Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

The State of Blackademia

November 7th, 2005 · No Comments

In an article over at TechCentralStation, University of Arizona philosophy prof Uriah Kriegel attempts to tackle what he regards as the puzzle of why African American gains in recent decades haven’t been as great in academia in other arenas. But the way the question is framed, I’m not even sure about the premise, really.

The evidence for progress in other arenas is anecdotal: Some black CEOs at a couple major corporations; Condi Rice and Barack Obama. But then the evidence for the relative lack of progress in the academy is statistical: “According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the share of PhD’s earned by blacks in the sciences and engineering continues to linger around 1.5%.”

Well, but this is apples and oranges. If you want to go anecdote for anecdote, it’s easy to think of some prominent black academics with posts at prestigious schools: Cornell West, K. A. Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, Glen Loury, etc. If you stick consistently to the availability heuristic test, I don’t know that academia comes out seeming obviously worse.

On the other hand, if you stick with percentages, it’s not obvious that African-American progress in the other arenas is particularly better than in the academy. A recent Christian Science Monitor article claims that “white men account for 98 percent of CEOs and 95 percent of top earners in Fortune 500 companies.” Factor out the white women and other non-whites of both genders there and, a couple high-profile black CEOs aside, it doesn’t look like things are getting much better much faster in the boardroom than on the quad.

If you look at black representation in Congress, things look a little better in the House—a little under 10 percent. But in the Senate? Well, it’s just Barack—so one percent.

Now, if you look at doctorates as a whole, rather than just those in the sciences, it looks as though as of a couple years ago African-Americans were 11 percent of undergraduates and a bit under four percent of doctorates awarded.

Now, this is obviously pretty crude analysis, but two things jump out of this rough sort of eyeballing. One, progress seems to be tiered rather than continuous across levels of achievement: At the highest level (doctorates, the Senate) you’ve still got a significant gap, while at the mid-range (undergraduate education, the House) you’re looking at something at least closer to parity. So that pattern of “tiered progress” might just be how it’s going to play out across various domains. Two, in this rough quantitative way, it’s not obvious that progress in academia really is any slower than in the other areas—though to say anything serious you’d need to look in greater detail at things like quality of institution attended and so on. At any rate, the upshot is that there’s at least a case to be made—at the rough-and-ready level Kriegel’s working at in that piece, at any rate—that black progress in academia is (for better or worse) following the same trajectory as in the other fields he considers.

Now, partly that’s obscured because Kriegel focuses on engineering and the hard sciences, while a dispropotionate number of African Americans getting graduate degrees are earning them in education and other fields he rather disdainfully lumps together as:

a handful of recently concocted ‘disciplines,’ such as African-American Studies, Media Studies, large segments of Literary Criticism, and the variety of other forms of “inquiry” into the nature and genealogy of social oppression.

I’ll confess I don’t really understand why “African American studies” is a separate discipline, rather than a sort of focus or research program you might pursue within either history or sociology. Still, while there’s doubtless a fair amount of crap in each field, this seems an awfully cavalier blanket dismissal. And as someone who studied and still loves analytic philosophy, I wonder whether it might not behoove someone working in a discipline where large amounts of intellectual candlepower are expended on formal analyses of propositions which are potentially true but paradoxical in intensional contexts to be just a smidgen more circumspect about casting stones as putatively frivolous inquiry into social oppression. (And again, I write as someone who finds debates over the proper logical analysis of sentences of the form “The F is G” enthralling.)

Anyway, Kriegel’s conclusion, on the basis of some conversations with his black students, is that the problem (if there is a special one) in academia is the result of “strong pressures within black communities against careers in the sciences and the humanities,” which flow from the view that “devoting your life to purely abstract matters, while your brothers and sisters are still suffering daily injustices, is a form of selfish self-indulgence.” (As opposed, one presumes, to altruistic self indulgence.)

Plausible enough. Though I wonder: How much of that is really external, and how much of it is a function of the self-direction of academically talented students? I can imagine a smart black kid who’s struggled his way out of some appallng inner city school to do well at a good university concluding that going into education might be the most important thing he can do without much need for external prodding. Or put it another way, if some academically successful black students are disuaded from becoming chemists or mathematicians because of social pressure to give something back to the black community, there must be rather more people similarly situated exerting that pressure, and they, presumably, genuinely believe it.

Anyway, all this actually reminded me of a famous passage from John Adams in a letter to his wife Abigail, which is as fit a way to close as any:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

Tags: Academia