Monday, May 26, 2014

The Racial Integration of Academic Philosophy Departments

How is it that a philosophy department at an American university can perceive itself as racially integrated when it has no African-American faculty members or graduate students and when the only African-Americans it employs are administrative assistants or support personnel?
      Philosophy departments that have no African-Americans on faculty may claim that there is a scarcity of African-American scholars available for hiring or recruitment (a claim sometimes easy to make, but often difficult to substantiate). Such departments may assert that since only a small percentage of contemporary academic philosophers are African-Americans, the available cohort of potential candidates for faculty positions is limited. They may assert that the absence of African-American faculty members in their departments is unfortunate, but a situation that cannot be easily remedied. They may assert that because there are so many (untenured, underemployed) philosophers (who happen to be white) who are looking for permanent faculty positions, there is intense competition for a limited number of available positions.
      A multitude of possible excuses for having no African-Americans on faculty may, in fact, be offered by a particular philosophy department. The department may assert that there are university-wide constraints on hiring and recruitment, due to budgetary considerations. The department may also assert that, as a matter simply of geographical setting or cultural circumstance, there happen to be few African-American students and faculty at that particular university. 
      A particular philosophy department may also have a (mistaken) perception of conflict between "meritocracy" and "affirmative action" in faculty hiring. A department may be reluctant to be perceived as having hired a "token black" faculty member, both from the standpoint of other academic institutions and from the standpoint of members of its own community. A department may also be reluctant to potentially change the prevailing atmosphere or academic culture within that given department. It may not perceive a need to have a faculty member who is competent in such fields as Africana philosophy, philosophy of race, or black feminist philosophy. It may not perceive a need to expand or diversify beyond its traditional core commitments and fields of expertise and to hire faculty members who might offer new perspectives on, or take new approaches to, those traditional core commitments and fields of expertise. 
      On the other hand, there may also be (intentional or unintentional) bias by a particular department against African-Americans as potential faculty members. African-Americans may be interviewed for faculty positions by a department simply for the sake of its need to appear to comply with equal employment opportunity guidelines, while it may actually make no serious or committed effort to attract African-Americans as faculty members. A particular department may (intentionally or unintentionally) make itself inhospitable and uninviting to African-Americans.
      Generalizations about academic philosophy departments are difficult (and perhaps even unfair) to make (particularly for someone like myself, who is an outsider), because academic departments individually and as a whole are not monolithic. Each department has its own distinctive set of teaching and research commitments. Perhaps I am unqualified to make any meaningful judgments about the current state of American academic philosophy. But there seems to be a blindness on the part of some philosophy departments to just how "white" they are, and not merely in terms of their own composition, but also in terms of their ability to recognize and acknowledge "nonwhite" philosophical perspectives. Thus, the encouragement of cultural diversity within academic philosophy departments may help to broaden and enrich the field of philosophy as a whole.