Research For the New Millennium
Are you tired of the new millennium yet? Lord knows I am. Tired of conferences predicting the status of African Americans in the new millennium, the status of education in the new millennium, 10 steps for making it in the new millennium and you get my drift.
There will be no magic in the “new millennium,” no magic dust sprinkled and spread to make things change considerably just because we are now using a “2” instead of a “1” as the first digit to delineate the year. Indeed, I have only one prediction for the millennium. If you are an idiot on December 31, 1999, you will still be an idiot on January 1, 2000. In other words, a new date won’t change anything unless other changes are made.
This is important when we think about the connection between the academy and the community, and the role that research plays in establishing African American community priorities. For too long, we have been the researched instead of the researchers. Indeed, would the field of sociology exist were it not for “Black pathologies” for curious White folks to probe into? Imagine conversation about the Irish underclass, or the Jewish underclass, or the propensity for Italians to have out of wedlock births! Any of these ethnic groups would bring political pressure — and more — to bear to stop the damaging din. But such pressure has been useless in halting so-called research based attacks on African Americans.
Anyone who has ever taken a statistics class knows that you can lie with statistics and that numbers can tell you anything you’d like to know. If 27 percent of the African American population is poor, that means that 73 percent is not, but we have spent more time studying poverty than survival. African American economists can talk about the $500 billion in income that passes through our hands annually, but few have focused on the fact that we have but 1.45 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Further, while most of us can extensively prognosticate on the problems, few are prepared to propose solutions. The African American professorate is often dismissed as irrelevant, and one can see why. We suffer a paralysis of analysis and cannot explain to young African Americans how our research will transform their world. We understand the trends, and wax eloquently about the globalization and the proliferation of technology as the two trends that will shape our lives in the early 21st century.
But we have yet to use the trends to change our reality by, for example, encouraging high school students to take languages and avail themselves of foreign travel opportunities, or by motivating business students to consider international commerce as important as domestic commerce. Instead, too many of us seem stuck in the ’60s, getting excited about another million-people march. The only march I ever want to see again is a few hundred million Black dollars marching out of White folks pockets.
The professorate has a major role here. We can look at patterns of consumer spending and suggest areas of vulnerability for corporations that depend on African American dollars. We can look at the prison industrial complex and figure out ways to punish those corporations that have made law and order a profit center to the detriment of incarcerated African Americans. We can encourage computer literacy to literally close the gap of the digital divide. We can stop this talk of “welfare” by arming ourselves with examples of the corporate welfare that stuffs the coffers of too many corporations.
Moreover, we can look realistically at our history and culture, debunk the myths and arm ourselves with empowering realities. We don’t need Harvard’s Skip Gates to use PBS to flagellate Black people — as so many equally misguided White scholars have — with the reality that our African brothers and sisters participated in the slave trade. Instead, we need to put the slave trade in context and understand who benefited from the slave trade in the longest of runs, and why the African continent is in the social, economic and political condition that it is now.
To be sure, the scurry for tenure does not often allow the self-directed research that solves problems, illuminates and engenders career stability. That, perhaps, is why it is popular to talk about the new millennium while doing things the same old way. Time is running out. Technology is changing the very shape of the academy, what with distance learning and online classes, and we are still stuck with models of teaching, learning and research that are positively Byzantine.
If we keep doing what we have been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting. We’ll survive, but not thrive, in the new millennium. Can we do something concrete with this millennium talk, especially as it pertains to African Americans in the academy? Can each member of the Black professorate offer the community just one concrete way to make the next millennium better? If so, we justify our relevance. If not, we weaken the connection between academy and community — and we do that to our detriment.
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