Date: Tue, 4 Apr 1995 20:14:20 GMT-5
Sender: H-NET List for African History <>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject: REPORT: Affirmative Action and African History
To: Multiple recipients of list H-AFRICA <>

From: Tom Spear, U of Wisconsin

Ghettoizing African History?

By Thomas Spear, 4 April 1995, with an additional comment by Chris Lowe

Thanks for your responses for information on this year’s job market. As it turns out, there is not enough information to go on yet, and the Chronicle’s deadline is up. I have thus submitted the following article, which they will edit down to a letter to the editor. This contains much of the data I have gathered so far, and I wanted you to see the full version.

Last year Professor Jan Vansina of the University of Wisconsin resigned publicly from the American Historical Association in protest against the association listing misleading job vacancies by institutions who, he felt, were illegally favoring certain categories of applicants without taking account of equal quality. And now Philip D. Curtin, Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University, has joined his former colleague in decrying the ‘use of racial criteria in filling faculty posts in the field of African history’ in a Point of View article entitled ‘Ghettoizing African History’ in *The Chronicle of Higher Education* (March 3, 1995).

Professors Curtin and Vansina are certainly not alone in this regard. There is a widespread perception among white job candidates that many of the jobs in African history are targeted exclusively at minorities. Indeed, Curtin cited ominous language in one such announcement confirming such fears. And Nell Irwin Painter, Professor of History at Princeton, concluded a comprehesive study of recent hiring practices in the field of history overall, in which she conclusively demonstrated that affirmative action has not, in fact, resulted in discrimination against white men, by bemoaning ‘the unfortunate practice of using jobs intended to diversify predominantly white male faculties to fill positions related to particular fields.’ (’The Academic Marketplace and Affirmative Action,’ *AHA Perspectives*, 31/9, December 1993)

Concrete evidence of so-called ‘reverse discrimination’ is hard to come by, but what evidence there is indicates that there may be a substantial gap between popular perceptions of such discrimination and the reality of appointments in African history. Having both conducted a job search in the field this year and been responsible for placing our own graduate students, I can, however, cite figures for this year’s job market. We have received listings this year for 42 entry level tenure-track jobs in which African history was identified as either the primary or secondary field. At the same time, our own search in African history resulted in 52 applications, 45 of which were from junior scholars, 10 of whom were already employed in tenure-track positions. If all the announced vacancies are filled, then, every currently unemployed candidate should receive at least one job offer. Judging from invitations to convention and on campus interviews, however, this has certainly not been the case to date, but it is still too early in the hiring season to tell what percentage of candidates will be successful.

Of the 52 applicants for our own position, 40 (77%) were male and 12 (23%) female; and 39 (75%) were white, 12 (23%) African, and 1 (2%) African-American.

As it happens, these figures roughly match those of our own graduate students in African history over the past thirty years—66 (78%) of whom were men, 19 (22%) women; 64 (75%) were white, 12 (14%) African, and 9 (11%) African-American. And most of these, of whatever ethnicity or gender, have been successful in gaining jobs; 76 (89%) are employed in academic jobs today.

The figures for both this year’s applicant pool and for our own graduates historically are thus quite similar. Whites (75%) and males (77-78%) have predominated throughout, while women (22-23%), African-Americans (11-2%), and Africans (14-23%) have comprised lesser percentages of new PhDs. The only significant shift appears to be a declining number of African-Americans and an increasing number of Africans in the current pool. It remains only to see how these figures for graduate students correlate with actual employment patterns.

An informal survey of the membership directory of the African Studies Association for 1992 (the latest available) reveals the following for identifiable scholars employed teaching African history at all levels: male 75%, female 25%; white 78%, African-American 7%, and African 15%, thus nearly matching the profiles of graduate students above, especially if African-Americans and Africans are combined (25% of recent PhDs; 22% of those employed).

 recent PhDsUW PhDsFaculty
men 77% 78% 75%
women 23% 22% 25%
white 75% 75% 78%
Afro-American2% 11% 7%
African 23% 14% 15%
n 52 85 334

While these figures are far from authoritative, they do suggest a couple of things. First, there are not a disproportionate number of Africans and African-Americans employed in the field relative to those earning PhDs. In fact, the relative numbers of whites and blacks have remained remarkably constant since the field started to develop over thirty years ago. Second, there are, if anything, a declining number of African-Americans actively seeking PhDs and jobs in the field, their shrinking numbers being augmented of late by increasing numbers of Africans seeking employment here. The result is that affirmative action goals targeted at America’s own historically oppressed minorities continue to go unrealized, and no amount of targeting individual positions can possibly reverse the trend so long as more and more schools chase fewer and fewer candidates.

Thus the widespread perception of ‘reverse discrimination’, fueled by evidence of unreasonable and misguided searches, does not seem to be borne out by the reality. If anything, in fact, the declining number of African-American graduate students and faculty calls for redoubling our efforts to recruit and train promising African-Americans, as both Curtin and Painter rightly emphasize.

