In the wake of the scandal, The Chronicle Review asked graduate students, junior professors, and senior scholars what it’s like to be an African-American academic today.
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In the wake of the scandal, The Chronicle Review asked graduate students, junior professors, and senior scholars what it’s like to be an African-American academic today. We asked respondents to speak to themes raised by the admissions-bribery scandal. Here’s what they told us.
‘We Were the Undeserving Throngs’
By MARCIA CHATELAIN
Although we didn’t imperil their own admission to the state’s flagship university, we ruined their chances at the colleges that rejected them. We were the villains in every fairy tale about the white student who labored in the classroom, while we idly waited to vanquish their college dreams. We degraded the value of their hard work with our presence and minority scholarships.
And so I was made to feel that I had already taken too much before I even discerned what college had to offer me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my first year of college in the wake of the admissions-bribery scandal that spanned from the University of Southern California, where I was married at a tiny chapel on campus, to Georgetown University, where I earned tenure and continue to teach. I consider myself the last of the minority-opportunity generation, the students who were brought onto campus to prove that institutions could diversify without radicalizing education. We were offered scholarships and retention counselors in exchange for scorn and contempt.
We were told to be grateful and quiet when we were insulted and blamed. If we were recruited to provide our white classmates with an experience of new and different people, we soon discovered that their parents, guidance counselors, and anti-affirmative-action activists had already told them everything they needed to know.
When the white-racist imagination meets institutional indifference to ending inequality on a college campus, misinformed students create some of the richest fantasies about what students of color are getting and giving. I’ve heard it all: Parents are certain that an unqualified black person led to their child’s rejection from a college. Some of my professors assumed that students of color attend any and all schools for free. I’ve met white people who believed that a spot at an Ivy League school is a salve for dehumanization.
Like any obsessive thought, if a person ruminates on it long enough, they are bound to shout it out. “You only got this because you are black!” “You are just a token!” “Unlike me, you won’t have to worry about anything!” These sentiments followed me to graduate school and linger over my academic career. Sometimes they cast a shadow on my work. Sometimes they merely dimmed my proudest academic moments.
My mentors were the first black and brown people to earn doctoral degrees in their respective universities. I am the first black woman to receive tenure in my department. The students for whom I write letters of recommendation for fellowships and graduate school, who will enter the profession decades after my first year of college, will be among a new group of firsts. At the rate we are going in the academy, they will advise another round of firsts. Hopefully, one day this painfully slow cycle will trigger an actual revolution.
‘How Does It Feel to Be an Identity?’
By GERALD EARLY
, in 1970, most people — black and white — thought affirmative action would last 20 or so years; that is, about the length of a generation. Racial preferences would end because blacks would have, to vary slightly an expression the civil-rights leader Benjamin Mays used, “caught up” with their white and Asian peers.
“Catching up” has been designated as the chronic need of the black student, if not always his or her acute or abiding desire. With affirmative action, the American university became the place that would “cure” black students, with the therapy of remediation, of their 12 years of inadequate compulsory education. That the practice of making blackness an advantage in college admissions has outlived its expected expiration date by roughly 30 years can be seen as something of an uneasy, even bewildering, achievement. After all, 50 years since my first undergraduate year, black students are still seen as “needing” affirmative action and still defined by the inadequacy of their education — by the words “gap,” “deficit,” and “disparities.” They are still, in effect, “catching up.” Blacks have been perpetually behind in running the world’s longest race.
The black students I teach now very much resemble the black students I went to Penn with nearly 50 years ago. They try to be both a part of and apart from their university, an odd combination of privilege and inadequacy. The feeling I had during my four years at Penn was “How does it feel to be decorative?” This is not the worst way in the world to feel, but it does make one acutely aware — and sometimes resentful — of the kindness of strangers.
The problem is, both as student and as professor, the tendency to equate hostility or indifference from your white peers with solicitude and warm regard. A certain defensive paranoia incites you to suspect both as expressions of unwelcomeness, one overt and the other subtle. You are at the mercy of an intensified self-consciousness — racial chauvinism and solidarity spiked with a cosmopolitan air — where you try to manipulate how whites see your race, since that is obviously all they do see, because that is why you are where you are.
