Eugene T. Parker III
University of Kansas
Tenisha L. Tevis
Oregon State University
Cameron C. Beatty
Florida State University
Grand Valley State University
To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, on which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.
~Paulo Freire, 1970, 2018
We are a small group of early career Black faculty members in higher education. During the last year, we have reflected on the toll the season has had on our Black selves, colleagues, students, and neighbors. While these reflections and thoughts brewed in each of our respective souls long before 2020, we convened to jointly contemplate and process the national reckoning on racism in the United States during the last few years, as well as the death of George Floyd, the 2020 election, social unrest, and a global pandemic.
At the center of our discourse were the events of the past year epitomizing the subsistence of systemic and anti-Black racism that continue to threaten the lives of Black Americans. By systemic racism, we mean the interconnected (white) hegemonic and normative ideas, beliefs, and concepts that are oppressive and disenfranchising (Tevis & Croom, in press). The evidence of such includes the horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Duante Wright and the countless others before, in between, and after that demonstrate not only systemic racism, but more specifically anti-Black racism–a blatant disregard for Black human life. We also witnessed increased political rhetoric that plagued conservative airways and outlets subsequently inciting an insurrection–a level of incivility that came with nooses, death threats, lives lost, and a resurgence of white nationalism (New York Times, 2021).
Grounded in our thoughts about anti-Black racism, nationally, we would be remiss if we did not grapple with the local context of this issue at our respective campuses and the campuses of many of our Black colleagues at other institutions. We continue to witness cases of anti-Black racism pertaining to faculty hiring, unwelcoming workplace environments, academic freedom, and promotion and tenure, such as the refusal of the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArther Genius Nikole Hannah-Jones (New York Times, 2021). Substantially, we contemplated how anti-Black racism persists at higher education institutions and particularly how institutions have responded and addressed the matter.
As we deliberated, we acknowledged and named a common theme during our discussions which we now refer to as the routine institutional responses to address anti-Black racism at colleges and universities. We have watched as institutional leaders have posted diversity statements, press releases or videos, committed to structural and administrative changes (such as the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer), and/or offered more trainings and workshops about diversity and racism, all in an effort to do better, i.e., disrupt anti-Black racism and promote welcoming institutional environments for Black folks on campus. As we further pondered on this matter, we questioned and continue to question: have we done better in the past year?
The aim of this brief commentary is to offer a succinct description of our perspectives about how institutions have responded to anti-Black racism. In the next section, we discuss our deliberate viewpoints about the routine institutional responses enacted by colleges and universities during the past year, which usually embodies the: propagation of diversity statements and artifacts, proclivity to form customary diversity task forces, committees and work groups, and the creation and preservation of normative institutional structures and spaces. We provide assertions characterizing the normative reactions of institutions following critical social and racial incidents, nationally and locally, which often epitomize insufficient and disingenuous attention to disrupting anti-Black racism on campus. As a resolve, we also offer propositions for higher education institutions and leaders to consider for transformational change and progress toward anti-Black racist college environments. To supplement these perspectives, in the final section, we provide our broader reflections about the salient ways in which higher education should address anti-Black racism on campus.
The Status Quo: Routine Institutional Responses
The conventional practices and routines that Black folks at colleges and universities usually observe after major incidents of racial injustice represent a status quo that is consistent with Ahmed’s (2012) description of performance culture in higher education. Performance culture proposes there is a critical link between realized institutional processes, decisions and practices and institutions’ objectives for performing well and being seen as performing well (Ahmed, 2012). From our perspective, an example of performance culture is the widespread outpouring of letters and addresses by university presidents after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 conveying support and care for Black folks but with minimal attention to transformational change (Bartlett, 2021). Organizational theoretical perspectives help us to understand these actions that we observe are often the result of isomorphic tendencies where organizational leaders merely mimic other institutions rather than develop critical initiatives that promote change at their respective institutions (Scott, 2014). We contend there exists a status quo and performance culture in higher education that symbolizes the customary institutional rituals, routines and responses when addressing anti-Black racism on campus.
