Injustice in a World Without Villains?
February 23, 2021
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.
The Harvard Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) recently released a faculty job satisfaction survey which explored, in part, how black faculty members viewed the racial climate within their institutions – a question that is of particular salience to many colleges and universities in the post George-Floyd era.
The results were a good news/ bad news situation. We’ll start with the good news. For white, black, Asian and Hispanic faculty alike, a majority of faculty viewed their departmental colleagues and university leadership as committed to diversity and inclusion, and felt as though they ‘fit in’ within their departments.
This is worth dwelling on a bit rather than glossing over. Overall, most faculty view their universities and their departments as relatively welcoming environments – irrespective of race. That said, there were significant differences in these perceptions across racial lines.
For instance, while roughly three-quarters of white respondents viewed their university leadership as ‘out front’ on diversity and inclusion, and viewed their departmental colleagues as committed to the same – just over half of black faculty responded the same way. Put another way, more than 40 percent of black faculty could not affirm that their university leadership or departmental colleagues were committed to diversity or inclusion.
With respect to feeling like they ‘belong’ in their department, roughly 7 in 10 non-Hispanic whites indicated they were satisfied with their departmental fit. For African Americans (and Hispanics) just over 6 in 10 felt the same. Again, while most expressed they did feel a sense of belonging in their departments, nearly 40% of black faculty could not affirm this.
Indeed, across the board, 20-30% of black faculty actively disagreed that their university leadership or departmental peers were committed to diversity and inclusion, or that they felt a sense of ‘belonging’ within their department.
It is important to hold both of these truths in the head at once: most black faculty do feel that their universities and colleagues are doing an acceptable job with respect to diversity and inclusion, and do feel as though they ‘fit’ within their departments. However, a substantial minority do not feel this way – and indeed, roughly 1 in 4 black faculty members actively disagree with these sentiments, with an additional 15 percent or so who are ambivalent.
Similar patterns hold for black students.
Good Intentions, Awkward Execution
Recently, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in partnership with College Pulse, conducted the largest-ever survey on free expression at colleges and universities across the United States.
They found that a majority of students (60%) have self-censored because they feared how students, professors or administrators might respond. There was no real difference across gender lines, or between institutional types. However, there were noteworthy differences along racial lines – in particular, black students were most likely to report self-censorship. 63% of African American students claimed to have withheld their views out of fear of how others might respond, as compared to 60% of whites and Asians and 59% of Hispanics.
The survey then drills into perceptions of what it is difficult to talk about. Two-thirds of black students feel it is difficult to have an ‘open and honest conversation’ about race on their campus. Only 40 percent of whites felt this way.
Why do most whites on campus feel as though racial discussions are not particularly difficult? The short answer is that most of these students are highly confident that they have the ‘correct’ answers to racial questions. Contemporary white college students (and increasingly college-educated people writ large) skew liberal and tend to be more ostensibly ‘woke’ on racial issues than most people of color. So when racial issues come up, most whites know what they ‘should’ say, and fully expect that their expressed opinions will be endorsed and celebrated by their white peers and any minorities in the room. For African Americans, the situation is much more difficult.
To help illustrate how these dynamics often play out in the classroom:
Most black people do not live in poverty or inner cities. Most African Americans do not feel as though they have ever been stopped or detained by police primarily on the basis of their racial background, and do not have experience with police violence.
The subset of African Americans enrolled in college are even less likely to have struggled with crime or poverty, or to have had direct personal experience with the prison-industrial complex.
For instance, most black people in America have either themselves spent at least one night incarcerated, or have a family member whom they feel close to who has spent at least one night incarcerated. However, among African Americans who have ‘some college’ or a college degree, the vast majority (two-thirds) do not.
And yet, when topics like racial inequality, poverty, crime or criminal justice come up on campus, people ‘in the room’ often pause and turn to the black students, waiting on them to weigh in on these topics.
They have been taught that this is the respectful thing to do – that in the event black students do have experience on these topics, everyone else should listen before they talk. They have been taught that black people, almost purely in virtue of their race, have a deeper understanding of these issues than most others could.
So in pausing and turning to the African Americans, white students are engaging in behaviors they view as respectful. However, in reality, incidents like these are often incredibly alienating for black students – whose peers seem to be assuming that they must be from a poor and ‘troubled’ background in virtue of their race, when this is simply not the case for most. And it pressures them to say something about topics they would perhaps not speak on.
It is a norm of ‘epistemic deference’ gone awry: white students are looking at black peers to represent the ‘typical’ African American on racial matters, when in fact, black college students tend to vary in systematic ways from most other black people (and to add insult onto injury, white students’ apparent assumptions that the ‘typical’ African American would have come from poverty, inner cities, had unjust run-ins with law enforcement, etc. are also off base).
And not only are these young black students expected to be able to produce first-hand testimony on matters that are, in reality, generally far beyond their own experience – to somehow be ‘experts’ on race, inequality and social justice when they are still figuring themselves out and likely have little more background knowledge on these issues than their peers – to make matters worse, their fellow students (and at times even professors) also seem to expect black students to affirm a very particular narrative on these issues.
When Silence Seems Simpler
Although they tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat because the alternative seems unacceptable, black people tend not to be particularly liberal or woke. In fact, African Americans are on average more socially and symbolically conservative, and more religious, than whites – and especially as compared to college-educated whites.