The continued existence of affirmative action in college admissions — the origin story for the presence of black students and faculty members at the American university — continues for blacks to be a blueprint of frustration. It seems like a social policy that perpetuates the problem that it was meant to solve — a paradox of many well-meant social policies. Blacks remain as stigmatized as they have ever been, recipients as they are of a kind of “foreign” aid. Whites, as the dispensers of largess to the morally and politically deserving, remain in power and are actually the ones who are “entitled,” as they enable the unfortunate and historically persecuted to become their peers.
The effects of diversity — the slogan and ideal that serves as the handmaid of affirmative action — are usually considered only in regard to making white people better, more capacious, more open. What it does for others is to make sure they maintain the intersectional social categories that normative whites need to be better humans. It is an old story about how blacks are meant to humanize whites, a twice-told tale at least. “How does it feel to be a problem?” asked Du Bois. Today that might be paraphrased as “How does it feel to be an intersecting set of categories that diversify society?” or “How does it feel to be an identity?” For in this regard, identities are rather like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
The liberals and leftists who have brought us to this glittering horizon consider themselves good people. And as Barbara Graham so wisely noted just before she was executed, “Good people always think they’re right.” And this is why, in this instance concerning race as in many others, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
‘I Felt So Out of Place’
By KEISHA N. BLAIN
I felt so out of place.
As a working-class black woman, I was keenly aware of my race, class, and sex in a sea of mostly white faces and in a space often dominated by men. As a first-generation student, I felt honored to be there but also uncomfortable — worrying that others would look at me and immediately know that I did not come from a wealthy and privileged background.
I had long dreamed of attending an Ivy League school. When I first broached the topic with my mother as a child, she made it clear to me that there was only one way I could get there: hard work and determination.
And so those words became my guiding principles. For as long as I could remember, I was the overachiever who always did more reading than assigned and took it upon myself to get to know my instructors and learn as much as I could from them even outside the classroom setting. During my undergraduate years, at SUNY Binghamton, I was proud to be one of the best students in my graduating class — with a high GPA, publications, and many awards to show for it.
Getting into Ph.D. programs at several elite schools felt like the ultimate reward for the many years my working-class mother had struggled to make ends meet, let alone send me to college. My undergrad professors assured me that I would be fine — I was well prepared to face the rigors of the program, and I would easily be able to keep up with any of my peers.
What they didn’t tell me, however, is that I would walk into a space where my peers would often question my intelligence — and competence. Few people would boldly express these views in front of me, but it was impossible to ignore the surprised expressions when I articulated a coherent thought. With time, I grew to understand why people threw around the phrase “affirmative action” in my presence. They were suggesting that somehow my race, and my race alone, had opened the door for me to attend Princeton. Someone, somewhere, had done me a favor. Otherwise I would not be there.
Looking back at these experiences, I cannot help but consider the irony of it all. Here I was, surrounded by people who had much to critique about affirmative action but very little to say about their own journey to the Ivy League — often precisely because of special preferences.
The practice of giving preference in admissions to those with familial ties to the institution was so commonplace that no one seemed the least bit alarmed by it. To the contrary, many of my colleagues saw it as a badge of honor to identify the many members of their family who had attended the school before them. Still, they attributed their success to “merit.”
Perhaps some found the recent bribery scandal surprising, but black students have always known that those who emphasize “merit” rarely grasp its full meaning.
As troubling as campus conditions are, there is one potential silver lining: Perhaps the recent scandals will compel educators on elite campuses to work to create better conditions that affirm the dignity and respect of everyone there — including those who do not seem to belong.
‘Diversity Is No Panacea’
By MATTHEW CLAIR
Three words threw into sharp relief the boundaries of the university community. As far as I could tell, the driver was not “of” Harvard. He didn’t appear to be a student or a member of the staff or faculty. And yet this incident, and the toll it took on me, speaks to certain realities of campus life.
