#DiversityinHigherEd – Racial exclusions in scholarly citations

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month. This post is borrowed from Conditionally Accepted.

The Racial Politics of Citation

 By Victor Ray

Citation is political. Since Richard Delgado’s groundbreaking article “The Imperial Scholar,” critical race theorists have been interested in how the politics of citation shape both disciplinary knowledge and the career trajectories of scholars of color. Delgado argued that racial exclusion deeply shaped legal scholarship on African-American civil rights. Top (white) civil rights scholars tended to rely upon a closed circle of citation that reinforced the very barriers to racial inclusion that their scholarship was ostensibly designed to undermine. Delgado identified potential problems introduced to legal scholarship by racially biased citation. White civil rights scholars may have a different set of interests than scholars of color, subtly influencing their reasoning. Or white scholars may be inadequate defenders of the rights of people of color.

Racially biased citations patterns are by no means limited to law. Scholars have also noted the deep racial inequality in disciplines such as philosophy and the history of anthropology. And sociologists, for their part, have recently turned their attention to the how racial exclusion has shaped their discipline, as reflected in the omission of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory from the sociological canon, the minimization of racism in empirical findings, and much more. Just this week, a group of communications scholars analyzed citation patterns over the last 10 years. Looking at 12 journals, the authors found that scholars of color remain undercited and are less likely to serve on editorial boards.

Much of the bias in citation patterns may be unintentional, as a path of dependency is built into them that reflects, reproduces and legitimates racial inequality. Inequality is reflected through a veneration of the classics. In the social sciences and humanities, many of these works were written during a period when racial and gender exclusion was simply expected and taken for granted. What counts as canonical is shaped by who had access to existing knowledge and the tools and institutional resources to produce new knowledge.

Inequality is reproduced (and whiteness is institutionalized) by citation patterns as earlier periods of overt exclusion are legitimated by an almost ritualistic citation of certain thinkers. Finally, this process is legitimated when citation metrics are interpreted as simply meritorious, rather than shaped by explicit racial exclusion. For instance, on Twitter, I saw this list of the most influential sociological books of the 20th century. It is, as far as I can tell, a list of all white men. The discipline of sociology is interested in processes of racial, gender and class exclusion. Yet our citation practices may end up replicating the same types of social closure and status seeking that we condemn elsewhere.

The racial politics of citation have real effects. Citations draw our attention to the ideas that supposedly matter, they are a measure of one’s intellectual influence and they shape what we are able to think about a given field. Citations, or a lack thereof, bolster reputations and facilitate or exclude one from subsequent opportunities. Segregated scholarly networks impoverish knowledge and produce what Jennifer C. Mueller, a sociologist at Skidmore College, calls a type of white ignorance about race. Data showing that scholars of color are underrepresented in publications, citation rates or other venues can be explained away as the personal failings of unproductive researchers rather than the result of systematic exclusion. That allows whites to maintain a type of studied ignorance that furthers racial dominance and forecloses potentially valuable avenues of intellectual inquiry. Beyond this, biased citation patterns are simply bad for the accumulation of knowledge.

When I think about citation patterns, and the politics of peer review more broadly, I am often reminded that the Black Panthers argued black people in the United States were never tried by a jury of their peers. White people nearly always controlled access to jury pools. In many disciplines, peer review, access to publishing opportunities and suggestions on whose work should be cited must pass through white gatekeepers. Intentionally or not, strong evidence shows that bias can inform the types of research that is considered valid and worthy of citation. Like the recent calls for inclusion riders in Hollywood to ensure minority representation, scholars and editors should take proactive measures to make sure researchers are citing relevant work by underrepresented scholars.

