Imposed Identities: Perils of Racial-Ethnic Identifiability

In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Tatum describes racial identity development as an ongoing, continuous process comparable to climbing a spiral staircase. Building on the theory of William Cross, she chronicles the journey arising from encountering the beliefs of a dominant white culture, recognizing one’s own devalued position, exploring the multiple facets of one’s own identity, and emerging to affirm a positive self-identity and support diverse others in their exploration. Intersectionality complicates the picture even further as the multiple dimensions of social identity that include race, gender, and sexual orientation among others combine to create what Patricia Hill Collins calls multiple jeopardies or interlocking systems of oppression.

As a biracial individual with a strong physical resemblance to my father who immigrated from Mainland China and much lesser resemblance to my German-American mother, I have repeatedly encountered the question: “Where are you from?” and when I answer, “New York,” the questioner invariably probes deeper to “Where are you really from?” or “Where are your parents from?” or even sometimes, “Where are your grandparents from?” Even with friends I have known for years, I will be asked questions about the culture, customs, and society of mainland China, although I have not lived or visited there and have only been to Hong Kong when it was a British colony. The irony even extended to my mother, who although white, was sometimes mistaken for being Asian due to her last name and asked what part of China she was from.

Frank Wu identifies the invisibility of Asian Americans in serious public discourse and their high visibility in popular culture that has led to powerful stereotypes such as the notion of the perpetual foreigner. In Yellow: Beyond Black and White, he underscores the way that context operates to create forms of exclusion:

Race is meaningless in the abstract, it acquires it meanings as it operates on its surroundings (p. 22).

The conflation of race with citizenship has led to the common experience among Asian Americans that he so aptly describes:

More than anything else that unites us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. We are figuratively and literally returned to Asia and ejected from America (p. 70).

This outsider syndrome and the stereotypes it perpetuates have consequences. In The Myth of the Model Minority, Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin highlight research revealing that Asian Americans are less than one percent of the boards of Fortune 500 firms and are generally described as technical workers and not executives. Despite extensive qualifications, Asian Americans are only rarely considered for management roles and have frequently chosen scientific professions due to the subjectivity that can accompany non-technical careers in other professions.

Perhaps to Native Americans or African Americans who have suffered enslavement and even efforts at extermination, the persistence of the perpetual foreigner syndrome and other stereotypes that Asian Americans face might seem like less serious concerns. But what is deeply troubling to all Americans of color is what Joe Feagin refers to as “imposed identities.” As he points out, the hundreds of published research papers on racial and ethnic identity are almost always devoted to questions of how individuals seek to define their own racial or ethnic identities personally (typically on check-off lists) instead of how they must deal with the racial or ethnic identities imposed upon them by white employers, police officials, and others with decision-making power in a highly racialized society. Indeed, Derald Wing Sue identifies the nature of contemporary oppression as involving the imposition of identity upon marginalized groups that can take place through acts of overt and covert racial-ethnic exclusion–a range of acts including micro-aggressions, micro-assaults, and micro-invalidations. And exclusionary racial-ethnic stereotyping and other racial-ethnic framing can occur literally in seconds as the results of many Implicit Association Tests have regularly demonstrated.

Even more than ever in the context of a deeply divided society, we are called upon on a daily basis to nurture a community in which interpersonal interactions resist the simplicity of such imposed stereotypes and other framing, bridge the divides of physical identifiability, and assert the underlying connection between our diversity and our common humanity.

College Racial Climates: Speaking Out

A 2017 survey of 706 college presidents conducted by the Gallup organization for Inside Higher Education offers some surprising and even troubling findings. Despite the fact that racial incidents are still occurring on college campuses, most college presidents view race relations positively on their own campuses. Sixty-three percent rated race relations as good and 20 percent as excellent, with only one percent rating race relations as poor. The presidents’ responses were similar in the survey conducted last year. Yet both the 2016 and 2017 surveys reveal a persistent view among presidents that race relations are less positive on other campuses. In 2017 only 21 percent of presidents saw race relations on other campuses as positive, with 61 percent viewing race relations as fair. And 66 percent of the president disagreed or strongly disagreed that racial incidents on campus have increased since the election.

In addition, roughly only a third of the presidents reported that they have spoken out more than they typically do on political issues either during or since the election. Nonetheless, a majority of the presidents believe that the election revealed the growth of anti-intellectual sentiment and a growing divide between higher education and American society.

What accounts for the disconnection between the view from the top and day-to-day racial realities campuses? Take, for example, a report by the Anti-Defamation League released this month indicating that 107 incidents of white supremacist activity on college campuses have occurred during the current academic year. The report indicates the election of Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists to step up activism on college campus and distribute racist and anti-Semitic flyers.

In Alvin Evans and my forthcoming book, Leading a Diversity Cultural Shift in Higher Education (Routledge), our study reveals that the implementation of diversity strategic plans is uneven at best. Such plans may persist as high-level statements without the resources, accountability, and delegation of authority needed to build inclusive campus cultures and ensure equity in processes and outcomes. The continuing isolation of minoritized students on predominantly white campuses has given rise to student demonstrations demanding specific improvements including diversity training, resources, curricular change, and a more inclusive climate. At the same time, the leadership of doctoral universities remains predominantly white and male with a noticeable lack of minority representation among top administration with the sole exception of the chief diversity officer.

