The networks and hidden procedures that keep discrimination alive in academia

12 July 2020, 0652 EDT

This is the third post in our series on Race&IR.

This is a guest post from Carla Norrlöf and Cheng Xu. Carla Norrlöf is an associate professor at the University of Toronto. Her research is in international relations and international political economy with a focus on US hegemony, great power politics and liberal international order. Follow here at @CarlaNorrlof

Cheng Xu is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. His research is in international relations and comparative politics with a focus on insurgencies and civil wars. He’s a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces with over nine years of service.

George Floyd’s murder was another in a long series of acts of police brutality against black men. His death upended complacency, silence, and fatigue about racism, propelling people to protest against discrimination in the middle of a deadly pandemic. The Black Lives Matter movement may be the largest in US history.

The conversation about racism has reached academia with hashtags such as #Blackintheivory. This moment has spurred scholars to ask trenchant questions about the links between foreign policy and militarization of police forces. Many scholars have pointed to the racist legacy of IR theory and the way it informs how we study IR today. This dialogue is important and political scientists certainly recognize it as such.

We also see scholars in other disciplines shining a bright light on discriminatory practices, raising questions of how the discipline itself contributes to systemic racism.  They ask white scholars to do their own work to become anti-racist and to stop gaslighting scholars who have the courage to spotlight racist practices.

How International is International Relations?

Up until now, however, international relations scholars have largely remained silent about racism in academia. Of course, some brave voices, notably our late colleague and friend, Professor Lee Ann Fujii, spoke about the corrosive effects of racism on this blog. She railed against how white supremacy is reproduced through institutions of higher learning, leading to wrong questions and answers on important issues. Today, her commentary would be welcome syllabus material, but just three years ago, it was initially rejected for inclusion in a graduate level IR course, and could only be inserted in the second term. Lee Ann was ahead of the curve and understood the Sisyphean and dangerous fight against racism in academia.

Many assume higher education is inherently anti-racist for several reasons. First, universities in every corner of the world claim to champion diversity, blitzing us with news about their commitment to equity and inclusion. Second, while universities champion freedom of speech, they decry hateful, racist language. Third, they sell colorblind meritocracy as a vehicle for change.

So, what’s the problem? Three features particular to academia stand in the way of meaningful progress. First, we observe inadequate transparency on committees responsible for journal submissions and editorial boards, hiring, awards, honors, which normalize racial biases under the veil of confidentiality and impartiality, creating a professional minefield for black scholars. Second, we also see informal power structures in many academic departments and in academia writ large empower gatekeepers who mistake privilege for merit. Third, academic administrators tend to sweep issues of racial discrimination under the rug and to support each other rather than give grievances a full and fair hearing. Taken together, these obstacles allow those who preach but do not practice inclusion to use racism opportunistically and strategically, perpetuating the very problems they profess to abhor.

While we see universities abandoning overt forms of discriminatory practices and paying lip-service to diversity and equity, we get a system where the true levers of power are as out of reach to black academics as ever. Not surprisingly, black academics are systematically underrepresented in hierarchies of power. A set of Department of Education data show that only 6% of full-time faculty positions are held by black academics, with only 4% holding the rank of full professor. According to the American Political Science Association, black scholars represent 4.47% in political science. Disaggregated by subfield, they account for 7.69% in American Politics, 3.02% in Comparative Politics, 3.63% in International Politics, 2.33% in Methodology, 1.81% in Political Philosophy and Theory, 5.11% in Public Administration, 5.47% in Public Law & Courts, 5.56% in Public Policy. Statistics for the number of black faculty are available here.

Principles, Norms, Rules and Decision-Making Procedures

So, here are the “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge”, and normalize racist practices, and the experiences many have shared through #Blackintheivory seem all too familiar.

Opaque Processes

First of all, the fundamental processes that determine our career trajectories occur behind closed doors with select power brokers whose identities remain concealed. Double-blind peer review is extremely problematic: claiming impartiality while accomplishing just the opposite. The availability of CVs and conference presentations on the web renders author anonymity difficult to achieve. Not everyone tries to use the world wide web to find out who the author is, but some people brag “they automatically reject papers if they do not know the author”. Before papers reach peer review, scholars in collaborative networks receive loads of valuable feedback. Even if editors are not trying to game the system when sending work out for review, some of the referees are likely to have seen the paper before, whether at a conference, an invited talk or over social media etc. Despite a lot of excellent work being published, the printed material is not uniformly excellent because not all work is held to the same standards when it comes to publishability.

Networks increase the likelihood that the well-connected are likely to get valuable feedback and, eventually, a pass in peer review. If you’re an insider you have incentives to signal your identity. Outsiders have little recourse but to hope for the best. There is very little reflection about this fundamental asymmetry in political science, and the discipline itself encourages these types of behaviors. In fact, alerting an editor to problems with a particular reviewer or a network only makes the editor more inclined to send the paper to that particular reviewer or network. STEM is acutely aware of these problems. Compounding this problem, once published, minorities receive less recognition for producing innovative work than do majority groups. Even worse, is that minority theorists are often plagiarized, and also accused of plagiarism. The prestigious and possibly the most widely read journal in the world, Nature, has issued a statement acknowledging its responsibility for “bias in research and scholarship” and proposed ways to reduce bias in peer review.