Propagation of Normative Diversity Statements and Artifacts
We contend diversity statements and plans do little to disrupt and undo anti-Black racism on campus if there is little or no purposeful attention to institutional change. Diversity statements epitomize the normative tendencies of higher education leaders to respond and react to some impetus, usually a crisis pertaining to racial campus, or national, incidents. First, when crises pertaining to anti-Black racism occur the conventional response is to create a task force or work group. Next, these institutional groups work tirelessly to create and develop additional iterations of diversity plans, statements and documents capturing newly formulated diversity strategies. The resulting documents and artifacts are maintained as long as non-Black institutional members embrace them; however, they are also often found resting on bookshelves and/or archived in computer folders until the next anti-Black racist incident and crisis occurs on campus. Despite these repeated undertakings, Black institutional members maintain these diversity statements and plans as merely symbolic initiatives meant to appease Black folks but do little to confront hostile and toxic campus environments for Black bodies.
Consistent with Ahmed’s (2012) description of performative and performance culture, the strategic institutional focus to attend to diversity or anti-racism often centers on the outcomes and deliverables, e.g., diversity statements and plans, rather than the process (Watt, 2020). Recent scholarship (Ahmed, 2012; Squire et al., 2019) have described the usual diversity statements and practices as non-performatives. Non-performatives may represent the normalized practices that usually espouse the importance of diversity and the inclusion of diverse people while usually remaining as ineffective artifacts that do not address and fulfill its stated purpose (Squire et al., 2019). It is this routine attention to diversity statements and plans, devoid of sincere attention to institutional change, that evokes the continued and recurring frustrations of Black folks on campus.
For clarification, our critique is about the routine of the institutional response to disseminate these diversity statements and plans to address anti-Black racism as normative tendencies with little attention to institutional change. However, we acknowledge diversity statements and artifacts are reasonable methods of disseminating information and conveying institutional goals to internal and external stakeholders. We acknowledge the critical importance of words, language, and discourse. As such, we propose higher education institutions develop clearly articulated and assertive language about anti-Black racism that helps to undo anti-Black racism at colleges and universities. We maintain anti-Black racist language, generally, is the antecedent for anti-Black racist institutions and college environments. Institutional change begins with recognizing and naming the racist language that is ingrained in institutional culture. Thus, progress toward disrupting anti-Black racism represents actionable steps toward creating and developing ani-racist (and similarly anti-Black racist) mission statements, documents, job descriptions, admissions letters, policies, promotion and tenure criteria, and every artifact that embodies the foundation of the institution. One step might entail an anti-Black racist audit of the current policies and policy library to discern and eradicate language that is problematic for disrupting anti-Black racism on campus. For example, attention ought to be directed to student conduct codes and how the handling of hate speech is explicated in those policies.
Proclivity for the Formation of Customary Diversity Committees, Task Forces and Work Groups
We assert diversity committees and task forces are merely habitual surface-level undertakings employed to appease Black folks and allies on campus. Diversity committees and task forces charged with taking up diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts make recommendations that are oftentimes not adopted for the purpose of addressing systemic issues with equitable outcomes, let alone addressing anti-Black racism. DEI agendas are “often imagined as a form of repair, a way of mending or fixing histories of being broken” (Ahmed, 2012, p. 164). But these “repairs” do not address the systemic issues that have caused the continuous cycles of responding to on campus racism with task forces and committees. DEI committees and task forces fall into the realm of what Ahmed (2012) described as some individuals being passionate about addressing diversity issues on campus, yet “the commitment of individuals can also be a means for organizations not to distribute commitment” (p. 135). Members of DEI committees often have various levels of experience and knowledge around DEI work. Research, and our own lived experiences as former administrators and current Black faculty members in higher education, has revealed that the burden of diversity committee work at the program, department, college/school, and university levels often falls on Black folks and other People of Color. The burden becomes an added “service” and “tax” (Padilla, 1994) on Black higher education administrators, faculty, and the token student. This added tax sometimes only compounds the feelings of racial battle fatigue, racial trauma, and resentment
(Smith 2004). This labor taken on by Black faculty, staff, and students to pacify and coddle their white peers is within itself rooted in anti-Black ideologies of not seeing the burden of this work on our humanity as Black people.