It is unclear what objective ways of measuring campus climate led so many presidents to view race relations on their own campuses so positively. An extensive body of social science research demonstrates that in the post-Civil Rights era, subtle forms of “everyday” discrimination such as micro-inequities and micro-aggressions can shape behaviors and send devaluing messages to faculty, staff, and students from nondominant groups. For example, in Diverse Administrators in Peril, our survey of university administrators revealed that African American/black administrators believe to a greater degree that minority employees experience covert discrimination on a frequent basis compared to white participants.

The absence of protests or racial incidents is not a measure of whether institutional climate is inclusive. As we have shown in Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity, subtle barriers that impact the success of individuals from nondominant groups include stereotyping, application of differential standards, myths of incompetence, lack of support, and failure to empower and include in decision-making. Acts of process-based discrimination frequently do not rise to the level of institutional attention. Without concrete programs that address institutional micro-inequities and how these subtle forms of discrimination are manifested both in everyday experiences and in consequential institutional processes, the likelihood of organizational change will remain illusory.

The second major concern arising from the Inside Higher Ed survey is the indication that many college presidents have not spoken out about the divisive political climate driven by Donald Trump, an individual who, as Nicholas Kristoff points out, has been associated for more than four decades with racism and bigoted comments. Trump’s devaluing of the truth and unveiled attacks on minorities, Muslims, disabled persons, immigrants, and other marginalized groups in American society threatens to destroy our sense of decency and morality. This loss of morality strips the veil of pretense that has shrouded our vision of inclusion.

While many courageous college and university presidents have spoken out forcefully against Trump’s travel ban, this issue is only part of the persistent dilemma affecting race relations on campus. Much work still remains to be done to build inclusive campus climates. In his ground-breaking book, Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression, sociologist Joe Feagin indicates the necessity of moving beyond individual approaches to social justice to a group conception that addresses how racial injustice privileges one group over others within the fabric of our institutions.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us:

…the call to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.

In this light, consider how Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber frames the problem of race relations on college campuses, leading him to call for self-reflective institutional reports, action-oriented programs, and solutions:

I have heard compelling testimony from students of color about the distress, pain, and frustration that is caused by a campus climate that they too often find unwelcoming or uncaring. …these problems are not unique to Princeton—on the contrary, similar stories are unfolding at many peer institutions—but that does not make them any more acceptable. Our students deserve better, and Princeton must do better. We must commit ourselves to make this University a place where students from all backgrounds feel respected and valued.

Protesting Trump’s Discriminatory Actions: Resurgence of College Student Activism

We can all take heart from the temporary restraining order of Judge James L. Robart of the Western District of Washington that stops federal officials from enforcing a travel ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. This ban was enacted as an Executive Order by President Donald Trump on January 27, 2017, setting off a widening constitutional and political crisis as well as global demonstrations. Responding to Judge Robert’s temporary restraining order, Washington State Attorney Bob Ferguson declared: “Not even the president can violate our Constitution….”

Trump’s actions have reverberated around the world in a daily assault of injustices that threaten the very fiber of our democracy and the intellectual freedom that is the backbone of higher education. The speed and crescendo of this assault is unparalleled, designed intentionally to create chaos, and pursued relentlessly despite mass demonstrations and active resistance. And in the face of this assault, David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist, warns of the Faustian bargain that Republicans face in trying to get things done and acquiescing to Trump’s reckless maneuvers. As he writes:

The Republican Fausts are in an untenable position. The deal they’ve struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul.

What does all this mean for higher education? To confront the divisive Trump effect on college campuses, Yolanda Moses offers a number of solutions for how college professors, students, and administrators can sustain the values of diversity and inclusion:

1) equip students with historical context so that they can understand how our nation could be so politically divided; 2) support undocumented students; 3) protect protesters on both sides; 4) prevent sexual assault; and 4) reinforce global learning.

In implementing these recommendations, diversity and inclusion must take a front seat. Consider how W.E.B. DuBois described the purpose of higher education more than a century ago:

The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

DuBois sees the special responsibility of higher education not simply as custodians of knowledge, but as the instrument or channel that connects the creation of knowledge with social change.

There are recent heroic exemplars for how this activist connection between higher education and society has been made. Recall, for example, how Jonathan Butler at the University of Missouri at Columbia (UM), a graduate student, risked his life on a hunger strike to protest inequality and a lack of responsiveness by system administration led by Tim Wolfe, an ex-software executive, in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black person, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer.

Butler, an African American master’s degree student began a hunger strike on November 2, 2015 and signed a “Do not resuscitate” order. In a letter to the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators, Butler wrote:

I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.

Jonathan Butler’s action was one of the flash points along with the threat of a boycott by the UM football team that led to Wolfe’s resignation along with the resignation of UM’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, that occurred the same day. The pressures exerted by student activism have led to significant transformation at both the system and university levels. Leadership changes include the hiring of the first Asian American system president, Mun Choi, the former provost at the University of Connecticut, and creation of a system chief diversity officer position now held by Kevin McDonald. Ongoing initiatives include the pioneering work of the Faculty Council on Race Relations.

