Skip to content

Your Black World: The Administrative Negro

by on August 26, 2008

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

In case you wonder where I’ve been, I’ve been buried under a rock. I am not a political person, for I think that being tied to political machines can cause one to lose their sense of purpose in the world. Your choices become disconnected from your soul and more directly connected to the incentives of the institution around you. You find yourself doing all the wrong things for what you think are the right reasons, and then you realize that both your means and your ends are equally counter-productive.

I was not even very social or political as a child. I’ve never had a long list of meaningless friends, for that makes for a meaningless life. Rather, I was the child who sat in the corner just watching all the other kids interact. I watched the consequences of their choices, the limitations of their friendships and all the lessons in life we learn from the short-comings of our social environments. So, although I never wanted to get involved in politics (especially the petty politics of academia), I’ve always had the ability to understand it.

But I’ve been thinking about politics a lot lately, as I prepare my case for tenure here at Syracuse University. In spite of dedicating my life to my work (you’d be amazed at how bland my social life is), the battle is uphill because, quite frankly, Black professors don’t usually get tenure in predominantly White Business Schools. Even getting respect from Jesse Jackson, Cornel West and others means nothing to those who don’t even know who Cornel West actually is (and probably don’t care). But this process has taught me a lot about my campus, who does what, and who the “power brokers” are in higher level administration. Honestly, I never paid attention to these things, because I find that petty politics and meaningless measures of departmental esteem can slowly murder the academic’s ability to engage in purposeful intellectual leadership. I spend my time seeking truth, not trying to align myself with the most advantageous lie.

In my exploration, I was led to reflect on the life of what I call “The Administrative Negro”. Through my research in academic journals, I read about how many Black faculty like myself confront a consistent and predictable pattern of marginalization by their campuses: they are sent to “academic ghettos”, like African American Studies (a field I happen to respect very much – but this should not be our only academic option). They are also not invited to be a part of the true decision-making infrastructure of the campus. One of my mentors, the great Doris Wilkinson, a Sociology Professor who was invited to teach at Harvard during the summer, was also marginalized in the same way. Cornel West was marginalized at Harvard and told that his efforts to connect with his community were virtually worthless. A friend of mine who was close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described Dr. King’s marginalization and abandonment (by both whites and blacks) toward the end of his life. Dr. Ron Walters, one of my mentors at The University of Maryland, describes this as a “black tax” that many African American scholars pay at predominantly White Universities. Another respected colleague, Christopher Metzler at Georgetown, refers to it as “academic imperialism”, as Black scholars are told that the things that are most important to them are really not that important at all. All of this put things into perspective and helped me realize that I was in good company.

The granted role of The Administrative Negro (whether or not they choose to accept it), is to become a catalyst and legitimizing force in the “Out-of-Line Black Faculty” punishment process. The Administrative Negro can be used as a weapon for those seeking ways to undermine Black faculty who challenge institutionalized racism. After all, if a Black person attacks another Black person, then it CAN’T POSSIBLY be racist.

What is forgotten in this overseer-like transaction is that when The Administrative Negro is pressured into marginalizing someone that he/she might otherwise have little problem with, this individual is engaging in actions that don’t reflect the preferences that lie in his heart. This is sad, problematic and an artifact of slavery. Even Barack Obama is affected by this phenomenon, as he has been forced to denounce individuals he has loved for the past 30 years. In effect, the Jeremiah Wright-Barack Obama scenario is played out on campuses across America: someone that you might normally be friends with becomes your enemy because the powers that be have defined the other individual as dangerous and uncooperative. The campus works through the overseer to achieve its goals by saying “We’ll take care of you if you help us deal with him.” Even the writing of this article would likely lead to further marginalization from those who are simply made uncomfortable by free expression by people of color. Freedom of speech doesn’t really apply to Black scholars who are saying the wrong things.

I work about 15 hours a day, so I don’t take much time for “hanging out”. But I made an exception and went to a reception the other day to meet some of my colleagues. I wanted some of my associates to be able to separate the person from the persona. I wanted them to realize that I am a good human being and I care about doing what’s right for other people. I don’t hate the Black Administrators here at Syracuse, and I actually feel sorry for some of them. I feel that, deep in their hearts, they understand why I do what I do, and many of us end up trapped by our own ambition: we have a lion inside that wants to roar, but we are in a world where we are told to whimper. The conversation behind closed doors usually sounds like this: “You’re right about the racism, but they will fire you for bringing it up. You have to play the game!”