Many African Americans in institutions of higher learning disagree with the prevailing consensus on social and cultural issues. However, they often feel that their own position within these institutions is contingent upon them saying the ‘right’ thing. They recognize that they can get ahead by ‘playing the game’ and aligning themselves with white elites. And they also recognize that failure to conform brings the risk of becoming a pariah. Indeed, in many elite and ostensibly woke circles it has become increasingly acceptable to literally declare people as non-black to the extent that they diverge from elites’ preferred narrative on political issues.
Worse, many black scholars find themselves in a double-bind – because while they may reject much of the woke narrative, they do not necessarily agree with the anti-woke crowd either. Yet, they are keenly aware that any publicly-voiced dissent or criticism of the contemporary left by members of minority groups tends to get seized upon by right-aligned activists as a means to delegitimize social justice advocacy writ large.
In light of these realities, it seems perfectly understandable why most black students find it difficult to have honest conversations about race – and why black students may be more likely than most others to self-censor: in a context where virtually anything one says can be picked up to advance narratives and causes one does not actually agree with (the woke crowd on the left, the anti-woke crowd on the right) – and lead to adverse social and institutional consequences besides – it can seem like a ‘no win’ situation to speak up.
However, just rolling with the prevailing ethos also has its costs.
Contemporary antiracist literature often focuses on shocking people with dire narratives about past injustices and persistent inequalities. However, this ‘crisis framing’ has been shown to dampen people’s enthusiasm for addressing social problems – driving people towards resignation and fatalism, towards symbolic measures and expressive politics over concrete interventions.
More troubling, there is abundant research demonstrating that heightened perceptions of racism, discrimination , racialized violence and inequality have highly adverse effects on the psychological (and even physical) well-being of people of color.
That is, the more people perceive themselves to be surrounded by others who harbor bias or hostility against them, and the more they view their life prospects as hostage to a system that is fundamentally rigged against them, the more likely they become to experience anxiety, depression, psychogenic and psychosomatic health problems, and to behave in antisocial ways. This seems obvious on the one hand, but its implications are perhaps underappreciated.
For example, underlining historical and continued oppression and inequalities in a greater share of coursework, sensitizing students to notice and take offense at an ever-expanding sphere of ‘problematic’ words and behaviors, teaching students of color to attribute unfortunate outcomes in their own lives to racism – practically speaking, these seem likely to lead to increased anxiety, depression and alienation among students of color rather than making anyone feel more included or empowered.
It is likely not a coincidence that the more education black people have, the more likely we become to perceive ourselves as victims of racism. Nor, then, is it a surprise that education has diminishing mental health benefits for African Americans as compared to whites. For people of color – especially Black people — to get ‘educated’ is often to get cudgeled relentlessly with messages about how oppressed, exploited and powerless we are, and how white people need to ‘get it together’ to change this. That is, not only are we victims, but also helpless (and therefore also blameless) with respect to any misfortune that befalls us.
Indeed, popular contemporary antiracist literature tends to attribute virtually all agency and power to whites. Observed disparities are held to be created by and for whites alone. The capacity and responsibility for rectifying these problems are also held to lie near-exclusively with whites. People of color, when we appear in these narratives at all, are noble but helpless. We’re described as weak and fragile, with almost no control over our emotions or reactions, meaning constant vigilance and discipline is required from whites in order to avoid offending or ‘traumatizing’ us. It is a perfect example of what Esposito & Romano dubbed, ‘benevolent racism’:
“Unlike other forms of post-civil rights racism, benevolent racism is not predicated on the usual process of de-racialization… rather than invoking the liberal ideal of ‘neutrality’ or color-blindness as a way to dodge, deny or defend the racialized social system that supports White privilege (as with other types of post-civil rights racisms), benevolent racism ostensibly acknowledges and often condemns a system of White privilege. However, it does so in a way that further legitimizes and reinforces racist attitudes, policies and practices in the name of ‘benevolent’ aims – i.e. in the name of supporting, empowering, and/or defending the Black community.”
Indeed, as sociologist Matthew Hughey has pointed out, many contemporary strains of antiracism and white nationalism seem to share “a common understanding of what racial identity is, and more importantly, what it should be.”
A Complicated Picture
There is a large degree of overlap in the pictures that emerge from recent surveys of black faculty and black students. On the one hand, institutional efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are widely recognized and generally appreciated. Most scholars of color feel like they ‘belong’ on campus. On the other hand, the racial climate is significantly more comfortable for whites than for blacks. White faculty give their colleagues and university leadership much higher marks on diversity and inclusion than their black peers. White students are much more comfortable speaking on controversial topics than African American students seem to be, and view honest discussions on race to be far less difficult than black students perceive them to be.
Wokeness plays a complex role with respect to these issues. On the one hand, it spurs many whites to advocate for diversity and inclusion. On the other hand, the conviction with which many whites embrace woke views can blind them to how their own actions and interactions may be alienating to their black peers, or may even reinforce inequalities.
Indeed, as explored in a previous essay, colleges and universities continue to be highly unequal spaces: college graduation rates are still much lower for black people than most others; African Americans tend to leave college with far more debt than most — and receive less financial return on their educational investments on average; African Americans remain significantly underrepresented within the professoriate, and are significantly more likely than most to be contingent (rather than tenure or tenure track) faculty; contemporary African American students and faculty tend to be concentrated in less prestigious schools. In fact, I noted, these “institutional inequalities have not only persisted but actually grown in recent years – even during the racial reckoning we are purportedly in the midst of.”
As I have shown in a recent journal article, this trend within universities increasingly defines society writ large. Inequality is growing rapidly even as social elites and corporations have grown unprecedentedly woke. Reconciling these realities, and finding a way to effectively respond to them, is perhaps the challenge of our times.