Does Sociology Silence Black Women?

By Adia Harvey Wingfield

If there’s one thing sociologists enjoy doing, its debating our relevance in academia and in society writ large. This focus isn’t completely surprising; after all, we study social institutions and think in terms of group outcomes. And like most academics, we want our work to matter. But as sociologists continue to wrestle with how we can make the significance of our work evident in an increasingly complex world, it’s worth thinking about which groups we include and who gets left out of our discussions.

Aldon Morris’s landmark study of the historical contributions W.E.B. DuBois made to sociology has changed the field. No longer can we uncritically assume that the University of Chicago housed the first American school of sociology. Rather, Morris’s painstaking research goes to show that “the first school of scientific sociology in the United States was founded by a black professor located in a historically black university in the south.” This is undoubtedly an important and critical contribution to understanding how our discipline emerged, its foundational roots, and perhaps more significantly, the sort of structural processes that served to marginalize black sociologists from the field’s origins. But it should also raise questions about whether those processes still persist, and which other sociologists might be missing from our dialogues and conversations.

While Morris’s work has been essential for changing our conversations about sociology’s roots, we have yet to produce the same type of rigorous, systematic study of black women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Zora Neale Hurston, and Anna Julia Cooper. Like DuBois, these women wrote during a time period where black scholarship, writing, and research was incredibly difficult to produce. Yet they developed sociological analyses that emphasized intersections of race, gender, and class; examined structural constraints within black communities that marginalized black women, rural blacks, and poor blacks; and assessed how violent tools of social control like lynching perpetuated gendered racism.  These black women were also early originators of sociological arguments and knowledge. Yet systemic racism and patriarchal norms limited the extent to which their analyses were widely disseminated and/or taken seriously.

Where are black women sociologists today? The ASA reports that between 2007-2010, only 6% of doctorates awarded in sociology went to African Americans. In 2016, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, only 31 black women received theirs in sociology. A look at the representation of black women in tenure track and tenured academic positions reveals an ongoing trend of underrepresentation. Only 2% of full professors, 2% of associates, and 4% of assistant professors are black women. And these numbers represent academia overall. In sociology specifically, of the top 100 sociology departments, as of 2012 women (of all races) were 60% of assistant professors, 54% of associates, and 34% of fulls. I was unable to find data that took an intersectional approach to examine race and gender (which is itself a problem), but my sense is that black women are likely underrepresented among the top ranks of academic jobs in various universities, where they would have the most influence, reach, and impact.

Where we do see black women gaining traction in academia is, unfortunately, among contingent and adjunct faculty. As universities have increasingly conformed to a more neoliberal model of shifting academic work to low-paying workers who lack the benefits and security of tenure-track jobs, black women are becoming increasingly present among the ranks of the least secure academic positions.

What does this mean for the development of sociological thought? For one thing, it means that we are likely still missing out on important insights and knowledge. The reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty perpetuates economic insecurity and certainly does not establish conditions conducive to research and writing. When black women are primarily making inroads into the least secure positions in the university hierarchy, they are not in a safe or comfortable position to conduct research, much less inform sociological paradigms. They are not necessarily even in a position to do the most effective teaching, as at least some contingent faculty have argued that this work arrangement leaves them uncertain if their positions will be renewed, overburdened with too-heavy teaching loads, and without the (relative) security and academic freedom that tenure provides.

What about black women who do land tenure or at least tenure-track positions? The kinds of challenges that are omnipresent for black women workers in predominantly white environments are present for them too—marginalization, micro (or macro) aggressions, difficulties finding mentors and sponsors who can facilitate their career advancement. As academics, black women professors also must confront colleagues’ tendencies to denigrate or dismiss their research (this is particularly present in the inclination to label work that focuses on race and/or gender as “me”search). There are also the heavy service burdens that come with being underrepresented, ranging from mentoring students of color to helping universities resolve their issues with diversity and inclusion. And there is the particular irony of working in a profession where many colleagues study systemic patterns of inequality, but still rely on racial stereotypes and assumptions to justify their reluctance about hiring black faculty. What all of this means is that the barriers that sidelined sociological thinkers like Wells-Barnett, Hurston, and Cooper during their lives still persist today. While the barriers black women face in academia today are less overt than in the past, these hurdles still prevent sociology from being a discipline that encourages black women to vocalize their insights and to operate as fully active participants in shaping this field.

As President of Sociologists for Women in Society, I wrote my Presidential Address about the ways that black women are changing work, politics, and media in ways that other groups would do well to learn from and emulate. Sociology, as a discipline, is growing more diverse and is in a period of reexamining its historical roots and origins. We would do well to consider how and where black women sociologists fall in this process.

Adia Harvey Wingfield is Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research examines how and why racial and gender inequality persists in professional occupations. Dr. Wingfield has lectured internationally on her research in this area, and her work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals including Social Problems, Gender & Society, and American Behavioral Scientist. She recently completed a term as President of Sociologists for Women in Society, a national organization that encourages feminist research and social change, and is a regular contributor to Slate, The Atlantic, and Harvard Business Review. Professor Wingfield is the author of several books, most recently Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy, and is the recipient of the 2018 Public Understanding of Sociology award from the American Sociological Association.

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