In his new book, The Scholar Denied, the sociologist Aldon Morris writes that contrary to the discipline’s preferred origin story, the field of sociology was actually founded by W.E.B. DuBois, the first black person to receive a Ph.D. in the United States. DuBois earned his degree from Harvard, but due to rampant racial segregation at the time, he was shut out of many employment opportunities. He ended up working at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), a historically black college with few resources, but still managed to do pioneering work in the field of sociology.

Morris describes in clear detail the ways that DuBois’s emphasis on race as a socially constructed—rather than biological—phenomenon threatened white elites of his day, who much preferred Booker T. Washington’s message that blacks should accept and embrace their subordinate status. Furthermore, many white sociologists co-opted DuBois’s innovative research designs, empirical methods, and scientific approach, while failing to credit him as their originator. Morris argues that consequently, DuBois’s centrality to the discipline of sociology and his role as one of the preeminent analysts of race relations have been obscured.

DuBois lived and wrote his most famous books during the early part of the 20th century, but how different are circumstances for black academics today?

The recent student demonstrations at University of Missouri, Yale, Amherst, Emory, and other universities have drawn much-needed attention to the challenges that minority students, particularly black ones, face at predominantly white colleges and universities. There’s a great deal of research—including the work of the sociologists Joe Feagin and Wendy Leo Moore—showing that the conditions black students are protesting are serious, widespread, and often ignored. In one account, Feagin shares a story of a black student who waits after class to ask a white professor a question about that day’s lecture, only to be told “I thought you were waiting to rob me or something.” Another student describes “one of those sad and angry nights” when, walking to the dorm, white students drove by yelling racial slurs and throwing beer cans at him.

In Wendy Leo Moore’s study of elite law schools, she offers similarly wrenching examples. For instance, there is the white professor who punishes a black female law student for discussing the offensiveness of racial slurs, but does not challenge the white male law student who comments during a class discussion that black students are intellectually inferior. As Moore describes, even the ways law schools teach students to focus on “individual intent” means that social, academic, and legal practices that discriminate against students of color can be summarily dismissed if white social actors “didn’t mean any harm.” Thus, no matter how invidious the action, no matter the consequences of the behavior, legal reasoning centers on individual whites’ intentions and discounts the lived experiences of people of color.

For faculty of color, similar processes are frequently at play. In fact, predominantly white colleges and universities may even be more reluctant to recruit and hire faculty of color than students of color. While students matriculate at an institution for a short period of time and then leave, the tenure system means that faculty of color may remain at a university for decades, even a lifetime. With this longer time frame, these professors develop more of a stake in the school, and may be more empowered to push for the reforms many colleges resist. For universities that see no real reason to change their existing practices, traditions, and organizational cultures, bringing in a critical mass of faculty of color is often a stated goal that never materializes.

Indeed, when it comes to faculty diversity, the numbers suggest a pretty bleak picture. Blacks constitute less than 10 percent of the professoriate, and these numbers thin out the higher the academic rank. And as lots of research shows, when these professors are in the numerical minority, their experiences aren’t all that different from what DuBois encountered as he attempted to navigate higher education in the early 20th century: exclusion, marginalization, and the consistent message that, as a black person, he was not suited for the academy and that his ideas were unwelcome. Indeed, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent suggestion that blacks are best suited for “less advanced, slower track school[s] where they do well” are strikingly similar to the arguments about black inferiority that DuBois confronted in the 19th century—the very assertions he was able to debunk with scientific research.

Many faculty members and administrators will dismiss this lack of diversity as a pipeline issue, claiming that they simply can’t find “qualified” candidates of color to fill faculty positions. But as was the case in DuBois’s day, many historically black colleges and universities are populated by faculty of color, many of whom are exemplary researchers and teachers who work with a fraction of the resources offered at elite, predominantly white universities. “Qualified” candidates of color are there. They simply are not proportionately represented in historically white institutions.   

For faculty of color who do seek and find employment at predominantly white schools, research suggests that the issues they face are in some ways similar to those that students of color have described in the recent wave of protests. For example, in a recent study, the professors Ebony McGee and Lasana Kazembe noted that black faculty were racially stereotyped at work, including being generally expected to entertain and perform for colleagues in ways that were not expected of their white counterparts. Other black professors report that if they study issues related to race, their research is assumed to be less credible, serious, and rigorous than their white peers—even if white colleagues also study racial issues. Black faculty also do a disproportionate amount of service work—jobs that are expected of workers but not explicitly required. These can include mentoring and advising students and junior faculty, serving as a faculty advisor for campus clubs, or being on committees.  

And there are gender dynamics present as well. The sociologist Roxana Harlow found that black female professors had to manage gendered racial stereotypes that they were “mean” and “cold” in the classroom, stereotypes that are commonly applied to black female professionals more generally. And this says nothing of the racialized assumptions that many students (and fellow faculty) bring with them to the university—that black Americans, and by extension, black professors, are less knowledgeable and credible than their peers of other races, regardless of the subject matter they teach. This means that in practice, black faculty routinely face students, coworkers, and administrators who assume that they are not truly qualified for or capable of faculty work—all the while concealing the understandable feelings of frustration and annoyance that result. The overall message is that, like black students, black faculty simply do not belong.

Though these issues are complex and won’t be solved easily, universities could begin doing more to support faculty and staff of color. DuBois defined the premier problem of the 20th century as the issue of the color line, and this certainly shaped his experiences in higher education. It doesn’t have to be this way today.