Sunday, February 03, 2008

Where is the Diversity?

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.


Les said...

FWIW, it seems to me that many "third wave" feminists are more aware of racial issues than "second wave" feminists. I don't know how this plays out in history departments, but online feminist discussion groups that I'm involved in also call bullshit on women = white women.

Gloria Steinem's idiotic pro-Clinton column is second wave.

Susan said...

Great post about the politics of history. Obviously, history hasn't done a good job of making "outsiders" feel as if they fit in, as if they are part of the story. The assumption is that "history" is about men in power, and everything else needs an adjective. I'm a European historian, and in my field, gender is not fully integrated into the historiography. So we get something just as silly as the idea that one historian can "cover" African-American history: that one historian can "cover" (gotta love the word, right?) European Women's History. Outside the survey, NO ONE else would be expected to cover 2000 years of history...

Of course what you are talking about is institutionalized racism. Some of us feminist historians have figured it out, but not all.

Alan said...

"What has happened to the field of history that we should end up so far behind our colleagues in other parts of the university? "

You haven't walked around our Chemistry department have you? (Or ANY chemistry department at a major research university.) The pipeline ain't just leaky, it's completely broken.

Homer said...

Anthropology went through a diversity phase a while ago- it was basically impossible for white men to get any of the teaching positions in the 90s. It was nice to see departments hire a variety of people.

Sisyphus said...

I totally agree with you, except, based on the makeup of my lit department, I'm not willing to give my discipline a pass (it looks just like the history department).

Departments should do a lot more active outreach to bring in students of color into their classes and to encourage them to become majors. They also should do much more outreach and assistance at the high school level, encouraging minority students to go to college as well as help them overcome their often-inferior school preparation.

However, I worry about encouraging students of color --- particularly those who already have big debt loads --- to embark on such a long and crappy road as the PhD, especially when the job market is tight and the salaries even for tt jobs are not high. I mean, if they make it through an MBA or law or med school, they'll be getting way more money and respect, as well as not taking 10 years. So, I would never _discourage_ them from grad school, but I feel ambivalent.

Marius said...

I agree with Sisyphus and want to build on some of the points he brought up. There are cultural and economic issues that should also be considered. Many minority students simply don't view certain (most?) academic careers as an attractive option for various reasons. Going to professional school makes more sense to the average minority in this country, or so it seems. You also have to consider the cultural aspects of academia. Many European American families have been a part of this culture for generations. And I often get the impression that most minorities don't want to be a part of that; some highly intelligent minorities gravitate toward the arts, for example, which raises a whole host of questions. It's also interesting that members of some ethnic/racial groups in this country are overrepresented in certain academic fields. There is hope for underrepresented groups.

So, you are right; more needs to be done to increase diversity at every level of academic institutions across this country. However, minority groups need to do their part as well.

GayProf said...

Les: I am not as convinced. I think contemporary feminists are more likely to pay lip-service to race. In practice, though, we still see that women of color are not hired in large numbers.

Susan: Women's history, in general, is still not taken as seriously. Which is why it is surprising that some white feminist scholars can't figure out new strategies that thwart both gender and racial oppression.

Alan: It's worth pointing out that universities, overall, are still failing to represent the larger population. It's just that history is really, really failing.

Homer: I often think claims that white men have trouble finding jobs to be dubious. At my former Texas institution, the department was 90 percent white. Yet, I often heard white men claim that they were being discriminated against and that the department never hired them (though it hired more white men than any other group).

Sisyphus: Literature is almost as bad as history (and worse in terms of Latino/as).

Marius: You and Sisyphus raise good points about the financial issues that are linked to encouraging people to pursue a Ph.D. Racial minorities, particularly those who are first-generation college students, are more likely to want the economic stability that can come with business or law degrees.

All the same, history is still behind other humanities and social sciences. Somebody seeking a Ph.D. in Sociology isn't really any better off in terms of job security or debt than history. History, however, is clearly not attracting the same interest.

tornwordo said...

You have a knack for uncovering the inherent racism in our culture. Inherent yet unacknowledged most of the time. It's important to expose it, thanks for that.

Maggie said...

This is a great post. A couple of random observations:

1. To what degree is history as a discipline... hmmm, how to say this politely... *snobbier* than many social science depts? E.g., at my school, the history dept is very good, but it's also extremely clubby and self-congratulating about being "rigorous" etc. Our philosophy dept is the same way. Both of these depts are also, and I don't think coincidentally, very white and male (in terms of faculty and especially students). To what extent is that true of history as a whole?

2. There are a number of tricky issues at work here. For example, I have a white friend who studies Native American history. There are a *very* limited number of jobs he can reasonably aspire to, because most searches for NA history hope to result in hiring a Native American. In part this is because of the extremely limited "lite brite" approach to diversity many/most departments employ, but there's also something else there: a suspicion about the "authenticity" of one's scholarly voice. It's like a man applying for a job in Women's Studies (and not gender studies). I think the politics of this are very tricky: on the one hand, we *don't* want subaltern histories appropriated by dominant groups; on the other hand, we also don't want to be pegged as "Well, you're a woman, so you'll teach the courses on women."

pacalaga said...

