In academia, the twin guards of the Old Guard, White Supremacy and Misogyny be triflin’.
That’s the pithy one sentence reaction I had after reading “The Tenure Game” by Teresa Steinhoyer in the Yale Daily News, about the miserable and failing efforts by Yale University between 2006 and 2011 to greatly catapult the number of women and people of color in faculty ranks written. I encountered the story since a FB friend, and former professor of mine, who instructed me in one of my most instrumental undergraduate courses titled, Black Public Intellectuals, posted it. It was in this course in the Fall of 1998 that I read Ida B. Wells for the first time and learned her history. It was in that course that I wrote one of my best papers about the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, citing passages from the 2Pacalypse Now album, released in 1991.
I recognize that this social blight — this epic failure, this structural deficiency — is not just at Yale. This discrimination is not just in academia, as similar dynamics, subtleties, and closed doors pervade the social profit sector, government, the military, the private sector, and K-12 education. In other words, any mixed race or coed institution. This is what it feels like and what the humbling (if not humiliating) demographics look like for any predominantly institution or workplace where white males are predominant in numbers, particularly so in the upper layers of an organization that have the authority and power to determine other’s fate.
What is insidious about how academia does it, is that the hoops of being considered for tenure most often depend on jumping through hoops years in advance. As this article indicates, an aspiring professor spends somewhere between 3 and 7 years of showing their merits before actually being given the yeah or nay on getting tenure. Since the Civil Rights Movement opened up new paths to academic positions and hastened the integration of education from pre-school to post-doctoral four or five decades ago, it appears that academics and academic institutions have figured out a variety of ways to track disproportionate numbers of professors of color and women into some second-class status all but guaranteeing that they will not get tenure, and not be around for the long-term. A whole lot of pomp and circumstance that isolate individuals so they cannot coordinate and collectively wield power. I call it insidious because Misogyny and Supremacy have cleaned up their decorum. They don’t tar and feather quite like in lynching’s heyday, but they sully people and women and people of color who attempt to stand up, they diminish and belittle research and rigor that focuses on the experiences of Chinese Americans, or facets of immigrant lives. It may not be lethal in a life/death sense, but not getting tenure is lethal to one’s academic profession and academic pursuits, or so it appears to me from my non-academic perspective.
When multiple female mentors tell a younger female factuly that they have to choose two of three between “husband, children or career” is internalized misogyny placing career over children. Particularly, when only 19% of male faculty (compared to 43% of female faculty) felt that they did not have to choose between their academic pursuits and family lives. This is what gender imbalances look like in capitalism. In academia, tenure-track and supremacy reward patience with the Old Boys network, the kind of patience that has to last longer than a presidential term or olympic cycles. This is a long game.
These are the same recurring dynamics — of recruitment and retention — that I saw as a college student. As a sophomore and junior, I attended countless meetings and meals focusing on how to recruit and retain more students of color. In a nation where people of color were a much larger percentage of the population than the student population, something was undemocratic and skewed in who attended Macalester College. Yet, the numbers did not change, and got worse from the mid-90s to the late-90s. This lackluster system was exacerbated by an administration and faculty voices that espoused how international students could make up the difference. But they did not. The math did not add up.
We could talk about the social aspects of what could attract/repel a prospective student of color. However, those exchanges led by a Black employee in the Admissions Office rarely, if ever, brought up the material matters of budget decisions, financial aid, and what financial resources were being expended to make a four year, liberal arts college degree more of less accessible to more students of color or what considerations were being made for students who were coming from high schools segregated by class and race. The systemic imbalances of K-12 education were glossed over, as were the structural deficiencies at Macalester that were ill-equipped to grapple with institutional racism and institutional sexism.
The section in the Yale Daily News article about assertiveness is dicey. And saddening. The Latina quoted in the article was cognizant of having to be assertive from her freshman year at Yale and continue to do so into her first years as the first tenured Latina professor in the Law School. The diceyness of the entire set-up is that people of color and women have internalized messages that we get angry too hastily. We have been pummeled with the notion that the playing field is level and will give us a fair chance so long as we work hard. Most people of color and women sublimate their assertiveness because it is spun as anger. The micro-aggressions are one form of it, and the internalized racism and internalized sexism are another. (And, I consider the latter more harmful because it is what we do to ourselves rather than what someone else is doing to us.)
In the last 50 years, Supremacy has learned how to give the appearance of fairness, when the reality is far from that. In the five decades since the Civil Rights Act, we have had scattered progress as segregation and bias has gone from de jure to de facto. What this has meant is that the guards of the Old Guard have determined what can be done to pass a legal test yet uphold segregation and the persistent imbalance of access and power, evolution and adaptation. The figures cited in the YDN article demonstrate how persistent the Old Guard is, and how craftily they have figured out how to protect their neck and protect their tenure protocols so they will endure the test of civil court, or when someone files a discrimination suit with the EEOC. These are the house rules in a game that the Old Guard still dominates, decades after the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Movement.
So long as there are a fixed number of positions, or metaphorical seats at the table, then there are those who will lose their seats. This is the case in academic departments, in Congress, and in any workplace, political body, civic association that has a limited number of slots. Capitalism is a social order that suggests that there will always be a fixed number, less spaces than what we desire. Fostering competition and animosity rather than instilling a sense of shared destiny, this perceived stagnation creates ire causing some to hoard power and figure out how to subjugate others.
And those who have historically occupied those seats, in the 240 years of the United States, are not going to simply give up what they have known as their’s. There is greed and selfishness, and there are also just old habits that are hard to break. As Frederick Douglass said [credit is due to PublicEye.org for making this lengthier version of his “power concedes nothing” quote more accessible],
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.