Power, Responsibility, and the White Men of Academia

With many things of pop culture, what becomes popular, recognizable and echoed, is something slightly or even significantly different than the original.

Hollywood has finally caught up with iconic superhero comic books—and is poised to ruin if not destroy its version of the medium as the comic book industry did to itself in the 1990s.

In 1962, Marvel introduced Spider-Man in issue 15 of Amazing Fantasy, and birthed as well a truism that has avoided being cliche since it continues to resonate. While repeated as “With great power comes great responsibility,” the original is a bit longer:

AND A LEAN, SILENT FIGURE SLOWLY FADES INTO THE GATHERING DARKNESS, AWARE AT LAST THAT IN THIS WORLD, WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME —  GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!

Two aspects of the original are worth highlighting. First, the sentiment itself is powerful and True, but, second, the subtle distinction of the original must be acknowledged: Power is the default and then responsibility is qualified with “must,” suggesting that it remains optional.

In short, there will always be those afforded power—and no guarantee that power is earned, deserved, or in any way just—but we must seek ways to demand the responsibility, tinted as it is with the implication of moral responsibility.

As as offspring of Europe and the Western world, the U.S. has always been and remains a culture in which white men embody the vast majority of power, through both economic and political might as well as the accumulated advantages of privilege simply from being white and male.

Academia, scholars and professors in colleges and universities, are significantly skewed toward white males, especially when rank (thus power) is included:

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016-144), Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty.

While in mainstream public discourse, the face and voice of tradition remain white and male, and the face and voice of calling for equity tends to be a so-called minority, it seems fair to expect academia to be different, even though it tends to reflect the race and gender imbalances of the broader society in terms of power and representation.

And here we come to another truism that defies being merely cliche: power corrupts. The original in full, again, asserts a more effective point, as John Dalberg-Acton wrote in a letter:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

I am a tenured full professor, a white male, at a university with a student population skewed strongly to females (about a 60+% versus 30+% female to male) and whites. Our faculty, however, is disproportionately flipped by gender, with only 30+% female, and mostly white.

The gender imbalance (exacerbated once rank is considered, similar to the national data) prompted a gender equity study, which when released was marginalized by white male faculty for its lack of validity.

Recently, I published a piece on black power and the rise of Trump, and a colleague with whom I have always been friendly took me to task by email, saying, in short, my arguments about race and racism driving Trump support were the sort of weak writing we discourage among our students.

My public piece is making a provocative and accessible case, however, supported by recent research on the 2016 election [1]. “Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism,” Thomas Wood, assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University, concludes, for example, in his statistical analysis.

Both of these experiences, although anecdotal and bound to my lived experiences, are illustrative of the essential failure of academia: University scholars and professors remain corrupted by white male power and tend to skirt the concurrent “must” of responsibility, the moral imperative of power linked to advanced knowledge.

Despite the popular misconception that university and college professors are radical leftists—and while they are, in fact, disproportionately progressive in their expressed ideologies—academics are overwhelmingly conservative in their behavior, as Yasmin Nair confronts:

Becoming a successful academic requires one hell of a lot of ass-kissing and up-sucking. You have to flatter and impress. The very act of applying to graduate school to begin with is an exercise in servility: please deem me worthy of your favor. In order to rise through the ranks, you have to convince people of your intelligence and acceptability, which means basing everything you do on a concern for what other people think. If ever you find that your conclusions would make your superiors despise you (say, for example, if you realized that much of what they wrote was utter irredeemable manure), you face a choice: conceal your true self or be permanently consigned to the margins.

Hiring practices and the tenure process are both normalizing, leaving very little room or rewards for any ideas or actions that can be labeled radical. Both hiring and tenure may be best characterized as academic hazing.

And the essential problem is that the norm is a white male template masked beneath veneers of “most qualified candidate,” “scientific,” “valid,” and “civil discourse.”

As one example, but found throughout academia, power corrupted and without responsibility in academia has given us Charles Murray, a career that reflects how the sordid (racism) survives and thrives when given the patina of “scientific” or “scholarship.”

Murray must be taken seriously because of statistics and his seemingly civil discourse around all his data. But the dirty little secret is that all of this is mostly driven by his being white and male.

But Murray is but a celebrity example of the tyranny of the white male all across academia, the voices of authority that must hold forth in the name of high standards and rigorous metrics, impeccable methods.

This tyranny rests in introductory courses that force students onto the bell curve during standardized exams; it lurks beneath how departments recruit and cull majors; it stains every aspect of doctoral programs and dissertation committees; it is the refrain of university and college hiring processes; and it is the cat o’ nine tails of the tenure process.

The U.S. and its colleges and universities have been built by white men, and white men continue to run virtually every aspect of them all. It is undeniable, then, that white men have created and maintain the inequities of U.S. society and formal education.

This power of white men must embrace the responsibility to dismantle that inequity, to listen to the voices of the marginalized and act in solidarity.

“With great power there must also come —  great responsibility”—and yet, we are confronted every day with the first and wait still on the latter.


[1] See Top Democrats are wrong: Trump supporters were more motivated by racism than economic issues, Mehdi Hasan; Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote Trump, Racism DidSean McElwee and Jason McDaniel; Analysis | Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism, Thomas Wood; Trumpism: It’s Coming From the Suburbs, Jesse A. Myerson; and see UW professor got it right on Trump. So why is he being ignored?, Danny Westneat:

The story we’ve told ourselves — that working-class whites flocked to Trump due to job worries or free trade or economic populism — is basically wrong, the research papers released this week suggest.

They did flock to Trump. But the reason they did so in enough numbers for Trump to win wasn’t anxiety about the economy. It was anxiety about Mexicans, Muslims and blacks.

Here’s how they put it in academese: “What stands out most, however, is the attitudes that became more strongly related to the vote in 2016: attitudes about immigration, feelings toward black people, and feelings toward Muslims,” writes George Washington University professor John Sides. He notes that the media focused on less-educated whites, but negative racial attitudes fueled by Trump were a big motivator for college-educated whites, too.

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