What We’re Reading: The Role of Higher Education in Institutional Racism

illustration by Clare Reid

So many of us are doing rigorous individual work to become more effective antiracists in our relationships and in our courses. As we do so, we also need to examine the crucial role that institutions play in the perpetuation of racism. That includes institutions of higher education; we know that very well here at Georgetown University. Indeed, as Craig Steven Wilder argues in his 2013 book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, slavery and racism were foundational to the formation of higher education in the United States. In turn, our oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities were foundational to the formation of racist ideologies that still plague us today.

As MIT historian Wilder thoroughly documents, schools in the Ivy League and beyond were established largely on money derived from the enslavement of Africans, not to mention the forced physical labor that literally built many campuses. Once founded, these institutions were only able to grow and develop because of a dependence on that same money and labor. Trustees, administrators, and donors were drawn heavily from the slaveholding class. Enslaved human beings worked for students, faculty, and for schools.

Furthermore, these colleges and universities were the birthplace of a great deal of white supremacist ideology. It is now widely accepted that race is not a biologically meaningful category—but American academia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the epicenter of a burgeoning “race science” approach to the social world. The results of this were, and are, a society in which constructed categories of race certainly have profound effects on a person’s life.

So, what does a book like this mean to us in our current work as faculty? First of all, I think it’s important to understand the roots of the schools we work in, in part so we can look for ways that those roots are still present in our assumptions, policies, traditions, structures, and more—and so that we can challenge all of this. Second, this analysis shows the way that finances can direct the values of an institution, and reminds us to be alert to how that may be happening around us even now. Third—and for me this is a hopeful note—Wilder’s book reminds me that higher education can be an extremely powerful force for shaping society. History readily provides examples of this playing out in brutal ways. If our goal is antiracism, we’ll need to guide and rework these institutions in order to direct their power toward the greater good.