The recent peaceful student protest on the UC Berkeley campus against the scheduled speech of Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart News editor, was unfortunately undermined by violence by a few masked protesters who set fires and smashed windows. Reacting immediately and precipitously, Donald Trump then sent out a tweet threatening the withdrawal of federal funds from the university. Yet according to Ari Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, since the university itself had tried to meet its obligations, “the loss of federal funds…would be deeply inappropriate and most likely unlawful.”

Looking forward, peaceful, nonviolent protests and student activism are powerful countervailing forces in support of inclusion that connect real life and the knowledge of life that Du Bois saw as the critical function of higher education. In a forceful response to the travel ban, a coalition of 598 college and university presidents has signed a letter sent through the American Council on Education expressed their concerns to Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly. In the words of the letter,

America is the greatest magnet for talented people around the world and it must remain so.

The actions of courageous educators and students alike will help us sustain the values of inclusion, liberty and justice on college campuses in these troubled times.

Insiders and Outsiders in Racialized Higher Education

Having a voice rather than simply a seat at the table is a prerequisite for the participation of minoritized faculty, administrators, staff and students in the mainstream of university and college life. Whereas in the past visibility and invisibility of marginalized groups has been the predominant metaphor for inclusive/exclusionary practices, the phenomenon of voice and silencing more accurately represents the actual dynamic of power relations on college campuses. As Shulamit Reinharz of Brandeis University points out, if institutional practices support only the physical presence of marginalized groups without hearing their voices, little change will have taken place.

In a persuasive article, Fred Bonner argues that the academy gives greater weight to the scholarship of white faculty who write about diversity issues than to minority faculty who are not only writing about issues of inequity, but living them. In his words,

The etic outsider perspective should not be allowed to constantly overshadow the authentic claims of the emic insider’s view.

As a graduate student at an Ivy League institution, I was surprised to find that the leading faculty in Asian Studies were all white scholars, while the native Asian speakers held untenured lecturer positions. While the language instructors typically did not hold doctorate degrees, I often found it baffling at the time that the leading lights in the field did not include the first-person perspectives of Asians or Asian Americans. This polarization bespoke a troubling reality in higher education, i.e. the devaluing of the insider’s perspective.

In this two-tiered system, even the pursuit of diversity-related research by minoritized faculty has been viewed as of less scholarly value, particularly in the tenure process. In the Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader, Alvin Evans and I share the perspective of a white chair of kinesiology who sees it as part of her role to have a discussion with the promotion and tenure committee regarding the value of diversity research:

There is just more of an appreciation for what they would call scientific research as opposed to social science research, first of all . . . as much as I have tried to have conversations about that. . . . And then just the valuing of the diversity research agenda, clearly it is not as valued. I think it comes down to method as much as anything, but that is a vicious circle. Because the way you study diversity is different than measuring your blood pressure. The certainty for scientists sometimes in basic science is a false certainty, but they don’t perceive it at all in diversity-related research; there is not a valuing of it. So in the tenure process, I think the chair has to have a conversation about it.

How then can institutions of higher education begin to address the dichotomy between the insider/outsider perspectives? Through case studies and interviews with CDO’s and institutional diversity leaders for a forthcoming book, Leading a Diversity Cultural Shift: Comprehensive Organizational Learning Strategies in Higher Education, Alvin Evans and I explore the ways in which organizational learning can serve as a lever for diversity transformation and the creation of more inclusive campus environments.

Our survey of diversity officers conducted for this study highlights one of the inherent contradictions in the insider/outsider perspective– i.e., the expectation that the Chief Diversity Officer, who is typically a member of a marginalized group, should be the sole leader or spokesperson for diversity cultural change on college campuses. The Chief Diversity Officer role is the only top leadership role in which the majority of all incumbents are diverse, with whites comprising only 12.3 percent of CDO’s in doctoral universities. This singular representation suggests a form of symbolism or even token status. As David Owen observes, reliance on minoritized individuals to carry the load on diversity issues has negative connotations, such as 1) only these individuals are responsible for or interested in diversity work, or 2) that these positions are the only executive positions that ethnic/racial minorities are competent to hold. As he explains:

It is manifestly unjust to place the burden of dismantling structures of race and gender privilege that are the consequence of hundreds of years of systemic oppression in the United States on men and women of color and White women.

Such broad expectations for the CDO role conflict with the fact that many CDO’s serve in “at will” status without employment protection. Leading a change agenda without such protection is inherently a risky proposition. As an Afro-Latino CDO in our survey sample indicates:

This role in itself is a risk. I think that anybody that takes on this role must go into role with the understanding that they are at risk all the time. … the reality is that this work challenges power.