Even frameworks from a multicultural organization development (MCOD) lens (Jackson, 2006; Pope, 1995), rooted in addressing change that centers diversity, equity and inclusion have been ignored or not integrated to address anti-Black racism. Instead of using MCOD frameworks as tools for implementing and assessing the work of diversity committees, committees are formed with no direction and broad missions. When the committee is charged with a broad purpose, it becomes difficult to hold the committee or task force accountable for deliverables. Also, a broad committee purpose then leads to broad recommendations without specific actionable items that address diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We propose that colleges and universities who have convened campus-wide diversity committees in the past, first assess the work and any recommendations from diversity committees and task forces from the past 10 years as an intentional step in addressing anti-Black racism at colleges and universities. As highlighted, formulating and creating the usual diversity statements and diversity committees can be performative and a method of protecting whiteness and maintaining the status quo (Ahmed, 2012, p. 147). Meaningful action toward addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion takes a paradigm shift that must be rooted in equity and justice. Pope (1995) acknowledged that the change must be transformational, and the paradigm shift is a second-order change for organizations, groups, and or individuals. Meaning the second-order change is a radical transformation in how a group creates and sustains a multicultural organization (Pope et al., 2014). Anti-Black racism has deep roots in higher education, and it will take deep transformational and radical change rooted in equity and justice to eradicate it. The cycle of addressing racism with calling together a group of stakeholders and forming a committee to make recommendations for change, has become the status quo that results in no real systemic change at the organizational level or in higher education more broadly.
Creating and Preservation of Institutional Structures and Spaces
We contend routine structural responses, such as creating a living learning community, establishing a multicultural center, and inaugurating the first Chief Diversity Officer, do not represent the end, just the beginning. We observed the tendencies of higher education institutions to create and implement the usual structures and spaces as reactionary responses to anti-Black racism. First-year programs for minoritized students, DEI living learning communities, a dedicated space (i.e., room, lounge, house, or cultural center) for the Black students, and the appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer are some of the typical structural and institutional undertakings (Patton 2006, 2010; Patton et al, 2017; Williams & Wade-Golden, 2013). Campus leaders often intend for these spaces to signal a commitment to equity and inclusion from the institution. However, Black folks often consider these to be performative rituals symbolizing structural responses to a much larger cultural and racist issue. However, these implementations must represent the beginning stages of a sustained action-oriented commitment to institutional change.
We propose institutions consult with and include Black folks in decision-making in a meaningful way beyond a climate survey. To identify and undo anti-Black racist aspects of institutional culture, higher education leaders must partner with the campus members who are engaging in anti-racist labor to better understand the elements of institutional culture (e.g., racialized spaces, statues, traditions) that maintain an anti-Black racist college environment. We contend institutional administration must sincerely integrate Black folks into the conversations that guide decision-making addressing institutional change.
As a final note, our perspectives do not represent a critique about the saliency of diversity initiatives, such as the formation of diversity committees, but rather a disapproval of what we perceive as normative acts that minimally attend to disrupting anti-Blackness or deconstructing racist systems and structures on campus. Certainly, the formation of committees or work groups is important for promoting collaboration and institutional accountability. However, these repetitive actions do little to dismantle anti-Black racism if these normative actions lack meaningful and sincere goals for institutional change. Hence, in the following sections, we offer some meaningful resolution of these normative actions that have the potential to challenge status quo and anti-racism.
“Reclaiming My Time”: Progress Toward an Anti-Racist Academy
During a congressional committee meeting, the honorable Rep. Maxine Waters famously uttered reclaiming my time to the individuals she perceived as wrongfully, and disrespectfully appropriating her time (Greene, 2017). This occurrence represents familiar territory for Black folks when non-Black individuals devalue our existence as legitimate societal or institutional members. In higher education, reclaiming my time illustrates and accentuates Black folks’ insistence that our time and labor make us valued institutional members. Thus, higher education institutions must make progress toward anti-Black racist environments, and can do so by attending to action, practicing self-reflection, and appropriately partnering with institutional faculty. In the previous section, we offered our perspectives and propositions pertaining to the routine institutional responses we have observed during the past year. In addition to the propositions pertaining to routine responses in the prior section, we now offer our broader reflections about what institutions should do to address anti-Black racism.
Anti-Racist Work Requires Action and Accountability, with Critical Attention to Process
Diversity strategies should move beyond simply respecting difference to real and actionable steps toward establishing an anti-racist institution. We acknowledge that reading lists, book clubs, and mandatory diversity trainings characterize a reasonable programmatic start for anti-racist strategies. However, those represent the preliminary steps. Attention directed toward disrupting anti-Black racism must embody continuing strategies and education. Further, progress toward disrupting anti-Black racism represents greater attention to accountability. In every aspect of the institutional pillars, research, teaching and service, campus members ought to be held accountable for promoting an anti-Black racist environment. Incorporating strategies that address anti-Black racism into matters of evaluation and assessment is critical for present-day higher education institutions.
