How many Black scholars does it take to have any Black scholars?

I had a very nice time at the 21st Annual Symposium on Family Issues at Penn State University, where I presented remarks in response to a paper by Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen. The theme of the symposium was “Diverging Destinies,” or the growing differences in family experiences by social class in the US. The event has lots of time for discussion and debate, and much of that focused on poor people and their families, around contested terms such as choices, parenting, behavior, attitudes, orientation, and so on. I had plenty to agree and disagree with, there were lots of good talks, and it was a good conversation.

The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)
The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)

Here are two observations.

The first was a moment when Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution, a long-time member of the welfare policy establishment (his bio describes him as “instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy”), responded to Harvard professor Kathryn Edin’s response to his presentation. She had spent most of her time talking about her new book, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City. For the book, Edin undertook years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, and emerged with a very sympathetic yet sobering description of the poor young men she studied, men who want more than anything to be good fathers — according to the contemporary ideals of both economic provision and emotional togetherness — but for many reasons usually can’t meet their own goals.

When they were both on the dais, Haskins said she was “too optimistic” about her subjects, in describing them as eager to do the right thing for their children. “I know these guys!” he said, before describing some anecdotal experiences from his (apparently distant) personal past. It struck me because it seemed profoundly disrespectful of not only her work, but of her kind of research. Of course ethnographers can do bad studies or misinterpret their data. But I would only discount a serious work of ethnography based on my personal experience if that experience were pretty deep. I suspect Haskins wouldn’t have struck that note if her work had been a quantitative demography, but I could be wrong. (Earlier, I had pointed out that welfare reform failed at its stated goal of making poor single mothers get married, and he countered that it had been successful at getting them to work, so “behavior modification does work” — and we should use that program as a model for future work-mandating reforms.)

Who's on that dais?
Who’s on that dais?

Anyway, the second observation was about the composition of the speakers. None of our 16 speakers this year was Black. When I grumbled about that on Facebook, someone said he felt the same way last year. That got me to check the previous programs. (Each year the organizers of the symposium produce a book from the papers — you can see previous editions here, where the contributors are all listed.) I had to go back to 2008 to find an African American speaker, according to my reading of their photos and bios (which is not the best way to identify race/ethnicity, obviously, so I maybe wrong). Overall, of the last 114 speakers going back to 2007, I think only one was Black.

I don’t know who decides on the topics or the invitations, or how the event has unfolded over time, so I can’t comment on the process or motivations of those involved. But I think this is not good. The symposium is a substantial endeavor, with grant money from various sources. An invitation to speak there is a line on your CV, it comes with a small honorarium and travel expenses, and it’s a chance to network with other family researchers, grant-makers, and policy people. There also are a lot of students attending the talks. So whatever the reasons, it’s a shame more Black scholars haven’t been there.

16 thoughts on “How many Black scholars does it take to have any Black scholars?

  1. Thanks for the commentary; hopefully it is widely read. African American scholars know this all to well. When I shared your comments yesterday with a noted African American scholar, known for their work on families, I was told they had contacted the organizer BEFORE this event and nothing was done. Same goes for citations to our work. White scholars rarely cite Black scholars and it has been going on for a long time
    Earl Smith


  2. With getting women on the dais, a strategy that worked was when MEN said “who are the women you’ve invited?” And when the organizers said “none” then these men said, “well, I can’t attend an event that disrespects the work women have done on this topic.” Funny thing, but then the organizers “found” some women to invite (in one case, that was me) and then men the organizers wanted then also came. After a while, such interventions weren’t needed any more. White scholars can use the same strategy and I’m willing to bet with similar effectiveness.


  3. I agree this is a serious problem. I have found it similarly discouraging at small conferences on the family when the language of multiple partner fertility is used disparagingly by scholars and it always sounded just a little like a code words for poor Black women spoken by upper middle class white scholars.. I’m not saying the issues they were discussing were and are not important, but the conversation would be much richer with a more diverse set of scholars at the table. And those scholars do exist, they just are not usually invited, when the game is “invitation” only. I will say though, we try very hard for this not to happen at the Council on Contemporary Family Conferences!


  4. I went and looked up the program, thanks. Although it doesn’t specifically state it as such, am I reading it right that the Symposium is broken into the categories of, Race, Class & Gender?


  5. The whiteness of family-related panels and their audiences really stood out to me at ASA this year, too. And I wholeheartedly agree with bjrisman. I think the Haskins and Edin conversation you describe is a perfect example of similar racial codes operating in family studies. If the symposium is giving someone like Haskins the authority of an invited speaker, then it really doesn’t surprise me if Black family scholars are completely overlooked by the organizers or otherwise don’t feel welcome.


  6. People are arguing against the whiteness of family-related panels. Why not Latino-ness and Asian-ness? I request the panel to be at least 20% hispanic and 5% Asians, and include 51% women.


    1. I focused on Black scholars intentionally. The conference focused largely issues that involve Black families disproportionately. (In previous years the conference has had a year dedicated to Hispanic families, and a year dedicated to immigration, with some Latino scholars presenting.)


      1. I’m coming to this conversation late, but I wanted to chime in. While the absence of scholars of color and African American scholars in particular is troubling, I wonder if a better question is to what degree was racial stratification, racism, or race related process discussed as driving the dynamics discussed. The lack of Black scholars may reflect a lacking connection between work on racial stratification and work on the family. I’m reflecting on the most recent overview of work on families of color published in JMF by Linda Burton (lead author) in 2011. She frames the work as “the road less travelled” due to putting critical race theory at the center. I wonder to what degree such a perspective was present at the conference. Jenifer


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