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How Black Academia Can Rise to the Next Level
On affirmative action and the hiring process, can black
academia practice what they preach? Well, probably yes and
no… The question of whether racial discrimination exists
against whites at historic black colleges depends what
definition of discrimination that person subscribes to.
Ironically, affirmative action for minorities at closed
white universities in the 1960s opened the door at these
lawsuits, quietly shelved by many black colleges.
Increasingly, more racial discrimination lawsuits are being
filed, by whites at traditional African-American colleges,
who are refused tenure as a professor or who are appointed
in administration positions. Yes, question of what is
‘proper’ affirmative action again raises its head and we
must decide soon. These government incentives (or mandates)
are well intentioned, but as the media press regarding
reverse-discrimination suits barely hint at: whites, in an
increasing multi-cultural world, are finding difficulty in
crossing cultural road blocks regarding issues that were
supposedly ‘settled.’ The reason the plaintiffs give for
feeling that they have been discriminated against are
similar to minorities except in one sense, none seem to have
the outright hostility that has generally accompanied
working in a ‘closed’ atmosphere. In fact, many litigants
report fair and wonderful treatment by the faculty and the
students as a whole.
But there is a problem; whites and
blacks at traditional black colleges have different ideas of
what the goal of the school is. For whites, it is another
avenue of learning, of being able to teach promising pupils
and reach tenure status. For blacks, it is preserving an
avenue of learning by African-Americans for
African-Americans, learning in a way that requires little
deviation from cultural lingo. You are guided in your
students by blacks that have your best interests at heart
(unlike the mainstream social machine). It is okay to talk
in ‘black speak’ informally. It is okay to feel safe being
All of these things have become an integral part of the
black college experience in modern times. Yet, in the late
20th Century, as taxpayer dollars infiltrated
African-American universities, the same government
stipulations in regards to reaching committed hiring goals
and student diversity applied to these schools as well as
the state and private white schools. The oozing dilemma of
historic black colleges being sacked with such
discrimination suits and burying them is nothing new. The
fact that more media organizations are reporting them is
notable. Younger whites are realizing they need equal access
to this emerging, niche society and since they are the
dominant ones (right now), it presents a potential problem.
Clearly there are two sides to this issue. White educator
litigants charge that they were shut out the door; but
historic black colleges also have a charge to keep in hiring
and promoting personnel that reflects and promotes the type
of students it wants to attend that school. Would the
non-white teachers be able to keep the same charge as
<W.E.B>. du Bois or a Mary McLeod Bethune? (Would they know
who they were?)
Already at some of the smaller black colleges (like Lincoln
University), the white student population now vastly
outnumbers the original black counterparts. It becomes
increasingly hard to celebrate black-derived traditions and
celebrated with fewer and fewer blacks present. Inevitably,
there becomes a change in identity in which another (mostly
white) rises from the ashes.
This gradual, but dramatic trend is one that is following
smaller, lesser known African-American college one by one as
more blacks head to major universities where there tends to
be greater resources and larger endowments. White
instructors and lecturers, attracted by the difference in
education experience (and also, the need for diversity in
staffing) are applying in larger numbers, leaving a looming,
cultural question for black academia. Can a white president
lead black students at a historic black college?
To place an equal standard for hiring staff, black academia
would have to let go its independent spirit, its inner
voice, to join a modern society who has not yet remembered,
regretted, or fully admitted its mistakes and abuses of
African people. We still remember it was crime to teach
blacks to read before the Civil War. We still remember when
we had no legitimate voice. Our political leaders are still
attacked for stating inclusive positions and denigrated for
showing any kind of oratory skills other than those that
reflect Western values. Our schools are still substandard
and in the upper middle-class ‘resistance war’ to share
taxpayer dollars in education, we know that the war not to
teach black youth is still not over. In essence, we are
still tolerated, not celebrated.
Should whites achieve equal parity in the black education
system? Of course. Would that potentially lose the one last
educational voice we have? Certainly. The problem is an
issue of conscience. And for the life of me, on this issue, I
wish I didn’t have one–we have to begin to trust us, and
Tommy Ates is a freelance writer based in Austin, TX. His columns have appeared in The Houston Chronicle, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Wichita Eagle and Global Black News. He can be reached at: atesbodhi5.aol.com.