I anticipate objections to this argument, being that I am advocating for a form of affirmative action or that citations are an objective measure of intellectual worth. But objecting to the need to cite more scholars of color on these grounds is simply wrongheaded. First, if affirmative action is a policy of intervention aimed at lessening historical and current racial inequalities, it is hard to argue that academe has sufficiently addressed these issues. Higher education, despite some representational inroads, remains a white institutional space, with highly racialized patterns of access, resources and rewards. If advocating for a more racially balanced pattern of citation is unfavorable treatment, there are a lot of white scholars out there who have greatly benefited from such treatment.

Second, this history of racial exclusion in academe makes it difficult to claim that citation patterns are neutral measures. Like teaching evaluations and tenure reviews, patterns of citation are influenced by the long — and continuing — history of unequal racial power in the academy.


Photo of Victor RayVictor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared in Newsweek, Boston Review, and Gawker. He is the editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized academics. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.


This post originally appeared in Conditionally Accepted, a column of Inside Higher Ed, on April 27, 2018.


#DiversityinHigherEd – Mentors and role models

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month. This post is borrowed from Conditionally Accepted.

Defying the Odds

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

In physics, we have hierarchies: between particle physics and everyone else; between theorists and experimentalists. It’s a nasty business and business as usual. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s just one African-American (genderqueer) woman Ph.D. who does theoretical particle physics or its holistic cousin, cosmology — me. Black men are slightly more common, at a count of about five. None of us were expected to be here.

I have two origin stories as a theoretical physicist. When I was 10, my mum took me to see Errol Morris’s documentary about Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Going in I didn’t want to be there, halfway through I wanted to solve problems that Einstein hadn’t, and by the end I had decided to become a theoretical physicist. Not long after, one of Hawking’s graduate students explained to me by email that doing so required: going to a first-class university, getting a first-class degree and entering a first-class Ph.D. program. I started planning. I was from the ghetto, but I was going to attend Harvard or Caltech.

Nine years later, I was just months away from my graduation from Harvard College. I had chosen Harvard over Caltech because I didn’t want to be the only black woman in my graduating year. That decision was the first of many I would make because of my ascribed identity and how people made me feel about it. By the time I was nearing my Harvard graduation, I knew I was going to graduate school, but I had applied in astronomy and not physics and with the plan of doing exoplanet phenomenology, not theoretical cosmology and particles. Why? Harvard had taught me that physics departments were cruel places where girls from the ghetto didn’t belong. Scientists at the Center for Astrophysics were more welcoming.

I had gotten the message early and often: people like me don’t become particle theorists. According to one person, people with grades like mine didn’t become theorists, and I had noticed that the people with grades unlike mine were so unlike me in fundamental ways. They had parents who were Ph.D.s, they came from upper-middle-class households, they went to schools that could afford to offer Advanced Placement BC calculus classes, whereas I taught the course to myself. When I looked at who was excelling in advanced courses that all theorists needed to take, they were almost all one of two things, and usually both: male and white.

When I wrote to Hawking, I said nothing about being a little black and Jewish girl from the East Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, but Harvard taught me that these ascribed identities set me apart, priming me to take my place on the “wrong” end of what Joseph Martin calls “prestige asymmetry.” So, when I wrote to prospective graduate advisers, I took a chance and mentioned my background, hoping someone wanted to help me succeed. One of them was Edmund Bertschinger, an esteemed theoretical astrophysicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Professor Bertschinger wrote back and told me that a black mathematician and theoretical physicist was visiting MIT that year, and he encouraged me to email Professor Arlie Petters. I looked up Professor Petters and learned that he was, like my mom, a West Indian. My second origin story begins with meeting Professor Petters, the first black professor of theoretical physics I had ever met. Petters asked me if I was planning to take his graduate course in general relativity at MIT. I gasped before informing him that people like me don’t pass classes like that. Nonsense, he said. I would take his class, and whenever I had a question I would show up at his office. I gave up arguing, got my cross-registration form signed and began to commute to MIT. I was the only woman, the only undergrad and certainly the only black person in the class. But I thrived, eventually going into the final exam with the highest grade in the class.

