Dispatch From Academia: Equity in the Archives

Affirmative action changed my life plan. I fear that won't be true for young women like me tomorrow.

By Eve Dunbar Jun 24, 2013

It’s a cold snowy afternoon in mid-March and I really need to leave the warmth of my office at Vassar College. There’s a stack of student papers at home and research on Zora Neale Hurston waiting for me in the Special Collections and Rare Books section of the library. Like a lot of young people, I’m easily distracted by Facebook, and freezing March days make that distraction more palpable. Today, a ProPublica piece has gone viral among my "friends," many of whom are faculty of color. The piece totally debunks the idea that Abigail Fisher–the white plaintiff in the case threatening to kill off what’s left of affirmative action in higher education–actually had the grades or standardized test scores to compete with the students of color who got into the University of Texas at Austin when she applied in 2008.

I’ve been watching Fisher vs. The University of Texas, which bears the 23-year-old’s name, partially because I’m a black, female tenured professor who earned my doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. But mostly I’ve been watching because the case has the potential to dismantle the "academic pipeline" that we count on to deliver a steady flow of excellent candidates of color into the academic job pool.

The case reminds me that if I had come of age a decade later, my body and body of knowledge might have faded from the academy, because the higher education odds were never stacked in my favor. As a black woman from a working-class family, raised for the first 10 years of my life by a young single mother in Hartford, Conn., and later by my grandparents in the rural, small Pennsylvania town of Greencastle, my race, gender, class and even geography would have all but guaranteed my exclusion from the ranks of college graduates, English PhDs, and the tenured professorate. These historic odds would have had very little to do with me, my academic talent or my work ethic; I was born nerdy and come from a family of workers.

Yet like many scholars of color who came of intellectual age in the 1990s, it feels as if I’ve spent my adulthood just one pace ahead of a giant boulder intent on destroying the affirmative action programs that theoretically protect me from discriminatory racial practices in higher education and the American workforce.

I’m among the last generation for whom affirmative action in higher education wasn’t so comprehensively understood as a form of reverse racism–as if such a thing exists.

My generation is also the last to have experienced the benefits of an affirmative action model that wasn’t cloaked in the coded language of "inclusion" or "colorblindness" so often attached to it, to make it more palatable to many in the American public.

Many of my generation know that since 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, the political right has orchestrated a systematic attack on affirmative action, with the express purpose of rolling back its impact on higher education. Fisher v. The University of Texas is merely the last in a long line of attempts to halt the gains we’ve seen in racial equity.

I am a part of those gains.

Affirmative Action and Me

I was a fixture on my high school’s honor roll, earning mostly As my entire academic career and taking advanced placement courses. These things, along with my race and the fact that I lived in a small rural town, all played a part in my earning a Bunton-Waller scholarship to Penn State’s main campus. The scholarship program, named after the university’s first black male and female graduates, encourages diversity at Penn State. 

My grandparents dropped me off at Penn State in August of 1994. As a member of the first cohort of Bunton-Waller Scholars, I was paired with a white roommate. Although it wasn’t stipulated anywhere in the materials we received prior to arriving at the institution, it soon became clear that Pennypacker Hall dormitory members were embarking on an education in domestic integration.

There was a sense that we were all there to learn from each other. My roommate was a middle-class white woman, whom I ended up having to wake up for our 8 a.m. science class. We spent very little of that year discussing our racial differences, but I learned a lot about my sense of personal responsibility, educational commitment and intellectual fortitude in the face of her more laissez-faire approach to education.

Just two years later, in the wake of California’s Proposition 209, I heard through the grapevine that there were white boys and girls in the incoming Bunton-Waller class. I had since moved away from my freshman-year roommate and settled into my own education as an English major, so the change of scholarship recipients seemed less important to me than completing my own academic journey. I didn’t understand it at the time, but the scholarship earned by members of my Bunton-Waller class had to change its criteria to eliminate language of racial preference, and had opted for an emphasis on income.

During my junior year, around the same time I found out about the scholarship changes, I found myself walking down a hallway and nearly tripping over a flyer for the federally funded McNair Scholars Program, an initiative explicitly designed to increase the representation of minority, low-income and first-generation college students among doctoral candidates and, ultimately, the professorate.

The McNair program changed my calling. I was diverted from the middle-management job I was pursuing at Kmart’s corporate office while I was waiting to hear back from graduate English programs. Working management for a place like Kmart was just the sort of opportunity that would have made my family proud, because it seemed to promise upward mobility and job security into the professional class. Yet I wanted something different for myself.

The McNair Program introduced me to a possibility that I had never considered due to my race and caste–that I could actually earn a living through writing, reading and teaching others to think critically about the structures that limit us, and to imagine ways out of such limitations. From helping a black college professor edit the second edition of his book to pursuing my own research questions about blackness and colonialism, I learned the power of entering the historical archives. I learned I could tell the stories that lay hidden there.

Thanks to the McNair Program, I gained entry into graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin only two years after the Hopwood v. Texas verdict. Hopwood mandated that the UT Law School not consider race in any of its admission practices. There was a pall over the campus for the six years I attended. Being one of 1,616 (3.3 percent) black-identified students put me in the company of 5,619 (11.4 percent) Asian American students and 5,964 (12.1 percent) Latino students admitted to the 48,906-person, predominantly white student body.