Our current study reveals reveal several key themes that are integral to substantive diversity progress at both private and public institutions of higher education. Courageous presidential leadership is a sine qua non of diversity change. Such leadership communicates a sense of urgency about diversity and inclusion, emanates to executive leadership and the deans, and is bolstered by concrete action that provides the resources necessary for diversity change. Take the urgency given to diversity and commitment to resource prioritization exemplified by President Robert Nelsen of Sacramento State University. As he told us:

. . . in our budget this year we set three priorities: priority number one was to make certain that we had enough classes for our students; priority two was diversity; priority three was safety. When you move diversity to the forefront of allocations, it means that with your budget decisions you are making a moral decision about diversity and its importance. That takes some explaining and teaching so that people understand why it is important.

Another important theme emerging from the case studies is that tenured faculty serve as a powerful and sometimes singular voice of opposition in response to regressive external political pressures. Although student activists on many campuses have raised issues of diversity and inclusion, the power to sustain such efforts may indeed rely on the tenured faculty. Their collective voice has been strengthened when expressed in faculty senate resolutions or through the creation of sub-committees or councils to examine often uncomfortable diversity issues.

In his blog post of December 8, 2016, Joe Feagin warns that our country is now facing a social, political and political-economic downward anti-egalitarian spiral. In the face of this treacherous downward political spiral, as Feagin points out, we need to frame the questions and problems of social inequality. This concrete framing demands that we address both the insider/outsider dynamic at play in university power relations as well as how the value of diversity and inclusion is communicated and disseminated across the multi-dimensional contours of a campus ecosystem.

Debunking Myths in Hiring Diverse Faculty

For more than three decades, low rates of representation of African American men and women, Asian American women, and Hispanic or Latino/a men and women have persisted in the full-time faculty ranks of American colleges and universities. In The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (Stylus, 2015), our survey of department chairs from across the nation indicates a number of issues faced by department chairs in hiring diverse faculty including: 1) no new faculty lines; 2) lack of ability to provide competitive compensation; 3) administrative practices such as beginning too late in the hiring cycle; 4) the need for recruiting resources; 5) geographic location; and 6) lack of collegial support and a supportive campus climate.

Despite the validity of these concerns, one of the most frequent issues raised with regard to hiring diverse faculty is the lack of qualified applicants in the pipeline. As a human resource practitioner, I have often been asked by members of search committees as to whether the need for diversity affects quality and whether faculty with “lesser qualifications” should be hired just to increase diversity. Confirming these experiences, a Black chair of Hispanic ethnicity in our study noted the frequent argument about qualifications he has encountered:

[A] Black male chair faces challenges of hiring other non-White faculty: “are they qualified?”

In a recent opinion piece for the Hechinger Report, Mary Beth Gasman relates the view she expressed at a recent higher education forum: “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” She was greeted with a round of applause for her candor. Gasman challenged participants to think about a number of questions in hiring faculty, most notably including the following:

How often do you use the word ‘quality’ when talking about increased diversity? Why do you use it? How often do you point to the lack of people of color in the faculty pipeline while doing nothing about the problem?

Professor Gasman notes that quality is frequently interpreted to mean that the candidate did not attend an elite institution or was not mentored by a prominent scholar in their field. She observes:

…I have learned that faculty will bend rules, knock down walls, and build bridges to hire those they really want (often white colleagues) but when it comes to hiring faculty of color, they have to ‘play by the rules’ and get angry when exceptions are made. Let me tell you a secret—exceptions are made for white people constantly in the academy; exceptions are the rule in academe.

Responding to Gasman in a Chronicle article, Rafael Walker, an African American faculty member, states that he cannot conclude that most institutions do not want minority faculty members. Instead, he writes, “the benefits of diversity are too familiar to us today to hold such a position.” Walker’s response does not seem to take into account how the social reproduction of inequality occurs within institutions of higher education. As Joe Feagin explains in Systemic Racism (Routledge, 2006), the pervasive residue of exclusionary stereotypes, images, ideas, emotions, and practices form an interconnected whole that perpetuates systems of inequality and privilege within institutional settings. And from interviews with more than 200 whites Nancy DiTomaso further describes how privilege is routinely transmitted through homogenous whites-only social networks and through the economic, social, and cultural capital that reinforces group-based advantage.

Rafael Walker indicates that the problem lies in the lack of diversity in certain subfields based on an examination of the faculty at the nation’s top 20 English and history departments with a particular focus on medieval, early-modern Europe, and 19th century British specialties. He offers a number of explanations about why such subfields are not diverse, including self-selection by minority graduate students and mentoring relationships. He presumes that minority students commonly are mentored by faculty of the same demographic groups, with apprentices following their mentors’ choices of sub-specializations based on interests allied with their identities. This argument is rather implausible, due to the lack of availability of minority scholars to mentor graduate students as well as the fact that mentoring relationships are not always homogeneous demographically. This perspective also downplays the individual agency of minority graduate students. But if choice of sub-specialization hinges to some degree on mentoring, Gasman notes that being mentored by prominent scholars is part of the social capital to which minority graduate students have less access.