By the time Professor Petters insisted I attend the 2003 National Society of Black Physicists meeting with him, I was changing. I was into general relativity’s beautiful mathematical artifice and hungry for more. I still believed that this excitement could never be a foundation for a career, but I had also stopped thinking about it so much. At NSBP, room after room was full of black physics students, the majority from historically black colleges and universities, which were at the time the dominant producers of black bachelor’s degrees in physics. But equally importantly, there were black physics professors everywhere, including a few speakers in three sessions about cosmology and gravity. I went to all of those sessions, learning that, contrary to what I had been told, it was possible to make particle physics and cosmology accessible to undergraduates. A vision began to coalesce in my mind.

After the last session I approached Howard University professor James Lindesay. I was nervous, but the environment made me feel more confident. “I really enjoyed your talk,” I told him. “I’m taking GR right now. If I want to do what you do, what should I take next?” I expected him to ask me about my grades, to check whether I was worth talking to and whether I belonged at all. Lindesay responded so differently from what I had come to expect: “That’s wonderful. If you’re taking GR now, then next you will need to take quantum field theory.”

Professor Lindesay eviscerated a stereotype that was holding me back: I thought quantum field theory was for white boys, not me. In that moment, because I so admired him, I believed him when he believed in me. I realized I could become a theoretical physicist.

Today I am a theoretical physicist (or astrophysicist, depending on whom you ask). Because of the significant role it played in my life, NSBP has been my primary site of service to the physics community, as chair of the Cosmology and Gravity Committee for over 10 years and as co-chair of the 600-person conference in 2011. Doing this volunteer work helped keep me on the path during the many sexist and racist bumps I ran into on my path to becoming and existing as a theoretical astro/physicist. It also helped me see the powerful, ongoing importance of HBCUs like Professor Lindesay’s Howard University.

HBCU physics departments are the foundation that any African-American physicist stands on. Even as they shrink in number today, they care for black students in ways that schools like Harvard do not. Spelman College remains the top producer of black women — nationally — who go on to Ph.D.s in STEM. It is HBCUs that have valued black physicists enough to hire us as faculty, holistically recognizing the significance of our existence as well as our research and service, rather than narrowly defining success via impact factor and publication rate.

Black faculty, like black lives, matter. Black students don’t just attend HBCUs, and black students at predominantly white institutions deserve the kind of support that a professor like James Lindesay provides. Duke University students are lucky to have Professor Petters and two other black faculty members. But such groupings are incredibly rare — most physics departments have no black faculty, and no university in North America has a black woman professor of particle or cosmology theory. Faculty wishing to diversify academe regularly complain to me that particle/cosmology theorists act as gatekeepers during admissions and hiring, accepting only very high GRE scores and grade point averages, requiring more significant course preparation and refusing to budge on publication metrics, regardless of other contributions. Those faculty block people like me from ever getting admitted, much less hired. Even if I never become a professor, one day a black woman particle theorist will. And then another. What about two at the same time? Imagine the doors they will smash wide-open, changing the face of physics and what we know about the universe.


Photo of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein presenting her talk "Making a Universe With Axions."Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a postdoctoral research associate in the department of physics at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on the intersection of cosmology and particle physics, with a specific focus on dark matter and the structure of space-time. She is also principal investigator on a grant to study the impact on science of excluding black and Native women from physics.

This post originally appeared in Conditionally Accepted, a column of Inside Higher Ed, on March 9, 2018.

Media mergers and empty promises for Latina/os

By Jason A. Smith and Randy Abreu

In early March, ahead of the 2018 Oscars, the National Hispanic Media Coalition staged a protest citing the lack of Latina/o representation among the nominees and the media landscape more broadly. The cultural struggles of media exclusion are well-worn, but a central part of these struggles is the role of media policy.

In 2011, a merger between Comcast and NBC Universal was approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on multiple conditions that upheld consumers’ rights. For Latina/os, these conditions meant the company would provide opportunities for communities of color and establish minority channels.

