TCS Daily

Academic Minor: Why Are Blacks Underrepresented in Academia?

By Uriah Kriegel - November 7, 2005 12:00 AM

We have recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Million Men March, in which some 800,000 black men marched in Washington's National Mall to raise awareness of the systemic maladies of black America. Although the current condition of black America leaves much to be desired, things have certainly changed for the better over the past decade. The poverty rate among black Americans has gone down from 33% in 1990 to 24% today, a remarkable swing in such a short period that bodes well for the future.

The advances are not restricted to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Blacks are making inroads into the social elites and are appropriating an ever greater share of the nation's economic and political leadership. Thus, with black CEOs at such business giants as Merrill Lynch and American Express, and innumerable others in key business positions, black Americans now play a significant role in shaping our economy (which, after all, accounts a quarter of the world's economy).

Likewise, far-fetched though it may have seemed not long ago, the notion of a black president in our lifetime now appears a near certainty, with such credible candidates as Condoleezza Rice on the right and Barack Obama on the left conceivably becoming the world's most powerful person within a decade or two.

No less importantly, both Rice and Obama, as well as other top-notch black politicians (such as Representative Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee) have ascended to prominence on the wings of a civil and engaging discourse somewhat uncharacteristic of the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of yore. Rather than manipulate, nurture, and exploit feelings of victimization, the new generation of black leaders speaks of the black interest within the overarching framework of the national interest, in the non-divisive style.

As a result, they are seen as Americans first and only then black. And that is ultimately what we want for all of black America.

With such genuine and substantial inroads into the social, economic, and political elites of our nation, it is a little curious that there is no academic parallel. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the share of PhD's earned by blacks in the sciences and engineering continues to linger around 1.5%. Two decades ago the figure stood at 1%, so there is progress, but it is disappointingly slow. With the exception of the field of education (which accounted for a stunning 43.5% of all black doctorates in 2003, as opposed to 19.3 of white doctorates) and a handful of recently concocted "disciplines," such as African-American Studies, Media Studies, large segments of Literary Criticism, and the variety of other forms of "inquiry" into the nature and genealogy of social oppression, blacks have made negligible inroads within the academic world. Why?

Here is what I have learned, with great surprise and greater dismay, from informal conversations with some of my brightest black students, a good number of whom possess impressive and penetrating intellects.

According to these students, there are strong pressures within black communities against careers in the sciences and the humanities. Choosing such a career is considered vain and at some level selfish.

The reasoning is that devoting your life to purely abstract matters, while your brothers and sisters are still suffering daily injustices, is a form of selfish self-indulgence. How can one study the molecular structure of some rare chemical substance, or the neurophysiological correlates of the cognitive capacities of certain birds, or the philosophical underpinnings of artistic evaluation, when so many black Americans could use one's help in any number of more mundane manners?

On this view of things, it is imperative that the best and the brightest of young blacks go into careers that might lead them to wield considerable power in our society, so that they may be poised to make a positive impact on the material condition of other black Americans.

To be sure, there is a sense in which this way of thinking makes sense. How can any of us delve into theoretical matters as genocide unfolds in the Sudan? But among black Americans it has become a mechanism by which the hopes and dreams of young bright individuals are suppressed, as their intellects and souls are co-opted into "the common good." This mechanism is indoctrinated and internalized to the point where shame and guilt follow any moment of pure contemplation, devoid of any practical consequence, enjoyed by a young and curious black mind.

Against this background we can better understand why blacks have a more tangible presence in education and the aforementioned recently concocted disciplines -- because fundamentally these are forms of social activism more than theoretical investigation. They are inspired much less by the desire to understand the world than by the desire to change it.

The mechanisms that leave blacks out of academia betray something deeper: that black Americans perceives themselves as black first and only then Americans. To be sure, it would be hard not to, given a long history of being perceived by others as black first and human beings second, and of course also a history of being perceived as blacks and not human beings at all. But that is precisely the feat blacks must help the rest of America perform.

Ultimately, our shared goal is that of normalization. Normalization would entail that black Americans are seen as Americans and human beings first and black only secondarily -- and so perceived by both black and non-black Americans. There is much work to be done on both sides, but both sides must be at work.

Part of such a normalization process would also involve freeing young blacks to pursue careers that are not subordinate to the greater good of black America, in academia and elsewhere. As it happens, such self-liberation may well turn out to benefit black Americans in the long run.


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