Taking a different position, a White male psychology chair in an urban research university interviewed for our study encourages his faculty to exercise flexibility in the field of specialization to allow consideration of underrepresented candidates:

So if we, for example . . . wanted to hire a cognitive psychology professor who studies reading . . . we might find plenty of individuals who study that, but the odds of finding an underrepresented minority who studies that particular topic are going to be less statistically. You might find someone who studies not reading but psychology of language comprehension. So I would argue that’s close enough to what we’re interested in: We need to be flexible about the topics. So maybe we find someone who studies language comprehension but not necessarily in a reading setting.

Even granting some merit to the sub-specialization argument, there is only mixed support for the scarcity of diverse candidates in the major disciplinary streams. An analysis of doctoral graduation data reveals that minority doctoral graduates typically represent a range of approximately 10% to 20% of doctoral recipients in many fields, with larger percentages in certain disciplines. As Daryl Smith points out, diverse candidates for faculty positions typically do not find themselves the subject of bidding wars, leading to a “schizoid” condition in which each side (candidates and hiring authorities) present competing anecdotes. A study she and her colleagues conducted of 299 recipients of prestigious Ford, Mellon, and Spender fellowship in 1996, for example, found that only 11 percent of these exceptionally qualified minority scholars were recruited for a faculty positions and encouraged to apply. More frequently, as numerous researchers indicate, the normative culture and practices involved in faculty hiring may be one of the principal barriers to diversifying the faculty. For this reason, the composition of search committees and search committee training are key factors in faculty hiring.

Whether or not minority faculty are “wanted” or not, their presence is nonetheless essential in the educational process given the need to prepare all students for citizenship and careers in a diverse democracy. Building a more diverse faculty means moving from knowledge of the benefits of diversity to action. As a white male chair of economics in a public southwestern university told us:

The chair has to take the leadership role, has to be proactive, has to get a critical mass of people on his or her side to try to take the proactive measures that are necessary. Obviously a chair or a dean . . . who simply gives lip service to diversity but doesn’t do anything concrete to make it happen is not going to make any progress.

Or as a white female chair of journalism in a western undergraduate university put it:

The chair has to lead and set the tone for what is important. . . . Your department has to decide what its culture is going to be like. If [the department] is not willing to embrace diversity or support recruitment for other [diverse] faculty, it’s going to fail. If you don’t have retention, it doesn’t matter.

Dangers in Normalizing Racism: Trump Wildly Attacks Obama

Sometimes it seems that only late night comedians such as Seth Myers have nailed Donald J. Trump’s bigotry and normalization of racism. According to Myers,

We can’t become immune to it. We cannot allow it to become normalized.

Referring to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Muslim immigrants to the United States knowingly protecting terrorists, Myers noted, “To be clear, this is bigotry, plain and simple.”

The tepid reporting by most cable news and print commentators of Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory comments at a rally near Fort Lauderdale, Florida on August 10, 2016 declaring that President Barack Obama “honors Isis” and is the “founder of Isis” fails to identify the flagrantly racist nature of his most recent attack. In Trump’s words, President Obama “is the most valuable player” for Isis. Even a Trump supporter on a recent CNN broadcast, admitted that Trump’s emphasis on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, in the Fort Lauderdale rally, might have been designed to suggest that Obama is a foreign sympathizer.

After reiterating his claim of President Obama founding Isis several times on August 10 including during a news interview with conservative commentator, Hugh Hewitt, Trump backtracked the next day, declaring his remarks were simply “sarcasm” and adding “but not that sarcastic to be honest with you.”

Most subsequent news accounts of the rally have carefully avoided the mention of race and launched into extensive analyses of the ways in which Obama could or could not be deemed responsible for the rise of Isis. Even Hillary Clinton’s tweets in response to Trump’s commented were understated and did not mention the racist nature of these comments. As she wrote,

No, Barack Obama is not the founder of Isis. . . . Anyone willing to sink so low, so often should never be allowed to serve as our Commander-in Chief.

Ironically, relatively few commentators and mostly those from minority groups have zeroed in on the racist nature of Trump’s delegitimization of President Obama and the ways in which Trump has galvanized the anger of blue-collar and other white workers about their perceived loss of stature in an increasingly minority majority country. The New York Times Editorial Board on August 11 did identify Trump’s “racist rage” against the president as “appealing to the mob.”

Much earlier, during the Democratic primary race, Bernie Sanders keyed in on the “unprecedented level of obstructionism” against President Obama, naming the birther issue that Trump raised as specific evidence of what he termed “a racist effort.” As Sanders keenly observed,

No one has asked for my birth certificate. Maybe it’s the color of my skin, who knows?

The delegitimization of President Obama re-launched by Donald Trump draws on consistent themes that Trump has promoted for more than five years. Trump has repeatedly blasted President Obama as incompetent, a theme frequently leveled against minorities and women as underscored in recent sociological research. The implication that Obama is a secret Kenyan-born Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists labels the President as un-American, an outsider, and a foreigner. Add this to Trump’s call for a ban on immigration of Muslim immigrants and the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States; his declaration of Mexican immigrants as in many cases drug dealers, criminals, and racists; his reluctance to disavow the Klu Klux Klan; his criticism of the mother of Army Captain Humayun Khan; and the claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased due to his Mexican heritage: it all adds up to a single, irrefutable refrain.