As media consolidation in the United States has become more common, so too have social movement groups that work to challenge these mergers. In the United States, the FCC is the governmental agency where most of the initial merger-related battles take place; Latina/os have been engaged in these battles for the last thirty years. As part of their struggles, they have had to adapt and work within policy spaces to advance the concerns of Latina/os over media representation and participation.

In recent work, we reflect on the time period in which Comcast sought approval of the merger, and demonstrate how the process left Latina/o communities with nothing more than broken promises. As the conditions of Comcast’s merger are set to expire this September, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division at the end of 2017 urging the agency to investigate the anti-consumer behavior of Comcast since its merger. If these conditions are set to potentially undergo further scrutiny, critical attention should be placed on memorandum of understandings (MOUs) and the role of racialization in the policy-making process.

MOUs are voluntary

When the Comcast/NBCU merger was approved by the FCC, promises were made to ensure that the merger would meet the agency’s public interest standard related to diversity in the media landscape. In a MOU with Latina/o organizations, Comcast promised to focus on increased visibility of Latina/o s in multiple areas such as corporate governance, workforce, procurement of third-party services, programming, and philanthropy. As approval of the merger was being sought at the FCC, these focus areas were consistently used by Comcast to make their case to the regulator. Certain Latina/o organizations even cited the MOU in their meetings with FCC officials, urging the agency to approve the merger.

As MOUs are voluntary formal agreements between two or more parties, they do not hold any enforceable legislative power. “Voluntary” then, becomes the key measure of the agreements made between Comcast and Latina/o organizations. When the FCC approved the merger, some of the commissioners praised the voluntary commitments that were reached, however the agency did not adapt the language or essence of the MOU into its formal conditions. By failing to include the agreements set forth in the MOU as enforceable standards to meet scrutiny, the FCC fundamentally set up a scenario in which Comcast had no obligation to support diversifying the media landscape.

Racializing media policy 

Briefly stated, racialization refers to a political process in which interest groups struggle for policy outcomes framed through racial categories. The MOU served as a conduit for racialization, as the overt labeling of and requests by Latina/os played a role in the FCC’s approval of the merger. For Comcast, the MOU reflected the economic interests of the company, utilizing the categorical label of “Latina/o” to demonstrate its focus on diversity. The company’s two Latina/o -channels were additionally framed as part of their media portfolios, leveraging content from their other holdings to be sold to Latina/o audiences – largely reflecting a recycling of content rather than producing new, Latina/o -led content.

Latina/o organizations were also constrained by the language and subject of the MOU. As it was framed under the economic interests of Comcast, Latina/o leaders adopted some of the same interests that benefited Comcast in the long-run. This power imbalance over the MOU being set on Comcast’s terms reflects how structural inequalities regarding race are perpetuated, in which communities of color are left with the short-end of the stick. Once Comcast was able to have Latina/o organizations sign-on to the merger, it utilized a race-conscious categorization to show a commitment to diversity, all the while never following through on those commitments.

In a 2016 report assessing the aftermath of the merger, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University found that Comcast failed to incorporate Latina/os behind the camera, stereotyped portrayals increased in its film and television productions, and Latina/o leaders within the company were segregated and paid less.

Media representation and participation are increasingly becoming hot-button topics that demonstrate how policy is tied to our everyday culture. Policy scholars and practitioners in this field should critically take up the concept of racialization toward future debates regarding ownership – particularly when media mergers are on the table (as the AT&T/Time Warner merger currently is) and MOUs are used as tools to push legislative approval. If Comcast undergoes federal scrutiny when its conditions expire, then lawmakers should employ these perspectives when deciding what is valuable for its citizens.

This article is based on the paper “MOU or an IOU? Latina/os and the Racialization of Media Policy,” currently available open-access at Ethnic & Racial Studies. This post originally appeared in the London School of Economics USAPP blog on March 30, 2018. http://bit.ly/2pTjJ7r