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Black Academia Can Rise to the Next Level
March 25, 2002
By Tommy Ates

Can black academia practice what they preach on affirmative action and the hiring process? Well, probably yes and no. The question of whether racial discrimination exists against whites at historic black colleges depends on what definition of discrimination that person subscribes to. Ironically, affirmative action for minorities at closed white universities in the 1960s opened the door for lawsuits, quietly shelved by many black colleges. Increasingly, more racial discrimination lawsuits are being filed by whites at traditional African-American colleges, who are refused tenure as a professor or who are appointed in administration positions.

Yes, the question of what is 'proper' affirmative action again raises its head, and we must decide the answer soon. These government incentives (or mandates) are well intentioned, but there is a problem which reverse-discrimination suits barely hint at: whites, in an increasingly multi-cultural world, are finding difficulty in crossing cultural roadblocks regarding issues that were supposedly 'settled.'

The reason the plaintiffs give for feeling that they have been discriminated against are similar to minorities, except in one sense - none seem to have the outright hostility that has generally accompanied working in a 'closed' atmosphere. In fact, many litigants report fair and wonderful treatment by the faculty and the students as a whole. But there is a problem; whites and blacks at traditional black colleges have different ideas of what the goal of the school is.

For whites, it is another avenue of learning, of being able to teach promising pupils and reach tenure status. For blacks, it is preserving an avenue of learning by African-Americans for African-Americans, learning in a way that requires little deviation from cultural lingo. You are guided in your studies by blacks that have your best interests at heart (unlike the mainstream social machine). It is okay to talk in 'black speak' informally. It is okay to feel safe being black.

All of these things have become an integral part of the black college experience in modern times. Yet, in the late 20th Century, as taxpayer dollars infiltrated African-American universities, the same government stipulations in regards to reaching committed hiring goals and student diversity applied to these schools as well as the state and private white schools. The oozing dilemma of historically black colleges being sacked with such discrimination suits and burying them is nothing new. The fact that more media organizations are reporting them is notable. Younger whites are realizing they need equal access to this emerging, niche society and since they are the dominant ones (right now), it presents a potential problem.

Clearly there are two sides to this issue. White educator litigants charge that they were shut out; but historically black colleges also have a charge to keep in hiring and promoting personnel that reflects and promotes the type of students it wants to attend that school. Would the non-white teachers be able to keep the same charge as W.E.B. du Bois or a Mary McLeod Bethune? (Would they know who they were?)

Already at some of the smaller black colleges (like Lincoln University), the white student population now vastly outnumbers the original black counterparts. It becomes increasingly hard to celebrate black-derived traditions with fewer and fewer blacks present. Inevitably, there becomes a change in identity in which another (mostly white) rises from the ashes.

This gradual, but dramatic trend is one that is following smaller, lesser known African-American college one by one as more blacks head to major universities where there tends to be greater resources and larger endowments. White instructors and lecturers, attracted by the difference in education experience (and also, the need for diversity in staffing) are applying in larger numbers, leaving a looming, cultural question for black academia. Can a white president lead black students at a historically black college?

To place an equal standard for hiring staff, black academia would have to let go its independent spirit, its inner voice, to join a modern society who has not yet remembered, regretted, or fully admitted its mistakes and abuses of African people. We still remember it was crime to teach blacks to read before the Civil War. We still remember when we had no legitimate voice. Our political leaders are still attacked for stating inclusive positions and denigrated for showing any kind of oratory skills other than those that reflect Western values. Our schools are still substandard, and in the upper middle-class 'resistance war' to share taxpayer dollars in education, we know that the battle not to teach black youth is still not over. In essence, we are still tolerated, not celebrated.

Should whites achieve equal parity in the black education system? Of course. Would that potentially lose the one last educational voice we have? Certainly. The problem is an issue of conscience. And for the life of me, on this issue, I wish I didn't have one - we have to begin to trust ourselves, and them.

Can we?


Tommy Ates loves the left because the left is always right! He wants to help the underdog become the Top Dog.

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