Monthly Archives: December 2008

Faculty and Students of Color Face Various Dilemmas

Faculty and Students of Color Face Various Dilemmas

elwood-watson1By Elwood Watson

Recently I was interviewed by a student reporter for our campus newspaper about a racially tinged incident that took place earlier in the semester.

This past October five members of a prominent fraternity on campus dressed in blackface at a Halloween party as what they saw as an effort to portray rappers. The story does not stop here.

Several days after the incident, photos of the young men were posted on the internet. Thoughts and reactions varied greatly. There were those who were outraged –mainly Black students and a few other students of color, as well as those who thought that the reaction of those who were offended were over-reacting.  A majority of students were indifferent to the controversy.

Realizing the potential of a major controversy if not addressed, the administration acted quickly. Both the University President and the Dean of Students t denounced such behavior as insensitive, immature, arrogant and promised to take swift and if necessary, drastic action against the offenders. Such an aggressive stance by university officials pleased some, angered others and brought the issues of racial insensitivity and tolerance to the forefront of campus debate.

Just last week, more than 100 people showed up at a public forum to discuss the issue.

While the campus reporter came to interview me about the student/blackface incident, there are several examples of racial conflict and in some cases, hostility, that I and some other faculty members of color have encountered during our tenure at the university. 

Racial tolerance and diversity are issues that have long been marginalized on this rural Appalachian campus. Such incidents happen from time to time.

African American faculty in academia (and other faculty of color for that matter) who are successful in landing positions in academia are often confronted with students who have no qualms in voicing the fact that they are intimidated, and in some cases, uncomfortable with the presence of a non-White or in some cases, female professors, in the classroom teaching them.

Some students flatly refuse to accept such an arrangement and withdraw form the course. The vast majority, however, do make the effort to learn from and appreciate the opportunities that diverse viewpoints can frequently provide.

During my first year of teaching, more than a decade ago, there were some conflicts that reared their troublesome heads, although they were overshadowed by more pleasant experiences. The negative situations tended to derive from insensitive comments from students who would use the word “Negro” as opposed to “African American” or “Black” when referring to the group. Some older students (mostly those over 55) used the word “colored.” For these students this term was a “polite” form of reference to African Americans.

During my second year of teaching I even had one student go as far as to say “your kind” when referring to African Americans.

There were those ever so paranoid White students (mostly male) who assumed that I (and all Black and Latino faculty) were beneficiaries of affirmative action and that is why we were teaching him and his peers.

For the record, I made it clear to people who held this point of view that I had no doubt benefitted from affirmative action and was not ashamed to admit it. Moreover, I made it clear that veterans, alumni, well connected people, White females and millions of other Americans from these groups have been the recipients of such a policy as well.

Given as to what I already knew as the sadly diminutive level of knowledge that many Whites, professors as well as students, had in regards to Blacks and other minorities, I was not totally unprepared for the naïve questions and comments I have been confronted with.

On my student evaluations some students complained that I spoke too much about African American history, diminished the accomplishments of White men, was hostile toward conservatives etc… One student even said I suffered from a “persecuted” complex.

The fact is that none of these charges and allegations were true. While I do not profess to be perfect and indeed, none of us are, I am indeed fair to all my students and allow all viewpoints to be expressed in my course. In fact, my former department chair mentioned to me that he noticed on a number of my student evaluations the comment “that I was very open minded.”

If anything, it was certain students themselves who were exposing their resentment with me for taking them out of their pre-conceived comfort zones. Many other faculty of color can attest to similar situations.

Occasional tension and ignorance notwithstanding, I will concede that I have seen considerably more interracial interaction among younger students and faculty of different ethnic groups on this campus than when I first started in 1997.

It is not abnormal to see students of different ethnic groups sitting with one another in the dining hall, student center, football and basket ball games etc… It is also not that unusual to see interracial couples of varied backgrounds on campus as well.

The same could be said, though, on a smaller scale in regards to faculty interaction. One possible reason for this could be the very low number of Black faculty on this campus. Nonetheless, such a transformation is noteworthy.

The fact is that something good did come out of the campus blackface incident. It has forced students, faculty and administrators to engage in an ongoing effort to address and confront their own assumptions, pre-conceived notions, arrogance and prejudices. Such a change in behavior does not happen overnight. One must constantly check themselves no matter how racially progressive they think they are.

This in and of itself, is a good thing.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)






The myth of a “post-racial” America: a global perspective


By Dr. Christopher J. Metzler

The conversations about race and its significance in America are ongoing. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has intensified the conversation. Some claim that his election is proof that race no longer matters (although a majority of whites voted for McCain), others claim that his election is proof that we are living in a “post-racial” America (although there has been an increase in reported hate crimes since his election), while others claim that his election without more is not enough to end America’s complex and destructive relationship with race. To be sure, race is a social construction. In the American context, race has been used as a tool by slave masters to justify the enslavement of blacks by suggesting that we are other than human and thus deserve to be enslaved. In other words, while all humans are created equal, we were not human and thus not equal. Race was also used by the Courts of the United States to continue enslavement of blacks when the courts ruled, for example, that we had no rights that the white man was bound to respect. In modern day America, race is used as a tool by many individuals and institutions to relegate blacks and other recognizable minorities to the fringes of society. Modern day tools include racial profiling by law enforcement, prosecutors removing potential jurors from serving on juries because of race, and CNN and D.L. Hughley colluding to produce a television show rife with racist subtext.  Thus, I am of the opinion that Obama’s election in and of itself does not signal either the end of racism or the ushering in of a “post-racial” America.