Interesting post, as usual. I wondered the same things as Sisyphus - especially for those minority students who had to work harder to overcome substandard elementary and secondary education, it would seem to me that the push is on from counselors, friends and possibly even parents - put that hard work to "good use" and make some money.
And also, re: white women historians - one's own personal experience is more likely to color one's perceptions. Gender is more important to those women than race because the gender issue is where they personally may have felt inequality. Interestingly, and I'm not sure what this says about me, I don't think about it so much in my daily life because I have never personally experienced discrimination myself. Either because I have been profoundly insulated, or because I am profoundly obtuse in observing it. As such, gender inequality is not often on my radar. (Same with racial equality, but I'm white so there you go.) I don't generally think about it until you bring it up.

Ann said...

Hi all--a great post and great comments. I've linked you and added a few thoughts of my own at Thanks, GayProf, for raising these important issues at this time of the year especially.

Frank said...

To what extent do you think those minorities who DO go into history feel... obligated? pressured? that they "owe it" to their forefathers and mothers? politically responsible to? only go into their particular minority's subfield in history, making them almost only employable as specialists in that subfield? Did you as a Latino homosexual, for instance, feel you HAD to go into Chicano/a history, that you would be "betraying" the race if you studied, say, Eastern European social history or something?

Artistic Soul said...

I agree with much you said here, particularly "Of all the disciplines, history has the whitest undergraduate majors in this nation." -- that is true at our university and the faculty reflects that. Unfortunately, there are larger issues in recruiting minority candidates, but when they appear, the logic used by some faculty members to make them "not fit" the position is staggering to me. We recently had a generalist position open with one candidate who was openly gay -- the discussion among some department members was, "do we really need a gay person in the department?" It shocked me, because a similiar statement about "do we really need a Black person in the department?" would have been universally rejected as a criteria for evaluating candidates!! Sorry, you set me off for a moment there...but I'm with you on much of this.

Tenured Radical said...


Great post -- the one thing I would say is that some of them are bad and racist people, at least where I live. The politics of hiring that you describe with such grace often come down to a much cruder reality: that people who work on race, gender or sexuality are too "narrow" to teach "the nineteenth century" -- despite the fact that what our fields have achieved is to demonstrate that women, people of color, and colonized or subaltern peoples in the America are central to critical ideas in political culture are formed: citizenship, the state, freedom, yadda yadda.

This is why I devote myself to American Studies nowadays. Too many people I work with in history, because of their intellectual limitations, actually are racist.


GayProf said...

Torn: Sometimes it feels like shooting fish in a barrell.

Maggie: Native American studies is an interesting exception to most other ethnic studies fields because it is dominated by whites. I am, however, very leery of white men who claim that the job-search process is stacked against them. Looking at the racial composition of universities, there is no evidence that whites aren't being hired.

Pacalaga: It's hard to argue with the desire to earn a decent living. Still, as I mentioned before, if people are getting Ph.D.'s in Sociology, they might as well get a degree in history.

Ann: Thanks for the shout-out.

Frank: That is a complicated issue. It's one that I think that I might write about in the future.

Artistic Soul: That is horrifying, but not surprising. When I was in TexAss, a number of colleagues claimed that the department was getting "too diverse." It was, as I point out, well over 90 percent white.

Tenured Radical: It all depends on how one measures racism. Given my time in TexAss, I can say that there is a significant difference between the forms that racism takes in history departments. I guess that I was gearing this post towards people who are racist only because they don't think about these issues much (as opposed to my former Texas colleagues who truly believed that they were superior to minority scholars and that minority histories had no place in universities).

Aethlos said...

Luv this piece!

Roger Green said...

I was intrigued by the comment about the tradition of academia in minority households. I was the first person to go to college in my family, my sister the second. I got the MLS, but the idea of getting my doctorate utterly exhausted me. But mostly, I didn't have the personal example that would have made that logical.

JD said...

We librarians have a similar problem: We'd love to hire more minority candidates, but there just aren't that many minorities applying. It's a pipeline issue for us (not enough minority MLS students), and I suspect it has to do with the low-pay/low-respect/few-jobs trifecta.

I would feel guilty encouraging minority students--or anyone for that matter--to join the profession while the ratio of jobs to librarians is so low.

Laverne said...

It is a complicated issue, on which you write well.

I have so much to say that I would have an entire blog post... hey, there's an idea.

Just deleted the long-winded response I wrote. Methinks I will address it on my own blog.

Gosh, I love smart people.

Which means I love gayprof.

Oso Raro said...

Forget where's the diversity... more like where's Gay Prof? 13 days and counting since your last post. Hrm...

Roger Green said...

Totally off topic: see re: Wonder Woman today.

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Aethlos said...

love how constant your blog's art design has remained... it's perfect really. perfect motif, colors, execution. it's sui generis - i could spot it a mile away. the comic covers were such a great idea...

jeremy said...

Where is the diversity?
Where is the prof is more like it!

Roger Green said...

well, you've left us with a couple theories:
1) something terrible has happened to you
2) something wonderful has happened to you, and you're traipsing through the woods just outside town or
3) you're busy doing work

Reasons 1) or 2) are reasons to abandon us. 3) is not.

Ochre said...

You're right. It's a problem. I won't go on and on, but something that I think is reflected in what you've written is my experience of trying to make the English dept. at my school understand that my being gay and South Asian, and happening to write about queer post-colonial though didn't necessarily mean that the only person suited to advise me was the one Indian in the department (she felt much the same way, and was very confused about why everyone kept trying to push us together). In some ways, it seemed that the entire thesis committee had their lives riding on a brown person being mentored/advised by another brown person, regardless of what their areas of interest/overlap actually were. It was immensely frustrating, but I somehow muddled through.

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