At the reception, one Black administrator asked me about a panel on which I was going to appear. She said “Now Boyce, please make sure that everyone else has a chance to talk!” I turned my head sideways, confused, because I didn’t recall the woman ever seeing me perform on a panel before. I asked her, “Have you ever seen me on a panel in the past?” The woman replied “No.” I then politely informed her that, contrary to what she might have heard through the rumor mills (I guess people talk about the guy who led to police having to scour the building in response to his death threats), I am typically the least talkative person on panels. I explained to the woman that when I arrive to speak, the attention is already thrust upon me. I don’t show disrespect to the esteem of the audience by hogging up the spotlight. Also, if you save your words on a panel, it maximizes the impact of what you have to say. I told the woman that “I talk far less than most people do. But the difference is that when it’s time to say something, I am not afraid to say what needs to be said.”

I wasn’t angry at this person, but again, I felt bad for her. Apparently, some administrator had told her things about me that were likely based on some rumor or media impression. Like pawns in a chess match, we’d been played against one another in a way that never would have occurred had she not been black. A potentially productive association between two African American colleagues had been turned into a divide-and-conquer by those who appoint the Administrative Overseers. It makes me sad, because if my campus had actually taken the time to get to know me, we could have had a very productive partnership. In spite of my “blackity-black – angry black man” reputation, the truth is that I grew up around more white people than Black and I am just as comfortable around either group. I am not, however, uncomfortable living a lie, which leads me to be honest about institutionalized racial inequality. The problem is that most of us are too institutionalized to notice it, care about it or feel empowered to confront it.

Part of the job description of The Administrative Negro is that they should be afraid to be seen eating lunch with people like me. They are also instructed by their controllers and even each other to be afraid to take a stand on any issue that adversely affects African Americans (especially the poor – you should have seen the reaction I received when I suggested bringing in a Finance Speaker to talk about the real and disturbing Financial Incentives of the Prison Industrial Complex). They are afraid to work together to confront racial exclusion, such as the statistical and undeniable reality that many academic departments have gone over 100 years without granting tenure to a single person of color. They all experience and empirically document racism in the classroom, but are intimidated into not talking about it. We quietly accept it when our non-black colleagues send us away with our tails between our legs, telling us that our work in the Black community does not make us worthy of a position at their institution. We then sit at faculty meetings the following spring, as someone explains that there are no employees of color because Black people are simply unqualified. We thus become walking anecdotes for the research papers that cite how Black faculty marginalization occurs on predominantly white campuses, and why most Black students never have a Black professor unless they take a course in African American studies. So, rather than seizing the opportunity to make the world a better place, we create the same world over and over again. Dr. King’s dream will never be realized if we continue to remain asleep.

I never became a Black public scholar without knowing the consequences. Call me a cynic, but I’ve known to not expect people to be brave in a world where freedom isn’t free. I’ve never expected people to be loyal or to do the right thing. I’ve never expected academia to reward me for this kind of work and I’ve never expected to be anyone’s chairman, dean or provost. I’ve always known that the predominantly white media slaughters Black men like me, and that this kind of work might cost me my career or quite possibly even my life. I let go of my addictions to money and institutional status that keep many of us perpetually enslaved. I let go of the need to win any popularity contests.

As a result of these tradeoffs, I found myself very comfortable making the sacrifices that other people are afraid to make. Being an expert in Finance and risk-taking, I can say that I am no more courageous than anyone else. Sometimes, it’s not as much about being courageous as it is about putting yourself in a position where it is easy to take the risk. A financially secure person with no kids and no addictions to money or status can be far more courageous than someone with a mortgage, major debts and an addiction to money while seeking promotion, awards and other forms of validation from their historical oppressors. I also found that marginalization, while being a lost opportunity for my campus, was actually quite liberating. The marginalized faculty member is not worried about losing political points, and doesn’t care a whole lot what other people think. So, in many ways, my rejection from mainstream academia was a blessing, because I could then spend my life seeking truth. The greatest compliment I’ve ever received came from the daughter of the Great Syracuse alum Jim Brown, who said, “You are what my father would call a ‘free black man’”.

That was one of the greatest days of my life.


Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: