Extending The Debate: Are Black Scholars Obligated To Talk About Race? Some Of Us Can’t!

The New York Times recently devoted a Room for Debate discussion to the subject, “Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race?”  Among the five Black scholars, some of them more known than the others, the responses regarding Black scholars’ obligation to talk about race publicly, in interactions with colleagues and students, and in their research, varied.  Black intellectuals should only speak on matters related to their area of scholarly expertise, or, at a minimum, should not be expected to speak about and study race.  And, frankly, we don’t really want just anybody talking about race just because they are of color.  But, given the legacy of racism and racial discrimination, even in the academy, we have an obligation to help future generations of scholars, though too few of us are concerned with anything but our own success.

Extending The Debate

I do not agree with every aspect of each debaters’ responses.  But, I appreciate that the question has been asked, and multiple view points have been offered.  One complication to which these scholars hinted, but did not directly address, is the constraints that exist for all scholars, but especially scholars of color.  Ironically, the securing of a PhD and tenure, rights that symbolically serve as protection against professional harm, have the opposite effect: they silence.  En route to securing tenure, usually around a professor’s sixth year in a faculty position, junior professors must proceed carefully in their scholarship, teaching, academic service (don’t even bother with community service), and interactions with colleagues and students (don’t bother speaking to the public, unless it’s media attention for a new publication or book).  Those six years of watching what you say while on the tenure-track follow 5-10 years of even greater silence and less protection as a graduate student.  Those 11-16 years of constraints on what we do and what we say represent an entire generation of scholars who cannot yet fully engage the academy and the world for fear of professional consequences.

This imposed silence for, hopefully, the protection of tenure to say or do whatever you want (within reason) is heightened for scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  Due to the ongoing reality of racism and other systems of oppression, one must work even harder (the “Black tax“) and be vigilant about any obstacles that may arise to hinder our success.  But, due to those traps, there are even more reasons to speak up.  Graduate students watch as their departments pay lip-service to diversifying the faculty, while they either remain just as white or faculty of color leave in droves.  Black junior faculty navigate their colleagues’ suspicion that they were hired solely because of their race — an ironic twist of the reality of racism and programs like Affirmative Action that aim to challenge it.  Sadly, I fear that even beyond tenure, faculty of color are still relatively silent and hypervigilant well into their careers.

A Personal Anecdote

Though I have a tenure-track job in hand for the Fall, my graduate student status prevents me from sharing too much from my own personal experience regarding race and racism in the academy.  But, I can speak about one “safe” example, given its public nature.  One professor in my department, Fabio Rojas, who generally does work outside of race and racism but has done such work in the past, recently blogged to clarify the misguided discourse about a “post-racial” America.  He suggests, instead, that we live in a “post-racist” America:

I suggest the term post-racist because while race still exists, we don’t build racism into our laws and culture. We definitely past a time where a law can simply say “Blacks can’t do X.” But race is still around and it’s all over the place. At least we can talk about.

Ironically, even he suggests that “at least we can talk about [it].”  When I first saw this post, I was outraged.  A tenured sociology professor, who has written a book about the Black power movement and the development of Black studies, and who is LATINO, said to the world that the days of old-fashioned racism are gone:

  • Racial discrimination is no longer legitimate.
  • Most people don’t sit around and just hate people from other groups.
  • People, though, still enjoy racial advantages.
  • Race is still a big factor in our social lives. E.g., people overwhelming marry in group.
  • It’s ok to talk about race. We can even poke fun at others.
  • Some people are still “classically racist” in that they actually do sit around and hate others, but this, for the most part, has to be done underground.

Yes, “polite” white people no longer intentionally discriminate, at least in terms of saying “we won’t hire her because she’s Black!”  But, that does not deny the everyday reality of subtle exclusion thinly disguised as something other than race (“she doesn’t have good people skills”).  He underestimates the persistence of racial prejudice in America, and just how easy it is to talk about race (e.g., without whites being accused of being racist or fearing such accusations, without people of color being dismissed as hypervigilant or overly sensitive).  The biggest flaw of his argument is missing the continued reality of racism within institutional practices: redlining and mortgage discrimination, the overrepresentation of Black and Latino men in prisons, “standardized” testing in schools, and so on.

My Own Moment

As neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart said in his Room for Debate essay, I should mind my business in this matter, short of being an “expert” on race and racism.  (So, too, should have the professor in question.)  Or, maybe this situation simply represents differing viewpoints among scholars of color: I know from research, history, and personal experience that racism is alive and well, albeit in a new form; this professor thinks “[o]verall, America is a much more humane place for many its residents.”

However, I see this as more than a matter of different opinions.  Rather, I fear every discussion about race and racism contains the urgency of life or death.  To have a tenured professor, who has studied race extensively, and is a person of color himself, suggest all is well in this “post-racist” America is to give license to breathe a sigh of relief to white America that has been anxiously awaiting their “post-racial” society.  “See, even he said racism is a thing of the past!”  I feel a sense of obligation — as a sociologist, person of color, race scholar, anti-racist activist, and human who advocates for equality — to speak up and say, “um, I beg to differ!”

But, initially, I decided keep my mouth shut.  I am three months from the completion of my PhD training, and six away from beginning my exciting new life as a tenure-track professor.  Why jeopardize a drama-free exit from graduate studenthood?

Tell The Truths

Obviously, I have broken that silence in this post.  I agree with Stephon Alexander, a physicist, that I have an obligation to act in this moment, even if I never studied race or taught a course on race.  My expertise on what is wrong, what is right, what is inclusive, what is exclusive, what is discrimination and what isn’t is not limited to literature reviews, statistical analyses, and the peer-review process of publishing.  My own experiences serve as expertise!  Given the ironic constraints of PhD training and the tenure-track, I could end up waiting forever for the appropriate “expert” to come along to call out exclusive or unfair practices, and, even when they come along, sometimes they say otherwise.

Of course, if we all speak, we may have different opinions because, obviously, we have varied experiences.  But, I would much rather we have “many voices, many agendas” than having “the few, the famous” doing all of the talking.  Unfortunately, for now, these institutional constraints silence many for too long, and, ultimately, reward those who are silent, non-threatening, non-radical — the “good” Black scholars who don’t call attention to race and racism.  We have an obligation to speak out and support future generations of scholars of color so that this form of conditional acceptance (“it’s okay that you’re Black, just don’t make an issue of it!”) is eliminated.  The utility and liberating potential of academia and higher education for communities of color depend upon the full participation of scholars of color.

And, of course, we cannot do it alone.  White intellectuals, particularly those with anti-racist politics and scholarship, also have an obligation to speak up about race and racism.  Only then will it be easier to talk about race, and the burden to start and carry on those conversations will not fall on the shoulders of a few tenured Black scholars.