We would be remiss if we did not underscore the significance of the process in working toward anti-racism in higher education. Regarding anti-racist work, Watt and colleagues (2021) underscore the importance of process. Racism is an enduring construct, and accordingly anti-racist labor does not end, i.e., “there is no finish line” (Watt, 2020, para. 14). When individuals solely focus on doing anti-racist work and finding outcomes, we tend to observe the performative rituals discussed earlier in this commentary, e.g., diversity statements and plans. However, progress toward anti-racism characterizes how (i.e., process) we are working toward undoing anti-Black racism on campus, considering racism will persist at our institutions. Thus, to address anti-Black racism, the focus ought to be on how you are doing the work as well as what you are doing.
Practice Self-Reflection about Anti-Black Racism
During the past year, our nation faced an attack on democracy, civility, and order, i.e., the insurrectionist rioting at the capital in January 2021 (New York Times, 2021). The events of the past year helped to further uncover the often-hidden viewpoints and convictions of the individuals, and possibly insurrectionists, who we regularly encounter at our institutions pertaining to critical social and political issues, e.g., social movements such as BlackLivesMatter. While some of the non-Black campus members who we encounter are not overtly far right extremists or insurrectionists, it is important for the individuals who are reading this commentary to self-examine how anti-Black racism persists in oneself and the spaces in which one inhabits. Watt et al., (2021) eloquently suggested that addressing anti-racism represents not just doing anti-racist work but being an anti-racist. We encourage the readers of this commentary to self-reflect and interrogate the ways in which you may (sub)consciously sustain anti-Black racism in higher education.
Ponder on Money Follows Mission
When rationalizing why the institution cannot do diversity work or appropriately compensate institutional members for added diversity work; budget issues, constraints and the lack of resources are often the common response given to Black folks on campus. Yet, funding and financial support seem to magically materialize for other activities, such as the procurement of a third-party vendor to provide a new online training program or the hiring of a national executive search firm for open positions. The phrase money follows mission (Schloss & Cragg, 2012) epitomizes the notion that institutional missions, strategies, and goals are directly linked to institutional funding and allocation. If diversity, inclusion, and an anti-racist environment is truly a goal of the institution (as represented in institutional missions), we urge leaders to partner with and draw from (and appropriately compensate) the diversity and social justice champions who inhabit the spaces at the institution. These individuals are most familiar with the climate and environment and can more effectively pinpoint the institutional structures that persistently promote anti-Black racism on campus. The institutional members who do diversity and anti-racist work at colleges and universities are quite familiar with being unreasonably expected to perform added work with little or no compensation. Thus, it is imperative that institutions compensate these individuals for the supplementary work and labor that promotes institutional change.
We offer our deliberate viewpoints about the resolve needed for higher education to make progress toward a more anti-racist, anti-oppressive academy. In the above commentary, we not only capture what we view as routine institutional responses characterizing the normative ways in which institutions have responded to anti-Black racism and other anti-sentiments on college campuses, but we also offer substantive resolve of these approaches, with the need for institutional actors to pay attention to accountability and institutional priorities. As a small group of early career Black faculty members in higher education, we drive these points home because we want to see change and because we are invested in the wellness of our communities. We have all come to learn that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. Hence, it is time to do something different.
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Eugene T. Parker, III, Ph.D. is an associate professor of higher education administration at the University of Kansas. Dr. Parker’s research focuses on the impact of diversity experiences on college student outcomes and the significance of diversity in organizational contexts and environments.
Tenisha L. Tevis, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Adult and Higher Education at Oregon State University. Dr. Tevis’s research seeks to disrupt dominant ideologies and biased institutional practices, exploring the ways in which institutional agents (namely administrators and faculty) can better support historically disenfranchised students, and transform the communities in which they serve.
Cameron C. Beatty, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of higher education and undergraduate leadership studies at Florida State University. Dr. Beatty’s research explores the intersections of gender and race in leadership education, leadership development of Students of Color on historically white college campuses and understanding experiences of racial battle fatigue for Black and Latinx students.
Reginald Blockett, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Counseling and Grand Valley State University. His scholarly interests focus on the sociocultural experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer collegians of color, doctoral students’ socialization, and social justice practice and pedagogies across educational contexts.