Big Midwestern University is currently in the midst of hiring several historians. These positions are both at the junior and at the senior level, but it’s clear already that the majority of people offered those new jobs will be white. Indeed, not a single person of color is even in the running for the most senior of these positions.
One of the major problems facing history departments today is that they have failed in the mission to diversify. This may come as surprising news to some. Indeed, I have been in several meetings (both in Texas and BMU) where white faculty have lauded how diverse those departments had become and how seriously they took the issue of “diversity.” For them, the successful hiring of one or two people of color in the department was enough to break out the “Mission Accomplished” banner and give a speech on an aircraft carrier.
Keep in mind that these are not bad or racist people. On the contrary, they actually do support diversity and are allies (unlike many of my other Texas colleagues who were explicitly hostile to hiring minorities (that, though, is a different post)). Yet, many well-meaning white faculty members like these don’t realize that our departments aren’t even close to racial parity. History, as an academic discipline, is shockingly out of step with the nation (and even far behind other humanities programs). Why has this happened?
In October of last year, historian George Sánchez called attention to the problem in an article for the American Historical Association. Though it didn’t garner much attention or comment, Sánchez revealed the history profession to be woefully blind to the reality of the nation’s population and the diversity of college-aged students. Combined, African Americans and Latinos represent well over 25 percent of the nation’s total population (and over a third of the population age 40 and below). Yet, African Americans only represent 5 percent of the total number of historians in the entire nation. Latino/as only compose 3 percent of the total number of historians in the entire nation.
Obviously, there are larger issues that are keeping minorities out of higher education that are beyond the scope of the field. Minorities disproportionately attend public schools with inadequate resources, they are not often encouraged to enter college and/or lack the means to pursue higher education, etc.
Historians wring their hands and point to those elements to explain why they just can’t fight the system. Yet, even with all of that, business and law schools are still much more diverse than history Ph.D. programs or faculties. History also fares worse than other humanities or social sciences. Sociology, political science, psychology, and literature are all more diverse fields than history. We are on par with economics (the discipline generally considered the most “conservative” of the social sciences).
The lack of diversity in history faculties is seemingly impacting the number of undergraduates pursuing degrees in history. Of all the disciplines, history has the whitest undergraduate majors in this nation. It therefore becomes a vicious cycle. History is taught only from the perspective of whites, which only attracts white students, who then become professors who teach that same history.
What has happened to the field of history that we should end up so far behind our colleagues in other parts of the university? We should feel a certain shame that the MBA program has done better attracting African Americans and Latino/as than our field.
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the way that hiring and searches are conducted in history departments. If a minority is hired into a history department, he or she is most often hired into a position that is specific to their personal race or ethnicity. Latinos/as, in other words, are hired to teach Latino/a history. African Americans are hired to teach Afro-Am, etc. This is not necessarily true for white candidates, who occupy positions across the discipline (including positions teaching Latino/a and Afro-Am history).
Obviously, these “ethnic studies” positions are critically important components of the department and I am not suggesting they should come to an end (as, you know, I hold one of those positions). Yet, these positions are currently the only mechanism that departments employ to increase the racial diversity of their faculty. This is a seriously flawed strategy. Most departments can only afford to fund a couple of these positions. If that is the only avenue for diversity, then Latino/as and African Americans will always be just one or two people in the department.
Minority applicants are simply not hired for job ads in other fields (including (especially?) general U.S. history positions). Indeed, even positions that should have minority candidates because there is an obvious overlap with ethnic studies are given to white candidates. So, a job advertised for the "History of the U.S. West" should potentially net somebody working in Chicano/a history. After all, the West is where the majority of Chicano/as live (and, in some places, were/are the majority of the population). Likewise, a job on the U.S. South should logically draw candidates working on Afro-Am. Despite good ol’ logic, those regional-specific jobs most often go to white applicants working on white history. In one memorable incident that I witnessed, a member of a search committee rejected a qualified minority candidate by claiming that his/her work would be better suited to ethnic studies rather than a broad U.S. position. Apparently ethnic history isn’t U.S. history.
The emergence of African-American and Latino/a histories came as a response to the demand for the field to take seriously the experiences of these populations. It took decades of rigorous activism for these classes to even appear on course catalogs. A friend of mine, however, has aptly characterized how those movements have now been undercut by most history departments. After the struggle to get faculty positions for African American and Latino/a history, history departments have decided that those are the only positions from which minorities can speak and contribute.
If you imagine that this is just a problem caused by retrograde white, straight men, think again. White women are seemingly as likely to maintain white-dominance in their sub-disciplines. Indeed, I have been shocked by the number of smart white women scholars who recently claimed that gender was more important than race. That is an easy position to take if one is in a position of racial privilege.
A job post for U.S. Women’s History should be competitive for scholars working in fields like African-American women’s history or Latina history. In practice, however, those scholars are often dismissed by many of their white women colleagues as “too narrow” for such an allegedly broad field. Some white women historians still operate under the hidden assumption that race and gender are totally separate categories rather than identities created from intertwined ideologies. Twenty-seven years ago, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s edited volume This Bridge Called My Back challenged white feminists to interrogate their own complicity in oppression. Moraga mourned that white feminists seemed to “feel no loss, no lack, no absence when women of color are not involved.” Since that time, This Bridge has gone out of print and few white feminist scholars have noticed. Whiteness, for many white feminists, is still the real story of women’s history, even if racial privilege is invisible to those safeguarding it.
If historians are serious about diversity beyond lip-service, then it is going to require a complete revaluation of business as usual. Affirmative Action programs are dead (and in some areas now illegal). To solve the problem therefore requires a new way of thinking. Instead of imaging diversity as a question for each individual department to solve, we need to think more broadly as a discipline.
This starts by rethinking how we approach undergraduate education. Our undergraduate classes can be made relevant for the population(s) that we serve. A single reading from Sojourner Truth does not make a course syllabus on U.S. history “diverse.” Rather, we can craft classes that position questions about the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality as the central theme.
We can also take more interest in encouraging promising minority candidates to pursue graduate education. It has been a fallacy to assume that minority candidates would only be interested in writing histories on people just like themselves. Our colleagues in non-U.S. fields would likely benefit a great deal from a wider-range of perspectives on their work.
Finally, we need to seriously scrutinize the ways job searches are conducted. From the initial drafting of the ad to the final campus interviews, we need to be more mindful about what is at play in our departments. I call it bullshit that a white woman writing about white women is writing "women's history." Call it like it is -- Make whiteness visible in historians' presumptions. We need to know about white women (obviously), but white women are not the sum-total of "women's" experiences in this country. Likewise, a white male scholar writing on white male settlers in the U.S. West is writing "white, male History," not a "general" history of the west that is supposedly open to all.
Moreover, having a single African-American historian writing African-American history doesn’t mean that he/she has the field “covered.” Nor does it mean that a supposedly “broad” U.S. history position is a “balance” to having African American or Latino/a History.
We must disrupt this “lite-brite” vision of U.S. history. The stories of minority groups in this nation are not simply festive, colored pegs that can be plugged into a core white background. The history of race in this nation is the history of this nation.