An Opening of the Floodgates

Being #BlackInTheIvory means having your name mispronounced. Being told you only got hired because you are black. Being confused for the other black person in your field at the conference.

It means being asked if you were hired to be the new football coach. Hearing you don’t look like an archaeologist. It means being given a mop and a broom on your first day as an assistant professor because, even though you were wearing a suit, you were assumed to be a custodian.

Often what being black in higher ed means is being the only one. The only black person in your class, your cohort, your conference panel, your committee, your department. (Only about 6 percent of U.S. college faculty are black.)

What Shardé Davis and Joy Melody Woods have done in less than a week — by starting #BlackInTheIvory, a Twitter hashtag for black scholars to share their experiences of racism — breaks through that singularity.

The collection of anecdotes, thousands and thousands of stories like the ones above, tells black academics: You are not alone.

It tells everyone else: These are not isolated incidents. Racism is everywhere in higher ed. And it’s time to act.

Joy Melody Woods and Shardé Davis (Photo courtesy of Shardé Davis)

Woods, a Ph.D. student in communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Davis, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut, talked with us this week about racism in higher ed and what they make of the outpouring of stories.

What’s particular about racism in higher ed and how it manifests itself? For one, Davis says, the academy has a lot of “hazing-like practices.” There are many different milestones to hit. Decisions about whether you hit each one or not can seem arbitrary. Those decisions are in the hands of the few, and those decision-makers are predominantly white.

At its core, Davis says, higher ed is a place that prides itself on merit and rigor. “It’s so easy for racism to get cloaked in those.”

What responsibility does higher ed have right now? Higher ed sets a high bar for itself — and for others — and it needs to do better, they say.

“The responsibility of higher education right now is to set the standard for how we treat citizens,” Woods says. “If we are calling for change outside the institution walls then we must start making that change inside the university. It’s the university’s job to teach from an anti-racist lens.”

Davis says she thinks about higher ed’s role in society in terms of research. Scholars are creating new knowledge and that’s what people outside of higher ed come to hold as truths. It’s problematic if those truths only reflect a particular experience, a white experience, she says. That has implications for public policy, for health and the development of vaccines, for what we’ve collectively agreed to be true and to teach our children in schools.

What’s been the most striking or moving about #BlackInTheIvory? “This speaks to what black people do,” Woods says. “We’re given the least and we end up doing the most.” She may, for example, be in the minority on her campus but she has developed a wide support network outside of her department. This shows again how, collectively, she says, black communities build and bond and rise.

“I was just really amazed at people’s bravery to share,” Davis says. It was “the opening of the floodgates.”

— Sara Hebel

Sign up to get our weekly email

The Black-White Wealth Gap

Everywhere you look you can see the persistent wealth gap between blacks and whites in America. This Washington Post article has 14 graphics on just how little that economic gulf has changed since 1968.

Here’s one more window on that from our world: the federal Survey of Earned Doctorates, an annual census that has been conducted since the 1950s.

Some numbers that jumped out to us:

  • Nearly half of the 24,000 white students who earned a research doctorate in 2018 finished that Ph.D. with zero student debt. Zero from undergrad. Zero from graduate school.
  • Just 1 in 5 black students were in that same boat.

Overall, the average black doctorate recipient — these are the people that have climbed to the top of our academic ladder — reported having $65,315 in debt, compared with an average of $27,500 for white doctorates. That number is even getting worse, up almost 60 percent since 2009.

The survey also asks new doctorates what the “primary” source of their financial support was during graduate school. About half the white graduates said teaching or research assistantships were their primary support. Just 35 percent of black graduates said the same.

Smaller groups said they had fellowships or employer support. Most striking, though, was the sharp divide on what portion said most was their “own resources.” Many more black students (41 percent) are primarily using their own money to get a Ph.D. — about twice the portion of white students. Some of this is complicated by disciplines. Fewer black students are in the hard science fields where many Ph.D. students get fellowships and assistantships.

But the gap, like so many of these gaps, is there no matter what discipline you look at:

— Scott Smallwood

Welcome to NaTavia

We’re excited to welcome NaTavia Williams as an Open Campus editorial intern. NaTavia will be a senior this fall at Morgan State University, where she writes for The MSU Spokesman. She’s joining us through a summer program at the Dow Jones News Fund, where she was selected for a business reporting internship. Send her tips and story ideas here.

Here’s NaTavia, with a quick note of introduction:

Once I started talking, my mom has always told me, I never stopped. Her favorite anecdote is about the day a woman walked up to my mother in Walmart and said, “She is so cute.” I was about 10 months old, so the woman was in utter disbelief when I replied, “Thank you,” and kept on talking with her.

Conversations are the bridges to understanding other people’s perceptions. Growing up as a black girl in Colorado I never truly felt seen or understood. That’s not a feeling I would wish on my worst enemy. Right now, with racial tensions coming to a tipping point, on top of the coronavirus disrupting the flow of daily society, there are many people in need of a platform to be heard. Journalism is my passion because I possess the power to give a voice to silenced groups of people.

It’s in my nature to root for the underdog, so it’s quite fitting that my first internship is at a start-up publication. I believe that higher education is able to impact society in many different ways. And it has the power to impact individual lives, too. Attending Morgan State University has changed my life by supplying me with a nurturing space to learn who I am.


Meet Seven College Students Risking Their Health To Keep the Economy Running

Many California college students are also workers, and for those in the most essential occupations, that hasn’t changed — even during the lockdown.

A College Where the Graduation Rate for Black Students Has Been Zero Percent — for Years

Several Ohio campuses, like Kent State at Ashtabula, have low success rates for black students, even as the state pushes for more graduates.

Community Colleges To Take Hard Look at How They Teach Aspiring Cops

Community colleges are reviewing how they teach future police officers, amid intense scrutiny of policing tactics.

We Love Hearing from You

Send us your feedback and ideas. Let us know what you think is missing from the conversation. What kinds of stories, data, and information would help you navigate this time?

Finally, please help us by forwarding this newsletter to others you think might be interested. They can sign up here.

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus