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!!”


  1. marandaNJ

    These are the type of posts I appreciate the most. They are personal and make me more fully understand the subtleties of racism. And they sure can be subtle.
    I’ve related before that I’ve been the victim of discrimination on the basis of being Catholic. I’m In No Way comparing this to the horrible bigotry faced by blacks. I am saying I can relate to the experience Dr. Fitzgerald had. The slick, sneaky little ‘hints’ that eventually turn into Pretty Darn Big 2×4’s hitting you over the head. The gut-churning feeling as in ‘Am I missing something here?’
    It’s called the Southern Two-Step in the South where I grew up. And it’s all about smoke and mirrors. Now you see me, now you don’t. Now you’re welcome; now what was your name Hon? Who?
    The teaching profession, especially, consists of three important components: politics, politics, and did I mention politics? I was a teacher for 4 years after I graduated from college. That was enought for me, thanks.
    It was like constantly being in some Shakespeare play where the other characters were always ‘whispering’ behind your back in the play and at the end you feel like saying, ‘Et Tu Brute?’
    Again, very much appreciate this post.

  2. John D. Foster

    Great post; I thought that at one institution I was at did the same kind of thing: have a minority candidate for pure window-dressing, to make themselves feel good about themselves, i.e. that they’re “open-minded.” @Maranda, as a former Catholic myself I know what you mean. Similar to the way “American” often means “white American,” you can catch people say “Christian” when they’re actually referring to Protestants specifically.

  3. Dr. Terence Fitzgerald Author

    Thank you marandaNJ and John D. for your input. When these incidences occur, a light should be shined on these institutions. I feel that this should occur especially toward departments/professions that stand on the soapbox and preach social justice, tolerance, and acceptance but practice something entirely different. This incident occurred within a social work assistant professor search. Unlike areas of education such as business, science, and etc., social workers tell the world boldly that they stand for social justice. In fact their creed states that “Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems” (social justice). But on average, their faculty and classrooms do not illustrate this point.

Leave a Reply