Conversations about race are also taking place all across the world. Recently, I facilitated a discussion about race in France with members of the French media and academics in Paris. They reported that France is having discussions about diversity and race. Race is not discussed, as it is in America, because there is a general impression that to do so would focus on differences. That is, for the French, one should be French first. I challenged them, however, to think about the many black Africans and others who have immigrated to France, who speak the language and who to the casual observer, are French. However, who are followed around in the stores when shopping (as in America), who suffer discrimination when seeking employment (as in America) and are often on the fringes of the mainstream society (as in America). The conversation in France and in so much of Europe about race is very much like the conversation in America whether people wish to admit it or not. Like in America, it risks being denigrated into a politically correct discourse (as it has in America) thus relegating it into the proverbial intellectual dustbin.

We also had discussions about affirmative action. Some argued that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness in America and thus should be eliminated. One journalist asked about the efforts by Ward Connerly to eliminated affirmative action and its success in some states. Others discussed efforts in France in put affirmative action in place. These efforts are complicated by the fact that French law does not allow for and, in fact, prohibits the collection of racial data. Some argued then that the solution would be putting in place quotas that would reserve places for blacks and others in university, government etc.

I suggested that quotas simply do not address the issue. In fact, they become a ceiling rather than a floor. Moreover, they simply do not lead to the kind of change in a larger society that addresses racial policy and the eradication of racism at all societal levels. As to Connerly’s efforts, I explained his tactic to have the state initiatives passed by disguising them as “civil rights” efforts, as well as how he has enriched himself personally by working to undo affirmative action.

A “post-racial” America

Much of the conversation focused on whether the single act of electing President Obama thrust America from a “racial America” to a “post-racial” America. This is a conversation that is occurring both inside and outside of America. I explained at least three reasons why this is a problematic conclusion. First, the election of President Obama is a sea change event, just like the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education. Brown also promised a “post-racial” America, and it did not deliver. This is because sea change events without attendant, sustained, substantive change end up being events, not durable change. Keep in mind that on the issue of race, we have had several sea change events, among them: the founding of the NAACP, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 11246 (Affirmative Action) and others. All of these sea change events have brought us closer to addressing race and racism; they have not eliminated the continuing significance of race in America and by extension, the rest of the world. Since so many policymakers and others viewed these as events and did not take the opportunity to radically redesign the racial reality and lexicon, the promise remained unfulfilled.

 Second, the American media still shape public opinion about race. If this election proved anything, it proved that the vast majority of the American media (who, by the way, are still predominately white in a “post-racial” America) simply do not have the vocabulary or comfort to discuss or analyze race in any significant way. How could we be in a “post-racial” America when, throughout the campaign and since his election, the question of Obama’s race has not been discussed or analyzed but rather assigned a “post-racial” moniker? If the media were competent to analyze race, they would have been able to put Obama’s election in the racial context that it finds itself for better or worse. Rather, they have chosen to avoid the issue, discuss it marginally or simply resort to calling it a “post-racial” election. Most notable was the discussion of the so-called “Bradley effect” during the election. The vast majority of the media over simplified and over analyzed it, and when Obama won, simply said, ‘well its proof that racism is dead.’ Missing from the discourse are questions of what role, if any, race played in the election, how America would view a black first lady, whether and how the conversation of race will change in the media, the complexion of the American punditry and gaggling class that is the American media.  For an example of the overly simplistic “post-racial” approach, see “He’s not Black” by Marie Arana in The Washington Post.

Third, we live in a race-conscious, not a race-blind society. That is, the issue is not whether race exists; it is whether it matters. Thus, we have to ask ourselves what difference race makes to all of us. To date, the vast majority of the burden of discussing race has fallen on the shoulders of blacks and other racial minorities. Whites like for us to tell them what our experience with race and racism has been and then try to convince us that they are not racists. Enough already! Whites need to discuss among themselves and when they are with us the continuing significance of race in a way that suspends judgment and encapsulates reality.

As we closed the conversation, I realized that Obama’s election represents both a continuation and departure on the question of race. We should use this sea change event to resolve the issue, not squander it as we have with some many others. 

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is Associate Dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies and the author of the book The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a “Post-racial” America.




During an Economic Downturn, Why Suggest Closing the Public Black Colleges?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman and Dr. Kevin James

Last week, Republican Seth Harp, a senator in the Georgia state legislature suggested that in order to save money, several of the state’s public Black universities should be merged with nearby predominantly White universities. In Harp’s opinion, historically Black Savannah State University and historically White Armstrong Atlantic State University, both in Savannah, should be merged. And, historically Black Albany State University, and historically White Darton College (a two year institution), both in Albany, should be merged. Interestingly, he didn’t suggest that Georgia State and Georgia Tech, which are practically on top of one another, merge. According to Harp, the University of Georgia System has to make some serious budget cuts, possibly in the amount of $200 million.

Harp believes that the separate institutions (Black and White) in Georgia represent a legacy of segregation and he is correct – they do represent the state’s history of discrimination and segregation. However, what Harp fails to understand is the significant impact of historically Black colleges and universities on African Americans in Georgia and throughout the United States. As research and anecdote show, these institutions disproportionately graduate African American students and send them on to graduate school at disproportionate rates as well. These achievements benefit society at large.

Why are the Black schools being asked to assimilate into the White institutions? Why is it so hard for people to understand that diversity in our state systems of higher education is essential to strength? And, more importantly, why are Black institutions the ones that have to merge? Why can’t the predominantly White institutions merge into the Black institutions? Why must we continually ask African Americans to compromise, assimilate, and change?

Suggesting that Black institutions merge into White institutions is deeply troubling – what does it say about our perceptions of Black institutions when we assume that they are the weaker institutions and must do the merging? It says that we think they are inferior and that is problematic.

There are many creative ways to think about cutting costs in public higher education that are fair across institutional type. It is not acceptable to take a hatchet to historically Black colleges and universities during times of crises, especially given the fact that African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionally affected by economic downturns in the United States.