Yesterday marked the second day of ISIS 640/691, “The Future of Higher Education,” at Duke and the first time that we participated in a Google hangout with our partners at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford universities. The conversation that took place focused on Dr. Christopher Newfield’s book, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008). After working out the technology, we faced our peers in California and began to ask Dr. Newfield questions that we had previously prepared.
I was nervous to speak in front of so many people on a public broadcast, but I wanted to talk about race, affirmative action, and internationalizing education. Of course these are all huge topics, but I was specifically interested in hearing Dr. Newfield address affirmative action. Admittedly, I had an agenda. In Unmaking, Dr. Newfield explains that since the 1970s and 1980s conservative forces have consistently attacked the growing middle class by targeting one key institution of social mobility: the university. Defunding universities and placing greater emphasis on seemingly more profitable areas of study over the humanities was a part of the “cultural wars,” which were sparked when elite conservatives felt that racial integration and the growing middle class threatened their traditional hold on economic and political power. Throughout the book, Dr. Newfield demonstrates that race and class go hand in hand. In the late 20th century, the growing middle class was not only more open to ideas such as integration, but it was also beginning to include more and more people of color. The cultural wars have worked to reverse this trend. The siege has been successful.
In 2012, I was sitting in a classroom in Rio de Janeiro with a few graduate students from other schools in the U.S. and five or six undergraduates from the University of Florida. For some reason, the professor brought up the quota system in Brazil. Unlike in the U.S., affirmative action in Brazil is based on numbers. A certain quantity of slots are reserved for Afro-Brazilians every year. Although quota-based affirmative action has drastically increased the numbers of black students in Brazilian universities, the system remains highly controversial because it disrupts typical notions of racial democracy in Brazil and it is difficult to define exactly who counts as “Afro Brazilian.” Still, in many ways, Brazil’s affirmative action programs are more robust than anything we ever experienced in the United States. Unfortunately, the other students in the class (all white except for one Cuban-American) did not know how affirmative action works in the States and therefore believed it was directly congruous with the Brazilian case.
“I would not be opposed to affirmative action,” explained one student, “if it wasn’t just used to recruit middle-class blacks, who get into schools because their parents can pay. It is the poorer people who really need it.” I couldn’t believe my ears! Today, I wish I could say that I was making up this comment. But it really happened, and in the moment that it did, I was ANGRY. I took the remark personally. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my high school transcript on hand to rub into the student’s face, but I did NOT believe that I had gotten into Yale because I was black and middle-class and I let him know just that. In broken Portuguese, I defended affirmative action. It was no use. As the only dark-skinned person in the room, my words fell on deft ears and I was argued down that day. I spent the rest of the class period fuming and trying not to squint menacing eyes at my classmates.
What does it mean to be middle-class and black in the U.S. today? Sometimes, as I experienced in Brazil, it means isolation—like having to stand up for liberal policies even when you’re the only person with those viewpoints in the room. Sometimes it means being the “black voice,” a role that most people in my position resent since we recognize that black people in the United States are diverse in myriad ways and that “blackness” is defined historically, externally, and individually, but is never intrinsic. And, sometimes it means pointing out racial issues as an important discussion point because those are the issues that most affect you.
As demographics have shifted in the U.S. over the last decades, as conservatives have attacked the institution of higher education, and as fewer people in power have rallied to defend affirmative action, one must ask herself whether or not racial issues dominate class issues. Are “cultural wars” a euphemism for “non-violent racial wars” and would racial tensions give way to a more demographic, inclusive educational process if the financial crisis in education were magically solved? If we were to build more schools and provide more resources, so that eligible students of all classes and ethnic backgrounds could benefit from the public educational system, what challenges would we still face?