As Nicholas Kristoff concludes after analyzing four decades of a consistent pattern in Trump’s words and actions, “I don’t see what else to call it but racism.”

Are Asian Americans Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action?

Asian American communities are clearly split on whether affirmative action in college and university admissions disadvantages Asian American applicants. Add to this the fact that some institutions do not even consider Asian Americans as underrepresented minorities (URM’s) in their employment outreach efforts or student enrollment processes.

Complaints filed with the Department of Education suggest that being Asian American can be a disadvantage at some Ivy League institutions. Take, for example, Michael Wang who had a perfect ACT score and had taken 13 Advanced Placement Courses. Wang filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education after not being admitted to Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, alleging discrimination based on race. According to Princeton sociologists Thomas Epenshade and Alexandria Radford’s study of eight selective public and private universities, Asian American applicants at these institutions received a 140 point penalty compared with whites. In the view of commentator Hrishikesh Joshi, since affirmative action addresses historic injustice such as that faced by Asian Americans for generations, it is difficult to understand how this reverse differentiation argument can be applied to Asian Americans when compared to whites. The exclusionary educational treatment of Asian Americans today is reminiscent of the strategies by which elite universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton limited Jewish enrollment beginning in the 1920’s and continuing into the World War II period.

Opposition to affirmative action by Asian Americans includes the complaint filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) with the Departments of Education and Justice in May 2016, noting the decrease or flat level in Asian American student representation at Dartmouth, Brown, and Yale over the past twenty years as a result of “holistic” admissions review processes that consider race as one factor among many. In addition, the Project on Fair Representation, a one-person organization run by Edward Blum, a wealthy conservative entrepreneur who initiated the Fisher v. University of Texas lawsuit among other legal challenges, has filed suit against Harvard University based on the alleged differential treatment of Asian Americans. The Harvard suit charges that Harvard has set admissions quotas for Asian American students and subjected them to higher standards than other students as well as to stereotype bias.

So why the sudden interest in Asian Americans as reflected in Blum’s efforts to recruit Asian American students to his cause?

As Alvin Evans and I point out in Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, this move is designed to splinter the interests of ethnic and racial minority groups. In an article in the UCLA Law Review, Nancy Leong underscores the fact that conservatives who oppose affirmative action are misusing Asian Americans to portray the “wrongs” of affirmative action. They have not shown an interest in major issues that impact the well-being of Asian Americans such as fair housing, voting redistricting, and employment opportunities. By characterizing the harm of affirmative action as applying to both whites and Asian Americans, conservatives can mask their underlying opposition to programs that disrupt racial hierarchy through the alleged “harm” of affirmative action. As Leong explains,

affirmative action opponents wish to conscript Asian Americans into their opposition because doing so makes them look less racist.

By contrast, consider the fact that in employment processes for federal contractors under Executive Order 11246 and Chapter 60 of Title 41 of the Federal Code of Regulations, minority groups are considered in aggregate rather than separately. Since all minority groups face forms of oppression historically and up to the present day, this broader grouping of minorities acknowledges the need to address the common barriers faced by minority groups within institutions, agencies, and corporations that receive more than $50,000 in federal contracts and have 50 or more employees.

We know that Asian Americans face significant barriers in their upward mobility. As Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou underscore in their recent book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, Asian Americans are extremely limited in their representation in leadership positions at the academic department and university administrative level, and make up less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and 2 percent of college presidents. To assert that Asian Americans as a “model minority” do not need assistance in overcoming social and institutional discrimination overlooks the structural, organizational, and behavioral barriers they face as members of an American minority group. In their insightful interview study, The Myth of the Model Minority, Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin indicate that the subtle and even blatant forms of stereotyping and discrimination faced by Asian Americans is an untold story and represents “a very harmful invisibility (p. 3).” Because Asian Americans lack a constituency, have few public intellectuals, and have failed to organize effectively as a minority resistance group, forms of discriminatory treatment can be exercised without fear of retaliation.

The need for Asian Americans to work collectively with members of other minority groups for racial and social justice is best summed up by Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California’s Hastings College of Law:

Add to that the anger over college admissions, which has been portrayed by demagogues as inexorably pitting Asian Americans against African Americans (and Hispanics) — a framing that is as inaccurate as it is inflammatory to all involved — and there is a mess that foreshadows the worst of our changing demographics. It likely confirms the negative perceptions of white observers.

Marching Backward: Tenn. Politicians Vote to Cut UT Diversity Funding

The historic march of 600 civil rights activists on March 7, 1965 attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama toward Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday” marked the culmination of efforts to bring changes to voter registration procedures that prevented blacks from registering to vote. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, whose skull was fractured by a police nightstick as he led protesters across the bridge, has reminded us of an African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.” On August 6, 1965, following two subsequent marches, the Federal Voting Rights Act was passed. Congressman Lewis recalls that what propelled him forward was “the spirit of history”:

We didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history and we couldn’t turn back. We had to move forward. We had become like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. I thought we would die. …I thought it was the last protest for me, but somehow, some way you have to keep going.