Over the past few decades, elite universities have slowly become more representative of the country’s racial demographics. At Harvard, for example, blacks and Latinos each make up 10 to 15 percent of recently admitted classes. Twenty-three percent of its faculty members are racial/ethnic minorities.
Of course, diversity is no panacea. Students and faculty members at top-tier universities continue to face exclusion. Black students report racism among their peers. And financially poor students — racial minorities and whites alike — report anxiety and institutional forms of exclusion, as documented in Anthony Abraham Jack’s recent book, The Privileged Poor. Among the faculty, underrepresented minorities are more likely than whites to hold adjunct positions, and some feel pressured to assist, without extra compensation, in fixing the very institutional problems they encounter.
Universities are increasingly aware of these issues. Yet they seem less aware of challenges beyond their gates.
Focused on how to cultivate belonging on campus, universities often fail to address injustices in their surrounding communities. The racism I encountered in the street was shocking, in part, because it contrasted with the relative inclusivity of campus. Indeed, the diversity of certain academic spaces can obscure inequalities in their own neighborhoods — and the university’s role in exacerbating them.
Take the case of the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1990s, after decades and dollars spent constructing new buildings in West Philadelphia with little regard for how this development impacted the area’s once-thriving black community, Penn changed course. Partly motivated by worries over growing crime rates, the university invested in “economically inclusive” local revitalization. Over the course of a decade, Penn fixed deteriorated housing, fostered local business development, and incorporated community members in construction projects.
Despite these well-intentioned efforts, revitalization has also meant displacement. Rents have increased, pushing out low-income renters and many African-American families. Consequently, many local residents have been unable to take advantage of community improvements, such as a university-assisted public school whose black enrollment has steadily declined since its opening, in 2001. And with revitalization came stronger institutional ties between Penn and the Philadelphia Police Department, whose presence on the edges of campus has meant safety for some but danger for others.
For those who have no formal claim to campus (whether through an employment contract or admissions letter), elite universities’ seeming indifference can foster resentment. The town-gown divides of old are today inflamed by broader social changes that have made higher education unaffordable to most, undercut the influence of public universities, devalued the liberal arts, and made for-profit colleges a trap for the working class and the poor.
In the face of these challenges, we must think hard about the purpose of the university. If its purpose is to serve and enlighten society, then fostering diversity and inclusion on campus is not enough. We must extend belonging beyond campus. Doing so means more than “revitalizing” surrounding communities so that university members feel safe. Extending belonging also entails establishing durable institutional commitments to these communities and incorporating them, as equal partners, into university life and culture.
‘Fortresses of Human Feeling’
By EMILY BERNARD
“We’ll be leaving soon,” I said to the boy. When I looked at him, I was startled by his gaze. I knew the dragging, slow and deep, was deliberate, but I had not presumed it was motivated by malice. But his eyes. They glittered with rage.
“If you would put the chairs back where they belong, I wouldn’t have to do it!” His words rang out in the empty classroom.
“I’m sure your mother would be very proud of you for talking to a professor like that,” I said evenly. I thought that shame would jolt him back to decency.
I wish I could say I was right. All I know for sure is that he left. My student looked at me, shaken. “I’ve never seen a professor treated that way,” she whispered.
A few weeks later, I saw the white boy with the red cap again. He was getting off a campus shuttle. I looked into his eyes, mostly to see if he would recognize me. It happened in a second; his eyes lit up. “I remember you,” he called as I walked past. “Turn around! Give me that look again!” I took out my phone, my hand trembling. “Look at me!” he screamed.
I thought of my mother, my grandmother, all of the ways they couldn’t protect themselves and right wrongs. I felt ashamed and angry. I compose myself very carefully; it’s that old combination of double consciousness and respectability politics. But now here I was, a quivering ball of emotion, my careful composure undone by a white boy.
I picked up my pace. This time I called the campus police, who went to his house to warn him to leave me alone. I haven’t seen or heard from him again. But a black woman can never say “never,” just “not yet.”