Network Effects and Externalities

Second, systemic obstacles to black scholars also extend into professional networks that determine career prospects. Black scholars are underrepresented in editorial teams and boards, leadership positions in university administrations and professional associations, in the ranks of peer reviewers, and as authors in the pages of top journals, some of which are notorious (as one former prominent journal editor put it) for being “just a group of friends.” This phenomenon has been aptly dubbed “citation cartel” and is systematically biased against non-white scholars, jeopardizing innovation and knowledge formation, the standard against which all scholarship should be held.

Similar confidential procedures are used for awards, research funding, faculty hiring and promotion. Given the significance of awards for our careers it is truly mind-blowing that all you really need to win an award is a letter from a friend plus a few friends on the committee. The well-connected get in and rise quickly, effectively creating a caste system. We’ve personally seen white faculty promoted on their potential, and we have vivid experiences of being held back in spite of our accomplishments. Despite our department’s best effort to use Lee Ann Fujii’s passing to perform diversity allyship, she was vocal about the unequal recognition afforded faculty achievement.

What all this adds up to is a beneficial cycle of publications, citations, awards, funding and promotion for one group. To concretize this, ISA’s Annual Best Book Award has never gone to a black scholar (and to one minority). Never mind the ISA’s Distinguished Scholar Awards where a generational effect is in play, even the ones going to scholars under 40 such as the Karl Deutsch award or which recognize “intellect, assertiveness, and insight” the Susan Strange award includes no black scholar (one minority scholar). ISA’s full list of awards (not all have past recipients) is here.

Discrimination & Impunity

Those trying to do the right thing by calling out inequities and pushing for change must weigh career risk against promoting the public good. Even as we write these words, we are well aware of the risks, but have built resilience absorbing them. At best, complaints fall on deaf ears, but often, speaking up results in ostracism. Why that is the case is unsurprising. This brings us to the third obstacle, illustrated by the following hypothetical: imagine the uproar and indignation were we to have only black administrators, or committees, deciding on the merits of a discrimination case. The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume a rigged case against the alleged discriminator. This is not unlike the assumptions behind disqualifying black officers from guarding the disgraced Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. But scholars do not make analogous assumptions about the integrity of all-white administrators and committees determining alleged discriminatory practices. All-white committees are often assumed capable of impartially interpreting evidence of discrimination, despite not understanding the problem and being shown to be partial interpreters of the evidence.

When charges of discrimination surface, the central tendency of administrators and committee members is to circle the wagons. Add up all the years we have spent opposing discrimination, time we could have used to further our careers, and consider the abuse we’ve suffered along the way–you’d have to be out of your mind to think someone would dedicate resources to launch FALSE claims. We did not come to academia expecting these illiberal practices. Sure, different interpretations of what counts as discrimination exist, and some forms are definitely more subtle. In the death by a thousand cuts syndrome each seemingly small transgression is endemic and cumulates over time. This seems to be well understood for gender discrimination where there is a lower bar for micro-aggressions, for example at the ISA.  Even with bigger transgressions the balance of evidence is often deemed insufficient to find misconduct, as with the 18 complaints that were dismissed before Chauvin murdered George Floyd.

This reality leaves victims of prejudice and discrimination marginalized and silenced and deter future victims from coming forward.

The net effect is energy expended on protecting the accused of damaging reputational effects with no thought whatsoever given to how the discriminatory behavior and supposedly “false” accusations damage the accuser’s reputation. Instead, black scholars often face retribution, victimization, exclusion and possibly lawsuits for supposed defamatory allegations of discrimination. Black scholars may be underrepresented in full-time academic positions, but they are grossly overrepresented among the ranks of “troublemakers.” We can therefore trace a direct line between racist policing against blacks and the racially biased disciplining of children in schools, which follows them into higher education through the disproportionate disciplining of both black university students as well as faculty.

Now what?

Breaking this vicious cycle is a dismal challenge. Networks are vastly more powerful in the ivory tower than elsewhere. In the private sector, corporations are accountable to their shareholders and customers. They cannot afford to sweep controversy under the rug. By contrast, faculties are shielded by tenure and the plausible deniability afforded by the confidentiality of personnel files, committee deliberations, and peer-review processes.

To be sure, there exist faculty who are champions of change, wonderful mentors, and vocal proponents of diversity and inclusion. They are as heroic as they are needed. But we have seen too many cases where their efforts are written off or backfire. It is disheartening to hear water cooler gossip about a senior white male professor supporting a job candidate “only because of the color of her skin,” or dismissing a junior colleague as someone “not hired on merit.”

There are no easy fixes. Cultures of racism are notoriously difficult to root out. But the #MeToo movement has demonstrated the power of transparency, and the recent dramatic normative shift in favour of #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of Ahmaud Arbery, Amy Cooper, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks offers hope that public pressure can lead to soul-searching and normative change among those traditionally shielded from scrutiny by their privilege.

Before George Floyd’s death was caught on camera, many Americans might have assumed this kind of stuff never happened or rarely happened. Yet, we have multiple instances like this caught on camera which has shaken people’s confidence in the police. Academia, and political science, needs that same mirror held up to it because the view is not pretty. But, the only way to move beyond the status quo is to have a reckoning with the reality that sedimented professional networks and policies in hiring, promotion, publishing, and awards combine to complicate professional advancement for black scholars. It is time for political scientists to wake up and decide which side of history they want to be on.