Academe Must Confront Its Racist Past

tags: racism, education

Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University. She is the author, most recently, of  "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga" (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2015).  Thumbnail Image - Governor George Wallace stands defiant at the University of Alabama

Much of what I’ve learned about the intersection of American and African-American history, I’ve learned as an extracurricular activity. Whether it was the emergence of the formerly enslaved into positions as governor or members of Congress during Reconstruction, the backlash to that progress post-Reconstruction, or the heroism of scores of African-American soldiers who fought even as they were denied their basic rights as citizens, this history has been marginalized.

In much of academe, the saga of African-Americans’ enslavement and oppression is relegated to an undervalued major or electives. The struggle of black Americans against those who have long deemed them inferior — including U.S. presidents, the Supreme Court, and much of the academy — has been largely excised from our essential texts even as it informs the ways in which black Americans are still regarded today. This unexamined legacy of intolerance continues to express itself at even our most elite colleges, where meaningful dialogue about race has been avoided, if not disdained.

Well into the 20th century, leading universities, museums, scientific societies, and journals circulated studies purporting African inferiority, an idea at the heart of the nascent field of anthropology. In 1921 more than 300 delegates from around the world attended the Second International Congress of Eugenics, a pseudoscientific movement predicated on white supremacy. The influential congress was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, with its president, Henry Fairfield Osborn — a leading paleontologist and a former dean at Columbia University — presiding. Among the notables in attendance were Herbert Hoover; Alexander Graham Bell; Gifford Pinchot, the conservationist and future governor of Pennsylvania; and Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin.

For a significant part of the 20th century, most major American institutions — including New York University, where I teach — embraced assumptions that justified African-American exclusion. In 1927, nearly a century after NYU’s founding, the NAACP challenged the university’s discrimination against black students, who were denied access to dormitories and classes. In defense, in a statement to The New York Times, the university responded: "New York University reserves the right to use such discrimination in the selection of students for admission to dormitories, classes or courses as seems advisable to promote the interests of the greatest number." Two years later, NYU commanded national headlines for appeasing the University of Georgia’s demand that Dave Myers, a black star player for the football team, be benched for a game against Georgia.

Likewise, NYU’s home, in Greenwich Village — long considered a bastion of liberalism — had once been populated mostly by blacks until they were terrorized and run out by white mobs during the Civil War draft riots. Long after emancipation, the tools of oppression — legal and extralegal, North and South — were employed to keep blacks at the bottom of society. But this history, like most unpleasant racial narratives, usually goes unacknowledged while places like NYU and Greenwich Village are inaccurately regarded as longstanding citadels of inclusion. Few students are exposed to the depth and breadth of American racial intolerance or the academy’s complicity in it. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

comments powered by Disqus