The Express Path to Racial Equality
By Dr. Boyce Watkins
“The Express” is a new film featuring the great Ernie Davis, one of the most amazing college athletes in American History and the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. He was also a football player for Syracuse University, the campus on which I teach.
I watched the trailer for the film with pride, feeling good about this man and what he accomplished. I saw all the ads, the banners around campus, the website pictures and other excitement as the city prepared for the film’s premiere. I then had a couple of thoughts.
First, I thought about the residual impact of historical racism. Most of the time, when liberal universities talk about racism, the context is one in which racism is something that happened “back then”, and “we are all better now”. The conversation is one of (relatively justifiable) celebration for just how far our nation has come in the fight for social justice.
What is most ironic about this analysis is that it forgets one important fact: the past is not something that existed once and then disappeared. The past is all around us. The present and past CANNOT be disconnected because the present is created by the past, and the past consistently manifests itself in the social infrastructure of our institutions. For example, in the days of Ernie Davis (not that long ago), African Americans were rarely allowed onto my campus (along with many others) and were certainly not allowed to be part of the decision-making bodies of these campuses. This led to a skewed inter-generational transfer of power that reflects itself in the vast degree of (in Georgetown University scholar Christopher Metzler’s words) “academic imperialism” that we see today. If you take a tour of most campuses, you see that there are few Black faces on the faculty, almost none of them tenured…
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