Why Universities are Fundamentally Racist

By: Dr. Boyce Watkins 

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” He does regularly commentary in national media, including CNN, BET, FOX, ESPN and CBS.  For more information, please visit www.boycewatkins.com.

This was an interesting weekend.  Two things happened that I was involved with that led to a tremendous amount of reflection on my part.  I’ll start from the beginning, as the passion is so strong that my fingers are boiling on the keyboard. They say you shouldn’t try to think or write when you are angry, but I am a man of passion and passion brings out the strongest part of my intellect.


First, I went to visit my alma mater (or my “alma-mama” as I call it), The University of Kentucky.  UK is an amazing school, beautiful in some ways, but sick and twisted in others.  I saw our football team win an amazing game a couple of weeks ago, as they beat the #1 ranked team in the country for the first time in 43 years.  I was with them the entire time, cheering and jumping up and down as they scored one touch down after another.  Part of me bleeds blue, which happens to be one our school colors.


But it is also my love for my “alma-mamma” that inspired my visit to the school this week.  I gave a speech after being requested by the black students on campus to come in and comment on the series of racially-motivated incidents that took place on campus recently.  In one of the incidents, a black student had the words “Die Nigger” sliced into his door.  The incident was in the media, and I was forwarded the article by one of my cousins.  The reason I got the article:  The student who had the words scratched into his door also happened to be my cousin.


Before I could pick up the phone and “raise holy hayell”, I received a call from one of the black administrators, who wanted me to intervene.  The answer was a resounding “yes”.


Coming back home was an amazing experience, as I could literally look at every corner, street, building and sidewalk on that campus and have a fond memory of being in that particular spot.  It could be the place where I first kissed my girlfriend, stood fuming over a bad grade in a class, played football with my friends, had a car accident or drank a milkshake.  I consider that university to be my home.


The energy in the auditorium was off the chain, as the house was totally packed.  Apparently, the arrival of the “Dangerous Negro” had driven many people to come out, young and old, white and black.  The students came ready for war, and I was ready to guide them down the war path.  I didn’t want them filled with hate.  I just wanted them to have understanding, purpose and direction.  I reminded them that the same things that happened in 2007 were also happening in 1997, 1987 and 1977.   I told them about how the administration had made promises 20 years earlier to substantially increase the presence of black faculty on campus, and that none of these promises were kept or acknowledged.  I reminded them that if they acted firmly and strongly, 2007 would be the year when the shit was going to stop.


I then asked the students how many of them have had more than one black professor.  Almost none of them raised their hands, I don’t think there were more than one or two hands in the air.  The fact that there were hundreds of people in the room, yet only a couple of them have had more than one black professor (after taking a multitude of classes) made my point immediately and clearly.  I told them that they should be ANGRY about the fact that people like them have been systemically cut out of academia and not allowed to stand in front of the classroom.  This is NOT FAIR and highly indicative of the fact that their university does not consider the hiring or tenure of black professors to be a high priority.  The excuses universities use for not hiring or tenuring black professors usually fit into (but are not limited to) a few neat categories:


1)      “We can’t find them, they don’t exist” – Bullshit.  They do exist.  I know a lot of them.  They apply for the jobs and are told that they aren’t qualified for the position.  Most of them are not even interviewed, even by universities that have positions that have never been held by a person of color.  I have many friends RIGHT NOW who are highly qualified to teach at the top universities, but they aren’t getting a second look when they send in their applications.


2)      “They are not qualified for hiring or tenure” – There is not a more insulting statement in the world, nor one that is more indicative of the mentality that embraces white supremacy.  The idea that you can have a job that hundreds of people have done, mostly white men, in which THERE IS NOT A PERSON OF COLOR ON EARTH QUALIFIED TO DO THAT JOB implies that you are in serious denial.  Given America ’s history of racism and exclusion, it is far more likely that this history of exclusion plays a role in the fact that many people are being systematically shut out of these opportunities.  The environment was built by racists to promote and support the success of one ethnic group over another.  So, even when racism leaves the hearts and minds of the individuals affiliated with that institution, their commitment to the standards created and embraced by the institution (created on an undeniably racist foundation) allow racism to fester and have an impact in the hiring and promotion processes.  This does not even consider the fact that many Americans still embrace racist ideals when it comes to how they evaluate the significance and importance of work being done in black communities.  Being a black scholar who does work in the black community, it is clear that while many people of color deem my work to be important, most of my non-black colleagues do not.


This leads to the another important question: “Who is deciding if an applicant is qualified?” If a group/committee created and sustained by an historically racist institution is making decisions on who is qualified and who is not, then their criteria for choosing those who are most qualified is again likely to support the advancement of one group over another.


For example, in academia, we have the so-called “elite” journals: mostly controlled by white males or those who think like them.  When I have submitted work relevant to the black community to these journals, that work is then rejected.  At which point, I am criticized for not having my work published in the so-called “premiere journals”.  That’s like me forcing Garth Brooks to perform in the Apollo Theatre in Harlem , and saying “From the crowd’s reaction, it’s clear that you’re a shitty singer”.


