countless unarmed blacks routinely killed by police or unjustly incarcerated. A profound racial illiteracy causes many people to believe that overzealous policing and mass incarceration are justified, and that discrimination against African-Americans was all but eradicated after emancipation. Persistent disparities along racial lines in income, employment, infant mortality, and life expectancy are viewed as self-induced, not indications of bias. Likewise, efforts to protect African-Americans’ voting rights or to diversify institutions in which they are radically underrepresented are considered unnecessary or as reverse discrimination. Meanwhile, the demeaning portrayals of blacks as barbaric, an image that was long promoted in the academy, continue to flourish, fueling perceptions that preclude many people from grasping the fullness of black humanity.
Despite its daily relevance, many in the academy continue to treat race as an overwrought subject even though it has never been given its due. Our educational system has failed when North Carolina State University students who probably never learned the heartbreaking history of lynching joke about a practice that was central to the maintenance of white supremacy until well into the 20th century. And the academy fails when racial intolerance is flippantly tolerated by administrators — as it apparently was at the University of Missouri and at Yale.
The void created by higher education’s reluctance to meaningfully confront race is an incubator for hateful ignorance. When Donald Trump recently, and erroneously, stated that most murders of whites are committed by blacks, he was merely evoking an image long baked into sociology, psychology, anthropology, history, news media, literature, and popular culture.
I teach a class about media portrayals of African-Americans, women, and other marginalized people. White students are often astonished by how little they know about the long history of racial intolerance of not only African-Americans, but also of people of Irish, Italian, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, and Japanese ancestry. And while many Americans remain ignorant of key lessons of our past, they’re required to study airbrushed portraits of a phalanx of celebrated men. As we witness racial strife on our campuses, we might begin to acknowledge how the academy’s legacy of bias continues to reverberate. Only then can we hope to honestly face America’s longtime resistance to racial reality and equality, and understand the basis of lingering attitudes today.
Addressing these sins of omission is not rocket science; it requires only will. The lapses in our history can be discussed in freshman seminars that introduce readings that explore the history of intolerance and how it resonates today, and by integrating the collective narratives of African-Americans, Latinos, Chinese, women, and others into the main frame of history. The gaps in our curricula might also be addressed by having more-diverse faculties. The latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that still, among full-time professors, 84 percent are white (with 58 percent white male), while 4 percent are black, 3 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Less than 1 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native or of two or more races. And these figures include faculty members at historically black colleges.
Colleges and universities can best foster tolerance and an abiding respect for our shared humanity by demonstrating those attitudes in their curricula and in their hiring and admissions practices. Students are savvy enough to reconcile the greatness and the flaws of American heroes and the glory and shame of our past.
Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University. She is the author, most recently, of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2015)