Avoiding the ‘Divide and Conquer’ Environment on Campus
Black administrators and faculty at historically White colleges and universities may be affected by tension-filled “divide and conquer” environments on campus. In higher education, these individuals generally constitute a minority population. They have limited power to influence institutional ends and have the ability to exert control over fewer resources than their White counterparts. And in historically White colleges and universities, Blacks are generally underrepresented in both faculty and administrative ranks.
During my tenure in higher education, I have witnessed this “divide and conquer” phenomenon that pits Black actors against the formidable Black “other.” Though forms vary, rampant antagonisms yield stark demarcating lines. For example, declarations of disrespect often define the relationships between administrators of Black studies programs and their counterparts who manage student services programs for minority students. In other manifestations, Black faculty members may be observed perched on ivory tower pedestals “looking down” at nonprofessional employees. Wherever the lines are drawn, such divisions sear the sites of intragroup Black conflict, effectively divert energies, and restrict optimal Black participation at all institutional levels.
The rancor of this “divide and conquer” climate is vividly seasoned. Invariably, at the epicenter of Black campus wars at historically White universities is the ever-present personality clash between brilliant and highly accomplished Black actors. For the most part, the primary sources of volatile tensions remain elusive. Nonetheless, this orchestration of Black conflict does not benefit the animated antagonists or their constituent communities. Artificial barriers most often separate war-torn campus factions. In many respects, the maxim “to the victor goes the spoils,” perversely applies to such territorial conflict. Not only do currencies marked by the imprimatur of “thirty pieces of silver” settle the asking price of co-optations and satisfy the cost of an illusory short-term gain, they also signal the corrosive benchmarks of institutional playing fields informed by counterfeit mobility. Cradled in the paucity of spoils are burnished stereotypes, caricaturist renderings of Black collective interests, and petty shares of self-aggrandizement.
Patterns of artfully induced fratricide may further function to diminish the proportional representation and representativeness of Black incumbents at historically White colleges and universities in varying ways. The “only-one syndrome” (which describes the proliferation of academic departments or administrative units populated by one Black incumbent) enjoys prominence as the rise of one ascending Black star may be prematurely averted by the ire of Black actors wedded to maintaining their status as solo performers. Measured cadences of disrespect, privately and offhandedly expressed, may pronounce the demise of the targeted “talented tenth.” Moreover, enhanced status may be accrued by those used to cancel out the aspiring Black “other.”
Such dramas and predilections by Black faculty, nonfaculty, administrators and staff at historically White colleges sustain institutional racism. Inherent in such calculated behaviors is an abiding allegiance to proscribed rules of racial standing defined and eloquently described by legal scholar and critic Derrick A. Bell in his 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. For Bell, such actions serve as modes of conduct that inevitably and consistently protect and uplift more favored groups “regardless of merit” and which persecute and downgrade Black Americans “regardless of worth.”
— Dr. Barbara Marshall is director of the Office of Affirmative Action at Boston College.
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