Now, the third standard excuse:


3)      “We made offers to them, but they won’t take the job” – Easy racist tactic: offer the minority candidate an embarrassing and lowball salary and then let them walk away.  That’s what the Yankees did to Joe Torre– they made an offer, but the offer was so insulting that they knew he would not take it.  That’s like urinating on your girlfriend’s $3 engagement ring and then saying “B*&^%, will you marry me?”  What’s interesting is that when UK , Syracuse and other universities want to get a top quality basketball coach or player, they will dig deep in their pockets to make it happen.  They don’t do the same when it comes to creating diversity, primarily because it just isn’t on their priority list. 


I explained to the U. Kentucky students that their university is a modern day plantation.  Black people have 4 dominant roles:  To dribble basketballs, throw footballs, cook the food and take out the trash.  One does not have to explicitly tell students that they feel that whites are superior to blacks…..they teach it every day with their actions and choices…..actions speak louder than words.   When every person you see at the front of the classroom is white, you are being implicitly told that you are not meant to be in that position.  Also, there are almost no mentors in place who can identify with you.  I once saw two pictures of the law school professionals at U. Kentucky, placed side by side.  One was a picture of the faculty, the other a picture of the janitorial staff.  The first picture was 100% white, the other 100% black.  There’s not much else to say beyond that.


I then told the students that my own university and many others are not much different in their racism.  Syracuse University has SCORES of academic departments that have NEVER tenured a person of color.  Rather than considering the possibility that this reality is an artifact and result of institutionalized racism, many allegedly intelligent individuals would rather presume that the disparity is due to the fact that no qualified black people have applied for the job.


Again, I must clear my throat and respond with a resounding “Bullshit”.


I have seen many qualified black professors come through my university either as applicants or assistant professors attempting to obtain tenure.  In every single case, they were told by individuals at this university that they were not qualified for the job.  These were hard working professors who have gone to the best schools.  Some of them went on to have tremendous success at other universities or at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where they were not going to be forced to endure this sort of discrimination.  It is shameful, ignorant and absolutely ridiculous.  It is 2007 and you have some departments that have NEVER EVEN HIRED a person of color (even though many have applied for the job).  I find that both sad and pathetic.  The horrific denial is even more embarrassing, and future generations are going to judge our so-called intellectuals as harshly as we judge those in the 1960s who felt that black kids should not attend the same schools as whites, or who spent their time attempting to prove the genetic inferiority of people of color.  


I myself have been told consistently, recently by a committee of peers, many of whom don’t have an academic record as strong as my own, that I am a “substandard professor”.  I was told that my work in the black community adds no value to my reputation as a scholar and that I am not good enough to make tenure at this university.  I took the immediate step of letting people know that I UNCONDITIONALLY REJECT this assessment of my academic capability.


I have (to my knowledge) more solo authored research publications than any other person on my faculty.


I graduated as one of the top students at one of the top 10 finance programs in the world (the acceptance rates for these programs can be as low as 1 out of 100 applicants)


I have, through my work on CNN, ESPN, CBS, NBC and other networks, contributed substantially to national debates on issues related to people of color, and to America as a whole.


I probably achieved more by the age of 32 than many of those judging me will achieve in a lifetime.


Yet, I am considered clearly unqualified to make tenure at Syracuse University .   I can’t help but laugh.


Someone has to fight this, so I guess I am going to have to be that guy.  I am prepared to fight alone, and die alone on the professional battlefield to challenge this kind of injustice, for it is harmful to millions of youth everywhere and the reason that black kids are mis-educated in American systems.  It is the same reason that I was told by high school teachers that I was not qualified for college.  It is the same reason that my sister, who is studying medicine at the Mayo Clinic, was told that she too was not qualified for college.  All the while, idiots like George W. Bush are being funneled to the top of major corporations, Harvard Business School , Yale University and the White House.  The same is true of academia, where individuals wear crowns made of discriminatory entitlement and arrogantly sprinkle scorn on those of color who’ve been exposed to such clearly flawed assessments.  Not me homeboy, I’m not that brotha.


Another one of my outstanding black colleagues, Martin Nunlee, just left the university in a shadow of shame.  He too was told that he was not good enough to be here.  The problem?  Every single one of the many departments of our business school has consistently denied tenure to EVERY SINGLE black man or woman who has applied for the past 120 years.  Rather than analyzing the system, priorities, psychological constructs, procedures and legacies, many would rather say that black people are just not trying hard enough…..bullshit.


I saw Harvard University do the same to Cornel West, who will go down in history as one of the great minds of the 20th century.  Countless other black professors have endured the same injustice.  The notion that so-called intellectuals are immune to the disease of racism is incorrect.  Sometimes those with the worst infections are the ones who are most confident that they have been cured.


So, if you’ve ever gone to college and wondered why none of your professors are black….it is not, as many will have you believe, because we are dumb, lazy or unqualified.  It is because even when we work our butts off and give 110%, we are still told that we are not cut out for the job…. “black boy you don’t belong here” is the message sent to me on a regular basis – it became especially true once I spoke openly about racism in America in national media (leading the university to officially disassociate itself from my words, something that has not been done to any other faculty member in recent memory).  I have some colleagues who don’t even speak to me, they just look at me as if I am a common criminal…..just a big, dumb nigger.  That is what it means to have an institution built on a racist foundation.  So, while I might have been hard on The University of Kentucky for their racism, the brand of racism at Syracuse is not much different.  Racial inequality took 400 years to build, but for some reason, people are asinine enough to think it should take just 20 years to fix it.   Sorry my friend, it’s not that simple.