There aren’t too many African Americans in higher education.
In fact, black folks only make up about 4 percent of all full time tenured college faculty in America. To put that in context, only 14 out of the 321—that’s about 4 percent—of U.S. astronauts have been African American. So in America, if you’re black, you’ve got about as good a chance of being shot into space as you do getting a job as a college professor.
Like most minorities making their way into previously prohibited professions, black academics are often subject to more scrutiny, evaluation and criticism than most other faculty, even other faculty of color. Sometimes that scrutiny is just plain old racism, and sometimes it is warranted, because people screw up. Saida Grundy the Professor whose “racist” tweets have made her the poster child for ivory tower liberal excess actually screwed up. It’s not a capital offense, but let’s not pretend that she’s the Rosa Parks of academic free speech either.
Dr. Saida Grundy is a recent doctoral graduate from the University of Michigan. Like most people she has a Twitter account. Unlike most people she happens to be an incoming professor of Sociology at Boston University. She essentially got “Brietbarted” by a conservative college blog called “SoCawlege” that scours the internet and the classroom looking for ultra-lefty professors to fuel the never ending myth that higher education is full of a bunch of effete, white, Christian, heterosexual-hating commies.
Grundy, like a lot of other social scientists, journalists and regular folks, gets on Twitter from time to time to rant about politics and culture. That’s where things get dicey. She vented on some tweets, calling college aged white men a “problem population”, railed against the inhuman history of European slavery, white supremacy masquerading as imperialism, Bruce Jenner’s political hypocrisy and just about anything else that crossed her mind. These aren’t tweets taken out of context for Storify, they’re pretty well laid out.
What she wrote was unprofessional, inappropriate and hostile to potential students. But it was not necessarily a fireable offense.
Point of full disclosure here. I’m a college professor, who happens to have a twitter account, and also appears on television, radio, and elsewhere to express opinions and analysis on American politics, elections and political strategy. While my area of expertise is political campaigns and communications, I’ve covered the Zimmerman Trial, unrest in Ferguson, and my college is located outside of Cleveland where Tamir Rice was killed by a local cop.
When I read Dr. Grundy’s Tweets it made me think of that famous Chris Rock routine….”I’m not saying she shoulda done it… but I understand.” Her anger, and frustration at certain political events over the last several years are felt by many Americans of all colors, classes and genders. At the same time, I and she, and the other 4 percent out there owe it to our profession, our students and yes our employers to remain credible and professional in any public statements (or recordable statements) that we might make.
There are plenty of instances of academics of color being harassed by students who don’t want to hear racial truths and politics. But this isn’t one of those times. Dr. Grundy wasn’t on a panel, or engaging in an academic discussion, nor was she exposed in a recording of a private conversation. This is how Dr. Grundy really feels and she chose to share that publicly and forgot to use her ‘inside voice’ online. Now there should be serious consequences.
This is not a matter of free speech or academic freedom, Dr. Gundy said some racist and likely factually incorrect things online. If a white female professor tweeted:
“If blacks in Baltimore would stop gang banging and having babies out of wedlock maybe they wouldn’t riot”
People would want her head and no African American student in their right mind would take her classes ever again even if she apologized. If there’s one thing social media has demonstrated this week, it’s not hard to create a racially hostile learning environment. Even if the ‘devil made you do it.’
It was right for Saida Grundy to apologize for her tweets, and it was right for Boston University to publicly criticize, but not fire her. Saying something racist isn’t an immediately fire-able offense. However Boston University, for their own legal protection will probably be watching her like a hawk, and Dr. Grundy’s given the college all the bullets needed to shoot down any future tenure dreams she may have.
She’s also opened the door for every little wannabe conservative fanboy to take her class in the hopes of provoking her into some other damning statements or actions. My hope is that she has learned her lesson and has a long, successful career tackling complicated race and class issues in America. But if she can’t keep her cool there’s always astronaut school. In space, nobody can hear you tweet.
This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.