Where Do We Go From Here: On the Future of Black Studies

Kemuel Benyehudah | Education | Analysis | April 20th, 2019

Globalization, immigration and intermarriage have led to contemporary black identity becoming more complex. Black Studies' emphasis on the nationalist perspectives in the discipline may be causing it to limit broader discussions around the black experience. Shockley and Cleveland (2011) exhorts black students to connect to a "larger struggle" rooted in Afrocentrism, but they don't describe the benefits of looking at these emerging trends. As is the case, the discipline faces a number of challenges: 1) How to maintain relevancy within an increasingly neoliberal higher education culture? 2) How to meet the needs of a black student body which has seen its interethnic diversity grow? 3) How to respond to declining Black Studies degrees awarded and subsequent threats of defunding? This paper hopes to learn from these generative questions by critically looking at three trends which are changing black identity.

To address these trends, this paper posits a conceptual framework utilizing epistemic privilege, inquiry, and multiplicity. As Kuhn (1962) argued, a "paradigm shift" occurs when the persons in the field agree on the conceptual model to solve a particular problem. In the past the discipline relied on foregrounding whiteness for analysis and gaining academic integration from the margins (Butler, 2011) whereas today, the field needs to go beyond structuralist binaries in order to address the growing state of hybridity among black students. Schiller (2012) argued that "contemporary identity studies cannot adequately speak to the direct challenges that have begun to emerge" due to globalization (p. 520). Due to rapid changes occurring in the black student community, this paper proposes a reconceptualization of the field of Black Studies.

Why must new black voices rise from the margins in higher education and be heard?

On any given day, multiple conversations are taking place in higher education related to the diverse experiences shaping black-student lives. Often, these interpretations of black experiences originated in black students' lives and then moved to academic disciplines for validation. However, some experiences have not been properly documented and catalogued in the records of higher education. Harding (2004) argued that the conditions of "oppression and marginalization" occur in academic disciplines when there is "unequal access to epistemic resources" to theorize and explain phenomenon (p. 348). Black Studies emerged as a critique of higher education's oppression of black epistemic privileges during the civil rights era (Okafor, 2014). However, for many black students living in the post-civil rights era, the Black Studies nationalist framework offers constraints which make the discipline unappealing. One which stands out, is a perceived lack of sensitivity towards the cultural, social, and historical differences of black students in higher education.

According to Giroux (2004) "despite the growing cultural diversity of students in higher education, there are few examples of curricular sensitivity to the multiplicity of economic, social, and cultural factors bearing on students' lives" (p. 101). Black students falling outside of the historical lineage of the Black Studies discipline may not see themselves in the traditional scholarship and may choose not to enroll because of this reason. When considering the growing neoliberal agenda of modern universities today, declining Black Studies degrees earned is a vector that the discipline can ill afford to cast aside as irrelevant (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2014). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2011 - 2015) the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in Black Studies fell by 37% percent between 2010-11 and 2014-15, while the number of master's degrees dropped by 32%.

Table 1. Trends in Black Studies Degrees Awarded: 2010-11 to 2014-15






One Year Change


One Year Change








- 22.0%





- 17.0%


+ 4.0%



- 2.0%


- 23.0%



- 2.0%


+ 4.0%

Five-year change

- 37.0%

- 32.0%

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, NCES data 2011-2015

This is problematic since mainstream disciplines rarely apply sustained critical inquiry into systemic racism and the historical forces that have shaped black identity (Jones, 2011). More to the point, supporters of Black Studies argued that racially neutral stances are examples of institutional racism (Phillips, 2010). According to Rojas (2007) black scholars have argued that institutional autonomy is necessary if black students are to be afforded the opportunity to make deeper meaning about their lived experiences. If black students do not have access to "critical communities" that provide them with opportunities to unpack their experiences, then it may be difficult for them to form bonds of trust and solidarity outside of their insider groups (Bettez, 2011). Adding to this point, Douglas (2013) said that the black diaspora includes many subcultures within it and should not oversimplify all people of African descent within one narrative. As such, honoring difference would provide an opportunity for a more robust discussion of blackness in higher education. In the section below, we will look at the particular set of historical circumstances which Black Studies was situated within and discuss how this differs from the post-civil rights era.

