Hayward Derrick Horton also serves as CEO of H.D. Horton & Associates.
We (the authors) have collectively worked at predominantly white institutions and historically black institutions for 37 years. In that time, we have had the benefit of navigating a wide range of historical moments, but none more unpredicted and laden with possibility than what we are currently experiencing. The United States is on the precipice of great potential change given that the fundamental belief of “equality and justice for all” is being simultaneously critiqued and renewed as a rallying cry in 2020.
In academia, some of us have taken the opportunity to continue examining and exploring inequity in higher education considering the pandemic of protest. It certainly is reasonable. Our colleagues and our institutions are at a crossroads – what can, or should we do to address structural social injustice and inequity? How might our actions make a significant impact in the communities where incidents of inequity and social injustice most often erupt? In what ways have our current strategies, broadly categorized as diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, fallen short?
These are hard and important questions, and actions that match our answers must be taken inside and outside higher education. What we have found—and what is increasingly highlighted—is that systemic racism at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) is ingrained within the very fabric of how these institutions relate to and connect with communities of color. The corollary is the continued decline and depletion of human capital, social capital, and financial resources from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) due to direct and indirect forms of racism and white supremacy (for more information, see the Morrill Act of 1862; William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slave; and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow).
There are many ways higher education institutions can make a critical impact on the movement for equity and social justice in our society. However, given our respective vantage points, we strongly advocate for “sowing seeds” consistent with the values and calls for structural change currently touted within the academic agora.
First, higher education institutions should increase investments in African American Studies, Women’s Studies and Multicultural studies programs and curricula that support, educate, and provide first-hand knowledge of the experiences, assets, and plight of people of color—particularly African Americans—in the United States. Much like calls for equality and justice, we must double down on making programs and curricula of this sort integral to the strategic plans of American colleges and universities. HBCUs have been foremost front and center of advancing many of these opportunities. Thus, the Chadwick Bosemans of the world are often products of the HBCU experience.
Secondly, it is important that predominantly white institutions (PWIs) explicitly acknowledge the paradox of racism of the American system of education through adopting a community development approach to minority faculty and staff recruitment, particularly in those departments and spaces within which few people of color are currently found. Such an approach is a necessary strategy for the stability of equity efforts and long-term growth of higher education itself and the diverse students it serves. We argue that rather than a problem, current widespread socio-political protests represent a unique and historic opportunity to advance principles of equity and social justice.
In initiating this work, institutions should not confuse “diversity” with racial equity, nor should they benchmark their success via creative quantitative strategies demonstrating “advances” in the creation equitable and inclusive environments. Unfortunately, “diversity” too often means “anything but black.” It is not uncommon for PWIs to hire people of color who already have access to white spaces and are fully supportive of the existing racist social order. A familiar example is hiring a white individual who has a Spanish surname or a distance ancestor who was Latinx or hiring immigrants from African or Caribbean countries who have upper or upper-middle class socio-economic statuses. Another version of this form of “diversity” is hiring persons who “pass” for white irrespective of their actual racial/ethnic identification. Lastly, critical attention must be directed to the hiring of increasing numbers of white scholars whose research foci are centered on the experiences of African American people. Again, this allows the PWIs and their white populations to report how “diverse” they are while staying securely in their comfort zones. In short, for structural changes to take root, a higher level of intentionality is required to align social justice-oriented goal statements with actions that support those goals.
Given the level of anti-black racism in every institution of American society, we argue that true change and racial equity will be achieved by beginning our community building efforts with black faculty. It is the black community that has initiated the contemporary social movement that already is impacting major sectors of society. A first step in this process may be for PWIs to establish relationships with HBCUs and partner to create as well as support opportunities that serve communities of color. Such a partnership can demonstrate alignment, intentionality and movement toward change and restorative justice.
Within PWIs, this approach has two components: 1) cluster hiring; and 2) focusing on senior-level faculty. The first component ensures that minority faculty appointed will not be “tokens” within their respective departments. A plethora of research has documented the pitfalls facing the lone black faculty member within a given department (Presumed Incompetent I and II, Seeing Race Again, Counternarratives from Women of Color Academics, etc.). The practice of cluster hiring provides faculty members with support and working partnerships that make advancing ideas for change group oriented.
The second component requires a bit more elaboration. When we say “senior appointment” we mean specifically, tenured full professors. The areas of specialty certainly are expected to be based upon the specific needs of the institution in question. But irrespective of the field, each senior hire should likewise have experience in community building and/or social activism. In short, these faculty should have a commitment to social change and antiracism. Such a commitment is important because a level of direct action is needed more than ever to close the equity gaps, harness community capital, and restore justice. These senior African-American faculty will function as “anchors” for a community of African-American faculty and students. The next phase of hires should be at the tenured associate levels. The final phase focuses on untenured assistant professors. This plan can be achieved ideally in a 3-5-year period.
This approach provides a stable community environment that will facilitate long-term growth in both the faculty and student populations. Graduate tracking is an example of how PWIs can assist stable African American communities. When PWIs track the impact of African American graduates, they can foster: 1) research about institutional equity goals; and 2) critical reflections about the kinds of human capital they produce.
Finally, higher education institutions should develop strong social media campaigns whereby they can engage the public, as well as communities with messages of support, hope, and inspiration. It is not enough to graduate criminal justice students who become law enforcement; institutions should study the impact of their graduates on the communities they serve.
There is no quick fix. And there is no amount of conferences, workshops, or dialogue about inequity that will solve this problem. It is fitting that efforts to promote antiracism, equity, and inclusion are consistent with the newly accepted idea, “Black Lives Matter.” It is past time for us to say this phrase and back it up with widespread structural actions.
Related topics: racial justice