It wasn’t the first time I had felt threatened by a white male student. Eleven years ago, a white boy punched the wall as I walked past him. He didn’t like his grade, but even more he resented the diversity requirement that had brought him to my course. I was afraid but chose to walk by with my head held high, practicing the black stoicism I had inherited from my maternal line. The punch taught me something, though. Now I include a deportment grade on my syllabus. I use it, quite explicitly, to police bad manners and disrespect. But at the time, I didn’t tell anyone about the punch. When I mentioned it to the dean of students months later, she scolded me kindly for not bringing it to her attention when it happened. I hadn’t told her at the time because I did not presume that my institution would protect me.
I live inside of books, fortresses of human feeling. I live inside of many fortresses. When I was a kid, I lived inside the fortress of my imagination. Since I became a teacher, my classrooms have always been fortresses, sanctuaries, islands: places for my students and me to feel safe, to consider the sacred, to be free. Inside those fortresses are students of all stripes, including serious and lovely young white men.
It might be too easy to say that when the white boy punched the wall, I didn’t flinch because my fortresses felt fortified by something greater than fear in the Obama years. But it is exactly correct to say that in these Trump years it is much more difficult to protect my fortresses from rage and fear, knowing that I cannot predict what might be waiting at the gates.
‘No One Escapes Without Scars’
By STEFAN M. BRADLEY
I clearly remember eating in the cafeteria as an undergraduate. “How’s the team going to be this year?” was one of the first questions I heard. To be fair, I am relatively tall, so I accommodated the query of the friendly white student. I said that the team would be great, and that we had a lot of men who could drive well and put it in the hole. When the curious student said, “See you on the court,” I corrected him, saying, “You mean the course, right?” The student’s question, I presumed, was an honest mistake. It was intentional, however, when another white student tried to convince me that affirmative action assured that all black applicants got admitted because of their race. He would not believe me when I explained that there must have been a mix-up because the 12 black students who were enrolled at the university at the time were still quite lonely.
Gone are my undergraduate days and the debates with people too young to know better. For the past decade and a half, I have tried to convince learned scholars that diversifying campuses — a goal to which most every well-intentioned faculty member and administrator pays lip service — requires actually allocating resources to hire and retain black people. Like almost every other black professor I know, I have served on countless diversity committees, led task forces, and participated in “difficult dialogues” about creating access and opportunities for black students, faculty members, and administrators. Moral suasion, as a tactic, is not proving particularly effective. Most predominantly white colleges have not substantially increased the numbers of black tenure-track professors or black students. It seems, however, that there has been an uptick in the appointment of black administrators — especially after disruptive student demonstrations.
One would think that the professoriate would be more accommodating. I have studied or worked at six predominantly white universities. I have observed the way black professionals survive. Their careers are mostly safe if they express gratitude (whether sincere or not) to the institution; generally go along with whatever their white colleagues want; outproduce their peers but do not conspicuously outshine them; if male, avoid all suspicions of impropriety with female students (particularly nonblack students); never raise their voice or make sudden moves except at a university sporting event; do not question their institution’s sincerity with regard to “diversity” without first reassuring all the “allies” that they are doing their very best; and, never — ever — forget to smile.
Even though we black scholars and students, in most cases, have worked hard and overcome significant impediments to get here, maintaining a modicum of dignity means realizing that we may never be fully included at our colleges. I have watched as colleagues suffer the consequences of violating the unwritten rules, and I have experienced those consequences myself. I have also witnessed other black professionals lose parts of their souls to fulfill the compromise. As the rapper Nasir Jones explained: “Inclusion is a hell of a drug.”
While black students and professors struggle to belong at elite institutions, the parents of some privileged white students write checks and doctor photographs to be accepted. And it’s affirmative action that’s somehow unfair? In higher education, white and black people are still playing two different games.
