Societal Schizophrenia and Academic Retrenchment:
A Tale of Two Inconsistencies
As we approach the new millennium, it is indeed the best of times and the worst of times for African Americans in higher education.
College attendance for African American students is at an all-time high. However, those percentages are still significantly lower than Caucasian student attendance rates.
Even with the recent reduction of the African American professorate, there are still approximately 57,000 African American college professors — up from 37,000 in 1993. Conversely, African American faculty accounts for less than 5 percent of the entire college teaching corps.
And, given the shifts in the traditional college age and college attending Caucasian population, universities need increasing numbers of students of color to fill the increasing numbers of seats vacated by White 18-to-20-year-olds from rural and suburban America. Hence, I find it pernicious that over the last 10 years, a significant number of initiatives and legal decisions have been introduced — and sometimes mandated — which delimit college access for African Americans.
The collegiate experiences of African Americans do not occur in a vacuum. They are part of a larger social context.
The narrow and backward conservative trend in America has resulted in the manifestation of societal schizophrenia. This societal schizophrenia forces America to both disdain and adore African Americans simultaneously. We disdain the idea of affirmative action while simultaneously praising Colin Powell, a product of it. We disdain the money that professional athletes make, and yet we want to be like Michael Jordan — formerly the highest paid athlete in the National Basketball Association. We like and/or disdain the same object contingent on its angle. And in too many cases, our “adore” weakens to “tolerate” and our “disdain” strengthens to “despise.” It is indeed the best and worst of times.
My grandmother used to tell me, “Every shut eye ain’t ‘sleep and every good-bye ain’t gone.” Her words are poignant in light of the retrenchment in educational opportunity for African Americans. There have been no initiatives or legal decisions — and I doubt there will be — which seek to delimit access based on gender, athletic prowess, musical talent, or religious orthodoxy. In fact, according to the Hopwood v. Texas case, all of these characteristics are desirable on a college campus. Consequently, the intended contrast of desirables forces the deduction that African Americans and other people of color are not welcomed within the ivy-covered walls — perhaps “ivory-controlled walls” is more appropriate — of the university.
In the aftermath of the hard-fought Brown v. Board of Education ruling, there was an increased social awareness about admitting and graduating African American students, hiring and giving tenure to African American faculty, and appointing and promoting African American administrators. In like manner, there was a barrage of social policies implemented to strengthen the access, experience, and progress of African Americans in higher education.
However, the past decade has brought a purposefully malicious, paradigmatic, and phenomenological shift in the positionality of African Americans within the academic corporate structure. The attacks have been waged on four fronts — admissions, scholarships, affirmative action, and Black colleges.
The collision of America’s societal schizophrenia with academic retrenchment is resulting in an unrelenting erosion of policies, programs, and principles that have allowed African Americans to progress in higher education. While the current retrenchment is largely resultant of fear and paranoia complicit in societal schizophrenia, the impact can potentially devastate African American involvement in higher education for years to come.
Consequently, the time has come for all of us to tell each other the truth regarding the forces that have brought us to the current crossroad in academic and social progress. The existing cadre of academic leaders, as well as the new vanguard of graduate scholars, must return to the social revolution ethos of the 1960s that brought radical change and access for African Americans.
As informed persons who bear the responsibility of developing and implementing policies that affect African Americans in academe, we must look at every academic policy analytically and the issues surrounding it personally. Moreover, we must generate holistic responses that take into account the structural, human, political, and symbolic frames on institutional practices and behavior. We must be, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
The conservative climate of the nation and the paradigmatic shifts in education have served African Americans a bitter cup. But this too shall pass.
— Dr. M. Christopher Brown II is an assistant professor of higher education in the department of educational organization and leadership at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign.
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