It is now up to us now to move our feet or else the march backwards will erode more than half a century of progress on diversity and inclusion. The effort to cut funding for the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT Knoxville) by the state legislature is symptomatic of this regressive tide.

In April 2016, the House of Representatives and the Senate in Tennessee voted to remove the $436,000 state appropriation for the Diversity and Inclusion office at UT Knoxville for one year. An earlier version of the bill would have used $100,000 of the funds to place decals on law enforcement vehicles that read “In God We Trust.” The bill is now before Republican Governor Bill Haslam for final decision.

At the same time, 10 GOP representatives and state senators led by state representative Eddie Smith wrote to Tennessee’s Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor requesting a joint committee be formed to investigate the diversity offices at the state’s public universities and colleges. According to Smith, “the university needs to reflect the values of Tennessee.”

Specific objections were raised in late 2015 regarding the efforts of UT Knoxville’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to educate the campus community about gender-neutral pronouns as well a memo that recommended avoiding religious symbols at holiday work parties. In a Fox news interview, Representative John J. Duncan, Sr., warned against the “political correctness” involved in these two actions and stated that the liberals in the United States are the most intolerant in the country. And Representative Micah Van Huss who drafted the original legislation stated that the “so-called Office of Diversity” was “not celebrating diversity, they are wiping it out. It is the office of Political Correctness.”

Calls for the resignation of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek by members of the legislature followed. The website posts were amended or deleted and oversight of the Diversity Office’s website was moved to the Communications Department. Some lawmakers called for Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, UT’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, to resign as well. Petitions to support Cheek and Hall gathered more than 3,000 faculty, staff, and student signatures. A student coalition, UT Diversity Matters, was subsequently formed on the Knoxville campus and presented a list of demands to the administration including the need for inclusivity training for all incoming students, faculty, and staff.

In response to the legislature’s efforts to defund the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, hundreds of University of Tennessee students marched in protest on April 29, 2016, with some demonstrators lying down in a walkway and later forming a circle in front of a student residential building. As the protest continued, Confederate flags were hung outside two dorm windows. George Habeib, a 19-year old printmaking student described the hanging of the Confederate flags as “trying to instill fear in us” and added, “it further proves out point of why this [sort of protest] is needed.

The legislature’s efforts have been answered by students, faculty, and staff “moving their feet” in the forward-looking spirit of history that John Lewis spoke of. Yet the bill to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is but one example of the deepening divisiveness over the issue of diversity in this nation and its educational institutions. The move forward toward the creation of more inclusive institutional environments will require the sustained commitment and courage that anchors “trees planted by the rivers of water.”

The Diversity Research-To-Practice Gap: Backlash to Fisher Case

A new paper titled “Bridging the Research to Practice Gap: Achieving Mission-Driven Diversity and Inclusion Goals” by Teresa Taylor, Jeffrey Milem, and Arthur Coleman, seeks to link research findings on diversity with policy implications for colleges and universities. While a valuable effort, the paper appears confusing in terms of the policy implications resulting from the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action in admissions in the Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) case. In 2013, a conservative US Supreme Court ruled on the claim of “reverse discrimination” by Abigail Fisher, a white undergraduate who had applied to UT and not been accepted. Edward Blum, a wealthy conservative entrepreneur, actively recruited Fisher through his one-person organization, the Project on Fair Representation, an organization that has also challenged the Voting Rights Act.

The new research paper does acknowledge the issues arising from Fisher in terms of the need for evidence-based justification for the use of race-sensitive factors in the admissions process. It identifies two issues deriving from the Fisher case as

(1) the relationship between the ‘necessity’ of race-conscious practices and the availability and effectiveness of race-neutral alternatives, and (2) the relationship between race-conscious practices and their impact on the achievement of diversity-based educational goal (p.3).

Yet while the paper identifies the dilemmas debated in Fisher, it does not clearly identify the narrow limits within which the Supreme Court has determined that race-conscious practices can be used. The paper states that

research has confirmed that the use of race and ethnicity in the admission process can be an important tool for institutions to use to achieve their diversity goals because it lays a foundation for interactional interactions and campus climate” (p. 19).

Despite the positive impact of diversity on campus climate and cross-racial interactions as demonstrated in research findings, the Fisher case casts a long shadow over the future use of explicitly race-sensitive means to attain student body diversity.

As highlighted in Alvin Evans’ and my recent book: Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, three of the most critical developments resulting from Fisher with implications for college and university admissions policies are:

1) the Supreme Court has moved from consideration of the value of diversity itself to the means colleges and universities use to attain it; 2) the reviewing court, not the university, “must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce” the educational benefits of diversity (Fisher v. University of Texas); and 3) universities must first exhaust race-neutral measures before race-sensitive factors are considered. The necessity of race-conscious practices was not acknowledged by the Court and even if such practices might be considered, they require substantial proof that workable, race-neutral strategies have been exhausted. As a result, race-conscious strategies cannot be used easily and without substantial proof/justification.