‘Professionalism in the Face of Skepticism’
By DANNY BERNARD MARTIN and EBONY O. McGEE
Unfortunately, black students continue to endure both individual and systemic racism on campus. Ebony has seen this firsthand in her research on the experiences of high-achieving black students in STEM disciplines. One black student reported entering his advanced-mathematics classroom with his book turned outward as evidence against classmates’ assumption that he was in the wrong class. Another said her professor had stopped class to express surprise that she provided a correct answer.
Meanwhile, reports of college students’ wearing blackface and engaging in racist rants on social media continue to emerge. Some campuses feature statues and buildings that honor Confederate heroes and eugenicists. All the while we are asked to believe that individual experiences with racism are aberrations.
Research shows otherwise. Black students report feeling stereotyped or discriminated against at the intersection of race and ability. Black college students must navigate numerous psychosocial challenges as their peers, along with faculty members and administrators, routinely typecast, indict, and unfairly scrutinize them. Imagine that advanced-math student and the emotional labor he must expend to simply arrive in class.
Black faculty members, too, must negotiate challenges to their competence and authority. Not only are we responsible for thinking, planning, writing, advising, conducting research, serving on committees, and teaching, but we are to do so with rigor and professionalism in the face of skepticism. Black faculty members receive teaching evaluations in which students critique their clothes and mannerisms (e.g., “She moves her hands too much,” “He rarely smiles”), and are regularly referred to as “Ms.” or “Mr.” instead of “Dr.” We endure snobby academic-pedigree questions about the type of institutions we attended or the type of awards we have received.
The psychologist Kecia Thomas and her colleagues have identified a “pet to threat” model for black faculty members. They are initially welcomed into their jobs, embraced for diversity rather than on merit. When they become more established and disrupt the status quo of their departments, they are seen as deviant and dangerous, particularly if they have outpaced their colleagues.
Black students inhabit an educational system founded on the principles of white hegemony and supremacy. When they do gain admittance, their presence is at best tolerated. At worst, system-level adjustments and white backlash emerge to maintain the status quo. The result? The academy invites black students into a system replete with discriminatory barriers that may be harmful to their health and well-being.
Black students and faculty members often respond by working twice as hard. Danny recently returned from a conference where he was sought out by black graduate students for mentoring advice, which those students believed they could not obtain from white faculty members at their own institutions. One of these meetings lasted more than three hours. Helping black students navigate academic culture, deal with personal or family problems, and find resources to keep them in college takes an emotional toll on black faculty members — and is a task not faced by many white faculty.
Being black in the academy too often means enduring “racial battle fatigue.” According to the education scholar William A. Smith, this stems from repeated exposure to on-campus racism and discrimination, and can cause debilitating psychological and physiological stress. One may experience feelings of powerlessness, invisibility, loss of integrity, or the pressure to represent one’s group.
There are costs to surviving racially toxic environments. In response, we offer the following advice to black students and faculty members: Remember that your blackness represents the highest form of excellence. You are enough. The system is what has to change, not you.
‘Lifting as We Climb’
By MICHAEL JAVEN FORTNER
Real diversity requires more than organizing multicultural forums, supporting minority-student associations, mandating online training modules, or holding MLK Day celebrations — all of which are necessary but not sufficient. Real pluralism and fairness require the redistribution of resources and authority within the university. And here’s where it gets tricky. In most places, funds and influence are in the hands of liberal white administrators and faculty members who consider themselves advocates of inclusivity and social justice. That is to say, in the university, many opponents of the status quo also happen to be its beneficiaries.
This paradox places faculty members of color in untenable situations. To the extent that we share a commandment, it is “lifting as we climb.” Lifting and climbing at the same time is a perilous task. I’ve witnessed otherwise open-minded white colleagues take umbrage at sincere calls for equity, viewing such requests as personal indictments. I’ve also seen faculty members of color dismissed or disparaged for agitating for diversity. I’ve seen them warned against airing “grievances” at the risk of losing critical allies. I’ve seen them get labeled as “difficult” and “uncooperative” for recognizing their own value and guarding their interests and voice. For minority faculty members, “good” citizenship often means adhering to norms and procedures that can limit diversity and freedom of thought.