In 1998, black and Latino students were a woefully underrepresented bunch in light of Texas’ demographics: blacks made up 12 percent and Latinos 32 percent of the statewide population.

To say the least, the shadow Hopwood cast reached far beyond the law school’s classrooms. Hopwood would haunt public institutions’ admissions policies for years. And that’s what these cases do: they leave people and institutions quaking and anticipating the death knell signaling affirmative action’s demise.

Although Hopwood was ultimately reversed–by the Supreme Court in 2003–it had done its damage to illustrate the sad reality that any system meant to foster equity for people of color is always at risk, always under scrutiny and always subject to revocation. Access to higher education is just a piece of what is and has always been at stake.  As President Johnson told Howard University’s graduating class of 1965,  equity "is not just freedom but opportunity–not just legal equity but human ability–not just equality as a right and a theory, but equity as a fact and as a result."  The suite of civil rights decisions set to come from the Supreme Court this week may fundamentally change how the nation understands the equity Johnson articulated, and the tools at our disposal to achieve it. 

Past and Future?

The cyclicality of history hit me hard on this most recent trip into Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections.

The Archives section of any library is magical. Being close to the writing and artifacts of the intellectual celebrities that populate your academic world, holding the letters written by people about whom you’ve written is probably what it felt like to catch the glove at a Michael Jackson concert.

The Vassar archives don’t disappoint. Locked away in my library’s basement are a set of letters between Zora Neale Hurston and the renowned white anthropologist Ruth Benedict, one of Vassar’s most famous graduates. I’ve unlocked those letters, like many who have written on Benedict. Unlike the other writers I’ve read, I’m concerned with Hurston’s story among Benedict’s papers. In the letters between Hurston and Benedict, we get to witness what life was like for the budding black female scholar in the late-1920s and 1930s.

For instance, there are letters that detail Hurston’s need for a reprieve from the unpaid dues she owes to an anthropological society. She needs to pay these dues to the society in order to get copies of an article she’s written and published in the society’s journal, but she’s nearly broke because her fickle, private benefactor has dropped her.

In another letter, Hurston tells Benedict about her application for the prestigious and exclusive Guggenheim fellowship. Hurston is convinced that the Guggenheim will provide her with the financial stability that she needs to extricate herself from a private patronage system that requires her to sublimate her own desires and imagined uses for her research.

In a later letter, this time from Benedict to a Guggenheim fellowship coordinator, Benedict writes that she is "shocked" to find Hurston’s Guggenheim application on her desk for review because she doesn’t think Hurston is "Guggenheim material." Benedict notes that Hurston’s source for funding should be patrons rather than the Guggenheim. Benedict closes the letter by stating that she hopes when Hurston returns from her research experiences, which will be paid for by some yet-to-be-determined benefactor, she’ll write up her experience "in collaboration with some anthropologist."

Zora Neale Hurston would go on to be a two-time Guggenheim recipient. Still, even with some short-term grant support, Hurston’s life was marked by a reliance on patron funds that could dry up, be cut off at a moment’s notice or be exacting in ways that limited the quality of her work. As Alice Walker once questioned of Hurston’s reliance on benefactors, "Can anything be more dangerous, if the strangers are forever in control?" Hurston was never able to access stable, long-term forms of support and would eventually leave the profession of anthropology without earning her PhD.

Yet Hurston went on to publish "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and a few other novels. She also published two book-length ethnographies: "Mules and Men," which was considered a very good ethnography of African American culture, and "Tell My Horse," an ethnography of Caribbean culture that has been panned, historically. She was never able to sustain herself with her writing, although she continued to write for the rest of her life. As Alice Walker famously uncovered in the 1970s, Hurston’s life would ultimately end with her buried in an unmarked grave after having lived the last decades of her life working jobs that varied from teaching to being a domestic servant.

I tell this story not to suggest that Benedict was responsible for Hurston’s seeming professional failure, but to highlight the danger of any system so reliant upon individually negotiated forms of access.

It’s in the archive I am reminded that before there was affirmative action, there was Jim Crow. And after Fisher….

I wonder what pipelines will be available to a working class girl of color from rural America. How will a girl like that find her way to college when the odds are stacked against her? How will she afford it? Will she ever imagine graduate school and teaching as an option? Especially in light of the fact that in 2012 Congress cut federal funding to the McNair Scholars Programs by nearly $10 million. And even if she should manage to find her way to and through a graduate program, what will encourage any academic search committee to see her as the "right material" in a sea of applicants, all of whom are equally desperate and qualified?

Will the young woman I imagine be able to outrun the boulder at her back? I fear the stories she might find buried in the archives will remain buried. And it’s this fear that compels me to harness the tools at my disposal as a member of academe to ensure that her access to stories, to options, to possibilities unknown and unimagined. I remember and I can tell a story and I’m here to work hard at maintaining institutional access in the face of its erosion. Because that fight is as much a part of our nation’s legacy as inequality, it’s the part of our legacy that affirmative action has always meant to redress.

I continue to be reminded of Hurston’s sense of the centrality of research and art within her life and the lives of other black and brown people. As she wrote in her autobiography "Dust Tracks on A Road," "research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and that they dwell therein." Hurston knew in 1942 that widened access to the channels of research and art production had the potential to change the world. It continues to have that potential.

Eve Dunbar is the author of "Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers between the Nation and the World". She is an Associate Professor of English at Vassar College, where she also serves as the Associate Dean of the Faculty. Read the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas here (PDF).