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.