Any black professional could rattle off a similar list of outrages or calumnies. But these injustices feel particularly untoward in higher education. While the liberal impulse of the modern university can lead to progressive change, it can also cultivate a pernicious paternalism that makes being a black professor a difficult proposition instead of a privilege.
‘The Ways of White Folks’
By NOLIWE M. ROOKS
Through the elementary school, I gained an education in what Langston Hughes called “the ways of white folks.” These parents seemed to know so much about how to ensure that their already advantaged children got into the “best” school, classroom, and academic track. Their methods were not criminal but did border on immoral.
There was the time one father, an architect, had his staff build an operational model of a house with working lights for a third-grade project on dioramas. The other children used shoe boxes, clay, and plastic figures. The children were also supposed to have written a presentation explaining their work. When it came time for the father/son duo to explain the intricate architectural model, the child just looked expectantly at his father. Dad obliged and then pushed his son forward to accept the polite applause. We all maintained the fiction that this child had accomplished something as we congratulated him on “all his hard work.”
At the end of the fifth grade, some parents of children with test scores not high enough to guarantee placement on the middle school’s “honors track” took drastic action. They hired lawyers and psychologists, and let administrators at the elementary school, middle school, and school board know that should their child’s placement not be to their liking, they were prepared to file formal complaints, provide evidence of special-needs accommodations, and, if necessary, file lawsuits to ensure their child’s place on the honors track. After all, an elite-college education was at stake.
All of this is to say that the actions of parents in the Operation Varsity Blues cabal are in some ways merely an illegal extension of the legal and often unremarked-upon ways that high-income white parents regularly tip the scales in favor of their children.
A former president of my university, Hunter Rawlings III, once wrote, “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being.” Though it was a noble sentiment, he could not have been thinking about K-12 education in wealthy, overwhelmingly white school districts. If he had, he would have understood that for some parents, education is, in fact, a highly prized commodity. It has worth because it might enable entry to an elite college. Those parents aim to attain it by means that are legal, but are neither just, fair, nor right.
‘There Is No Belonging Here’
By NADIRAH FARAH FOLEY
While some expressed disbelief, my colleagues of color tended to express something more like knowing exasperation. A sort of “Yeah, we been known they were cheating,” coupled with a collective “SMH,” as we reflected on the times we’d been told that we didn’t belong or that we didn’t deserve to be here.
So many of us have those stories, and I’m no exception. My senior year of high school, the day after Ivy League admissions decisions were released, I showed up at my predominantly white, affluent, suburban high school to find out that four of us — our white male valedictorian, a South Asian girl, another black girl, and me — had been accepted to Princeton. Two of us were met with congratulations from our classmates. You can guess which two weren’t.
On what could have been a joyful occasion — I had a full ride to go to college! — I instead passed most of the day in the main office crying to the principal (a black man who got it) about a white legacy student who had spent most of French class whisper-shouting that she couldn’t comprehend how I had gotten into Princeton when she hadn’t.
If decades of schooling in predominantly white environments have taught me anything, it’s that being black means my merit is always liable to be impugned. It’s also taught me that trying to prove those people wrong can consume an immense amount of time and energy. As Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.”
At one point in my life, I let myself get distracted. I tried to demonstrate just how meritorious I was, leaning on qualifications like grades and test scores. I see many of my peers in the academy reacting similarly, pointing to their degrees from prestigious institutions or academic awards and prizes.
I get why we do that, and I’d never presume to tell another marginalized person how they should respond to microaggressions and outright insults. But for me, these sorts of rebuttals play into the idea that higher education is (or should be) a meritocracy, and that a meritocratic system is just. The truth is, ain’t none of it fair.
I’m early in my career, and I’m already acutely aware of the fact that there are many people for whom I — and my work — will never be good enough. There is no belonging here; I can be in this place, but I will never truly be of it. That realization has been sobering, but accepting it has been liberating. Freed from the impulse to defend my deserving to be here, I feel more empowered to focus on doing the work I came here to do: lifting up the voices of my communities, doing work they think matters, and trying to leave my corner of the world a little more just than I found it.