One of the important factors in the UT Austin admissions policy that is not adequately clarified in the new research paper, is that 90 percent of the available seats at public institutions of higher education in Texas fall under the top ten percent plan (TTP). This plan that automatically admits high school students in the top ten percent of their class to public institutions of higher education in Texas was viewed by the Court and conservative think tanks as a “race-neutral plan.” Instead, the Court narrowly focused on the very modest 10 percent of the seats that are based on a holistic admissions review process which after 2004 allowed the consideration of race as a “special circumstance.” In 2013, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit for reconsideration of the use of race in the Personal Achievement Index employed for 10 percent of the entering class, and the Court of Appeals upheld UT Austin’s use of race. An appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, once again sponsored by Blum, will result in a ruling likely to be issued in June.

Given this uncertainty, some caution needs to be applied to the findings of this new research paper confirming

that the use of race and ethnicity in the admission process can be an important tool for institutions to use to achieve their diversity goals because it lays a foundation for interracial interactions and campus climate (p. 19).

As noted in the paper, however, the institutional mission and the context for diversity are essential aspects of establishing the groundwork for diversity and inclusion policies. Viable means of achieving student body diversity also noted in the paper include recruitment and outreach to underrepresented groups, need-based financial aid, and scholarships based on first-generation or socio-economic status.

The future of race-conscious strategies in admissions processes hangs in the balance with lawsuits filed by the conservative Project on Fair Representation against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Given the death of Antonin Scalia and since Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself on the Fisher appeal, per Adam Liptak of the New York Times and others the ruling of the remaining seven justices on the Fisher case could be narrowly confined to the “idiosyncratic Texas plan” or broadly affect admissions policies nationwide.

One can only hope that greater leverage will be granted to colleges and universities in admissions policies that foster the attainment of more compositionally diverse campuses.

“Doing Diversity” in Higher Education: Practical Challenges

Recent student demonstrations protesting lingering and persistent racism on college campuses have called attention to the fact that diversity progress in higher education remains at incipient stages. Student voices have called for structural changes such as the hiring of more diverse faculty, inclusive leadership, the creation of chief diversity officer positions and greater diversity in the student body, as well as a more welcoming climate for minoritized students. In essence, the call for change requires systemic attention and integration of all the components of a campus ecosystem rather than through short-term, cosmetic adjustments to individual departments, courses, or programs.

Surprisingly in a review of diversity strategic action plans conducted for Are the Walls Really Down? (2007), the chief diversity officers that my co-author, Alvin Evans and I, contacted told us that the plans developed at their campuses and that were showcased prominently on their campuses websites had not really been actualized. Similarly, in interviews for Diverse Administrators in Peril (2012), chief diversity officers and affirmative action officers expressed frustration regarding their roles and real uncertainty about the degree to which their work was supported by their institutions.

Recent college graduates we interviewed for a forthcoming study, Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education, reported the same gap between the institution’s stated diversity mission and the curricular and co-curricular experiences they had on campus. Most of their experiences related to diversity learning outcomes were accidental and the students had to seek such experiences out themselves. And adding to this composite picture of disconnection between espoused institutional goals and day-to-day realities, interviews with department chairs for The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) reveal the fractionalization around diversity issues in the academic department, the isolation of the one or two faculty members who are perceived to be the perennial diversity advocates, and the difficulty faced by chairs in moving beyond the emphasis on disciplinary specialization to “border-crossing” dialogue or cross-cultural discussions. As a Black chair of Hispanic background in an elite predominantly white university reported,

Most White colleagues assume ‘diversity’ is for people of color and do not do much in recruitment (p. 79).

Bringing together the strands of research across these different domains of the university or college environment, certain common themes emerge that can yield practical steps on the pathway to successful diversity transformation. A precursor of such transformation is the willingness and desire to move forward collectively and collaboratively on the pathway to more inclusive institutions. This willingness cannot be taken for granted as diversity remains a contested topic on many college campuses and even discussion of “anti-racist” training programs can be considered controversial. Developing a common understanding of what diversity means to an academic institution and why it is important (i.e. the “business case” for diversity) is critical.

Our investigation of the integration of diversity and human resource programs across the private and public sectors and in higher education in the New Talent Acquisition Frontier (2014) reveals 10 prominent themes that characterize successful diversity transformation across all sectors.Among these themes are

1) an actionable leadership commitment to diversity;
2) a power structure that supports the attainment of strategic diversity objectives;
3) creation of a systematic, phase-based approach;
4) cultural change that builds trust-based relationships and eliminates fear-based working and learning environments.

Using the metaphor introduced by Ralph Kilmann to describe organizational change, diversity is not a quick fix. Instead, it will require long-term, sustained, and systemic attention to infrastructure, culture, systems, and processes across the multiple, intersecting domains of a campus environment.

Like the widening ripples that result when a stone is thrown into water, diversity transformation can remain elusive and disappear from intentional consideration or it can take hold through the progressive and practical action of institutional leadership, faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

Dr. Edna Chun serves as Chief Learning Officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and HR consulting firm, and has over two decades of strategic diversity and HR experience as Chief Human Resources Officers in public higher education. Two of her co-authored books have garnered the prestigious Kathryn G. Hansen Publication award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) and she is the recipient of a silver medal in the Axiom Best Business Books Award (2014) for another publication.