Sunday, February 24, 2013

Benign neglect and African American Students

"Racism is like a Cadillac: they make a new model every year." --Malcolm X

Over the last 5 or so years, our university has increased the enrollment of African American students. That's a really positive sign from many perspectives. We certainly want to avoid the historical problems of prejudice, oversight, and racism that have contributed to under-representation in the first place.

At the same time though, some of us are learning that increased enrollment without more expansive considerations of what to do once students arrive does come with negative consequences. Perhaps, the university's seeming disinterest in addressing the challenges confronting African American students reflects a kind of benign neglect, that is, a policy of ignoring the situation, or maybe university officials are unaware or incapable of alleviating some of the problems that black students face.

The numbers of faculty who work directly with African American-based educational projects have not increased at a rate matching black student enrollment. In fact, there has been a slight decrease among faculty actively engaged with African American student-based projects, and with the retirements of Eugene B. Redmond and Shirley Portwood in English and history, respectively, and the departure of Reggie Thomas in Music, we have few, if any, African American faculty at the full professor ranks teaching courses.  

Student organizations that actively engage African American students seem less visible and prominent these days, which is strange given the notable increase of black students. The lack of formal groups means, among other things, that there is a growing disconnect between younger students and older ones. Thus, new students miss out on collective wisdom generated from continuous programming by a single organization or by interrelated groups.

So far, students -- black, white, Hispanic, and Asian -- don't seem fully aware of  what the lack of support for African American students and the decline of potential advocates on their behalf actually means at a moment when the numbers of black students continue to increase at the university. Some students do mention some of the consequences in bits and pieces to me, but few of them have the training or language to describe what they are troubled by as institutional problems. 

There's been talk of "support for diversity," but such talks have not yet materialized into widespread conversations about specific challenges confronting African American students. Moving forward, we might do well to pay more attention to this benign neglect. 

Future Histories project

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