Still Racial Pawns: Blacks in Academia

I woke up that bright California morning my fingers were stretched in the lap of stiff and hardened sheets within the meager continental breakfast offering hotel. I had no idea that the night would end with me in this same room with clinched fists and a mind filled with questions layered in questions that were neatly folded between a strong measureable dose of pure fury. As I sit at the desk in my room writing this piece, it has dawned on me that the previous unexpected phone calls from the chair of the search committee were clues of what was to come. It struck me oddly as to why she called twice after offering me a chance to visit the campus as to rather I truly wanted to come to the campus. In her words, “Are you sure you want to come? You know you are not going to make a lot of money as an assistant professor in comparisons to your current job?” Was she kidding? I was a Ph.D. working on teacher contract in a public school system in the Midwest. I was not a CEO of a fortune 500 company; I knew exactly what I was getting into. Have you ever seen an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs is fooled and made to look stupid and as he looks toward the viewers his face is replaced by a Jackass? Well that was me at that moment.

That morning I pressed my favorite blue suit and my second favorite “fancy pants” silk tie. I cleaned my Black stylish but conservative dress shoes. I sprayed on the only bottle of cologne I had at home that had less than three or five sprays that would allow me present a solid argument to the security at the airport when he/she would tell me the bottle was larger than the 3oz. allowed within carry-on luggage. Finally I looked into the bathroom mirror before exiting and said out loud, “If this is the place for you, this is your job. Go get it.” I walked out of my room, grabbed a banana at the continental breakfast area, and met the chair of the search committee outside where it was a beautiful 73 degree bright day. Beyond the standard conversation and basic tour of the campus, I saw nothing out of the norm. The campus was primarily Latino and White. When I did see a Black face, I got an interesting response. See, when Black people are in large numbers in many places, I have an amateurishly calculated a 30 to 70% chance of them acknowledging me when eye contact is made. There, the look in the two sets of eyes that I saw on campus reminded me of someone being pleasantly surprised. In fact, a look that said, “Help Me!” was evident.

Putting my observations aside, I was later introduced to the faculty. I decided to answer a question that had been on my mind since the interview was set up. Why was I asked to not worry about presenting a formal presentation on my research or teaching interests? They basically told me that they wanted to try something different this time with this position. A red alert glared off in my mind. As I talked and referenced my research, interests, and teaching philosophy, I noticed the questions that came from the peanut galley were questions that gave the impression that my CV was foreign to them. Have they read it? Of course, right? Out of two applicants that were brought to the campus, surely they know who I am and have an idea of my passions for social justice, right? What? You had no idea I wrote a book you say. Yes, my research is focused on the marginalized population of males of color. No I do not live currently in California. I am from Illinois. As they questions pilled on as we all walked to lunch, I became confused. I have rarely been at a loss for words, but this interview ushered in a new experience when the faculty began to talk about the active Aryan Nation and KKK groups in the town. What the hell? Confusion mounted when I told them all at lunch that I was committed to social justice and putting social work on the front line as a profession that as a whole does not do enough to attack racism and social justice for all. Then I performed a great magic trick. After my confession, I split the table into two with words only. One half never talked to me while the other discussed politics in California. I simply made my soup and salad last as long as possible.

After a few more hours of talking to people in more expensive suits than mine that I will soon forget, I was asked to answer questions from a night graduate class before my last free meal. I attempted to be me and the class laughed at the appropriate times and shook their heads when I was being serious and motivational. I was a hit! But as I talked, I noticed the two faculty members in the rear with unimpressed pale faces. At that moment, I knew I was not getting this gig. But I did not know I was probably set up until an ex-hippie lecturer who I really connected with told me in private that if I was serious about this position, I had competition. In my research one molded mind, I felt I had no competition. But then he sympathetically divulged with me that the other person was from the area and a graduate of the department. Was I a pawn in their pursuit to hire one of their own? Was I the token Black male in a predominately White female profession? Hey, we were able to interview one of them; it just so happens he was not the right fit? As I got on the plane to leave the sun for the cold, the only thing that could come out of my mouth was “Hee haw….. Hee haw!!”