The problem is not limited to African history. Academic careers generally have not been very popular among promising undergraduates during the last decade, due no doubt to the lack of job opportunities and low salaries compared with other careers. Minority students have been little different, and graduate schools have been finding it difficult to recruit students for minority fellowships in all fields.

The overall value of affirmative action in enlarging, diversifying, and invigorating the field of history seems indisputable to me. I previously taught at a prestigious small liberal arts college whose faculty before it first admitted women students in the early 1970s was composed almost exclusively of white males recruited privately within the Ivy League. As a result of open advertisements and aggressive recruiting for all positions subsequently, applicant pools became more representative of fields at large and consequent hires resulted in a much more diverse faculty, not only by gender and ethnicity, but also by geographic origin, graduate training, and class, thus enriching the college as a whole and significantly increasing opportunities for white males outside the Ivy League along with those for women and minorities.

I thus wholeheartedly agree with Professors Curtin, Vansina, and Painter that affirmative action goals can only be achieved by aggressive pursuit of all candidates in all disciplines and fields, not just in a few positions targeted at minorities. The later strategy is bound to fail, unfairly limiting minority candidates to certain fields, demeaning the achievements of all candidates, and bringing affirmative action into disrepute, especially among people who have normally been among the most supportive of its goals.

As Painter reminds us: ‘The two aims—diversifying faculties and teaching courses in minority history—both entirely commendable, should not be confused. The confounding of the two goals has had several negative results, including the deprivation of students who want to take courses that lack teachers, the conduct of misleading searches, and the embitterment of nonminority scholars.’

Meaningful affirmation action, thus, has to take place across the board lest the significant gap between an actual decline in the number of African-American graduate students and faculty, and increasing white perceptions of their dominance derail the process entirely. Far from meeting our objectives for fair and representative hiring, university administrations that target particular faculty positions to advance them threaten only to bring about their untimely defeat.

Date: Tue, 4 Apr 1995 21:45:55 GMT-5
Sender: H-NET List for African History <>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject: REPLY: Curtin on ‘Ghettoization’
To: Multiple recipients of list H-AFRICA <>

Date sent: 04 Apr 95 18:12:53 PDT
From: Chris Lowe, Reed College <Chris.Lowe@directory.Reed.EDU>

The question of whether Philip Curtin is a racist in the permanent ontological sense so often used in the U.S. seems to me to be a red herring. I agree with Paul Landau at least this far: his scholarly work shows clearly that in his *intentions* he is not racist and is anti-racist. But as we surely all know by now there is every difference between intentions and consequences, especially over a long period of time. So Curtin (or any of us) might write something which is racist or which has racist consequences without his (or our) intending it, and without that somehow being a comment on the condition of his or our souls. Rather it is a comment on the condition of our society, and our places and interactions within it.

In the present context I would argue that Curtin’s piece lends itself to a fundamentally racist discourse in the society and academia at large, by sloppy use of evidence and prose. Moreover, his self-reported advice to his graduate students to interpret difficulties they have on the job market as resulting from racial preferences, without substantial evidence, contributes to tendencies to scapegoat African-American and African candidates. The result is a racist poisoning of perceptions. We all need to take responsibility for our words. I think Philip Curtin fell down on the job.

I would also like to object to the idea that calling him a racist is a technique to silence argument only. In the first place, the pieces in the Chronicle responding to him don’t call him a racist. The long one says his *arguments* resonate with racist arguments, and imply but don’t quite say that some of his *arguments* are racist arguments. If Curtin doesn’t wish to be making racist arguments, presumably this is a claim in which he ought to be interested. It may or may not be right, but the argument is not an ad hominem one.

In the second place, the technique of saying that talking about racism is to silence argument only very much resembles what it purports to oppose. The logic is like this: no one wants to think of themselves, be thought of, or be called a racist; therefore to call ideas racist is intimidating and silencing. But it is equally true, in academic life particularly, that no one wants to be thought of as a silencer, censor, opponent of free speech and thought and so on. Therefore to say that to raise the question of racism is to silence argument only is also intimidating and silencing.

Basically we’re all going to have to be a bit thick-skinned here. But I for one refuse to accept that the question of racism can be put off the agenda. Curtin’s own claim about ghettoization *is* a claim about racism, and an argument against racism, as he understands it. Response about what is racist and how to avoid it is entirely necessary and appropriate. At the same time I would plead for a focus on consequences and not on impossible inferences about purported motives.

We also need to think about all of this in the context of a widespread U.S. American tendency to deny the persistence of racism. A few years ago during protests in New York against the death of black man in a white neighborhood, the *NY Times* published a photo showing white counter-demonstrators, one holding a sign saying We Are Not Racists, the one next to him holding up a slice of watermelon. Our own best intentions aren’t the only forces shaping the meanings of our words and ideas.

Chris Lowe