Facing the Academic Job Market, Facing Racism

I’m back from the ASA and SSSP meetings (national conferences) in San Francisco, and just now getting back into the groove of writing here.  I saw some good sessions at the meetings.   This meeting was auspicious, too, as I felt especially proud moment to see Patrica Hill Collins ascend the dais as President of the ASA, the first African American woman to ever hold that office.  I did a post-doc with Pat when she was still at University of Cincinnati, and it was a thrill to see her shine.

But the giddiness over Collins’ considerable accomplishment was overshadowed by the conversations in the hallway where the overwhelming impression I got was one of anxiety about the economic downturn and its impact on academic sociology.  Quite understandably, this anxiety was particular pronounced among graduate students.    Every year at the ASA, there is a ‘job market’ in which prospective employers meet with prospective job seekers.   Last year, there were something like 75 academic jobs listed.  This year, that number had dwindled to a mere 30.   Now, I’ve never actually known someone to find a job based on this academic job market version of speed-dating, but there’s a great deal of energy focused around it nevertheless.  And, this year, there was a lot of distress over the low-low number of 30.

The trauma (and really, there’s no other word for it) of facing the academic job market in sociology is compounded for those sociologists who identify racially or ethnically as people of color, and for anyone who lists “race” as their area of expertise.

Racism in academic institutions can take on some funky twists and turns.   There is very little overt racism in the academy, and indeed, most colleges and universities strive to comply with some meager affirmative action policies that claim to “support diversity.”  The reality, however, is a transmogrification of diversity.

Here’s just one way that racism in academic hiring works.   A given department will decide that one position is designated as “the race position.”  The way that this plays out in the hiring process is that the hiring committee has an idea about who the person is that will fill this position, “the ideal candidate.”  The ideal candidate for the race position is typically 1) someone that does work that’s ‘interesting’ but not too radical (i.e., makes a small point related to Marx, Weber, Durkheim or, in rare occasions DuBois, but does not call attention to people’s racism) and 2) focuses on the people of color the committee has decided is in vogue at the moment (not the race of the majority group doing the hiring) and 3) the candidate’s race should match the race of the people they study (thus, making the research more “authentic” and filing the designated slot).   When this kind of search is “successful,” meaning the department finds a candidate who meets all these criteria (and they will), then this effectively contains and ghettoizes any discussion of race in that department and places an additional burden on that candidate to be the spokesperson for their race.  This is really the antithesis of the kind of diversity that, for example, Audre Lorde talked about when she spoke of learning to “recognize, value and accept differences.”

And, for whites who list ‘race’ as an area of expertise on their CV (like me), we can be privy to some pretty egregious backdoor racism from other white academics.   Let me explain.    Once, a long time ago, I was doing a one-year position at a university that shall remain nameless.   Another woman, had also done a one-year position at this same institution and applied for the full-time, tenure-track job.  She was a Latina, but did not study ‘race.’   When she got the job and I did not, the chair of that department (a white man) made a point of trying to soothe my disappointment by telling me that they “had to” hire the other candidate.  The chair in this instance made a classic move to reassert white solidarity with me and diminish the accomplishments and credibility of the Latina woman they’d just hired.   I wish I had confronted him about it, but I was still bruised from not getting that job, so I simply said nothing.    Since that time, I’ve had too many other opportunities to confront white academics who have made similar backdoor comments to me intended to undermine faculty from under-represented groups.

There are some support mechanisms out there for getting through this process.  Professor Kerry Ann Rockemore (University of Chicago-Illinois) is a leader in mentoring new PhD’s who come from under-represented groups in the academy.    Her online forum, BlackAcademic.com, is a premier destination for faculty looking for support from graduate school through the tenure process.  Professor Rockemore also conducts workshops about surviving the academy for faculty of color, and has a new book with Tracey Laszloffy called The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure—Without Losing Your Soul (Lynne Reinner, 2008).   Rockemore has created terrific resources here, and there needs to be much more work done in this area.  For example, her work could be expanded to explore what the specific challenges are for faculty from Latin@, Asian American, or Native American backgrounds.

I think the example of Patricia Hill Collins (and, the next president of ASA Evelyn Nakano Glenn), illustrate that it is possible to transform the discipline of sociology and the academy.   This is not easy, however.  In the words of Frederick Douglass, “There is no progress without struggle.” Courage to all of you on the job market!