Historical overview of Black Studies during the civil right to the post-civil rights era

Before we can enter into a meaningful discussion around Black Studies, it is important to briefly look at the field from an historical context. After the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1896, de jure segregation barred black people from higher education. Until the civil rights era, segregation left black people with very few tertiary options except for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCU's (Allen & Jewell, 2002). The pre-civil rights era didn't close until the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 ended de jure segregation (Smith, 2014). Yet even after this legal victory, black students' experiences were still mostly excluded from the higher education curriculum. Due to de facto segregation in tertiary institutions, black students had no choice but to voice their concerns to higher education professors and administrators.

According to Rogers (2012) "students developed and first presented the Black Studies idea to a group of professors in 1966" (p. 22). However, Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968 helped motivate a conviction in black students to challenge the status quo in higher education (Rojas, 2007). Following this tragic event, the San Francisco State student strike in 1968 was one of the first legitimate attempts to integrate Black Studies into higher education. The documentary Agents of Change (2016) argued that Black Studies' institutionalization at San Francisco State was the Brown vs. the Board of Education moment for black students in higher education. Although San Francisco State's student strike helped integrate the discipline, it also brought the ire of conservatives.

Ever since, Black Studies has been constrained by limited funding opportunities, and an existential preoccupation with fighting back racist practices that pose a threat to the black community. This historical tradition of defining black students within the context of community arose from demand for more inclusive curriculum (Pellerin, 2009). Rogers (2010) claimed that the field should retain its connection to the black community, but he doesn't fully elaborate on who constitutes the community. However, federal, institutional, and neoliberal policies today are complicating the notion of a fixed idea of black community. Meaning, that these policies are stretching the black community into a more expansive type requiring more border crossing. Hollinger (2006) explores "community" in another way and argued that it became a way of establishing circles of "we" and "they" or who is in and who is out (p. 189). Although Hollinger is not a traditional scholar in Black Studies, his ideas on "suppression of diversity" amongst ethnic "blocs" provides useful perspectives for re-thinking Black Studies mindsets and traditional policies.

Intermarriage, Immigration, and globalization of higher education

There are currently three trends expanding black identity in the United States. These trends are immigration, intermarriage, and the globalization of higher education. Each of these trends have worked separately and, in some ways, together to expand the notion of the black community. In the sections below we will look more closely at each trend, and how they are complicating our traditional constructions of black students in society and in higher education.


According to Wang (2015) "fully a quarter of black men who got married in 2013 married someone who was not black. While on the other hand, half a quarter of black women married outside of their race." Anderson (2015) also argued that black immigrants are more likely to be married than native-born blacks. Cokely et al. (2015) said, Black students are not a monolithic group, but are part of multiple ethnic groups who increasingly identify as biracial or multiracial. Considering these trends, not only are Black students diversifying in terms of identity, but they also display distinct levels of educational achievement (Valentine, 2012; Page, 2007). In order to better accommodate interethnic stratification occurring out in the Black student population, higher education will need to address these shifts. As higher education continues to become more global and admit more international students these trends will only continue to grow. This is important to note as higher education learns to better integrate more students of color in the future.


During the Civil Rights era, the black population was less ethnically diverse according to the Pew Research center (2015). According to Anderson (2015) "black immigrants are a diverse group with notable differences in demographic, economic and geographic characteristics, often tied to the regions of their birth countries." As recently as 1980, only 3.1 % of the Black population was foreign born (Kent, 2007). However, during the post-civil rights era, U.S. immigration policy has caused changes in the Black population. The passage of The Immigration act of 1965 and subsequent revisions in 1976, 1980, 1986, and 1990 have led to a tripling of immigrant blacks between 1980 and 2005 (Kent, 2007). According to Trostle and Zheng (2014) "the Census Bureau projects that by 2060, 16.5% of America's Black population will be foreign-born (p. 11 )." The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, "loosened" and afforded opportunities for family reunification and skilled labor (Kent, 2007, p. 6). Whereas, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1990 increased the number of immigrants from underrepresented nations (Anderson, 2015). Many recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean (where this writer's mother hails from) benefited from these policies (Kent, 2007). The story here is that U.S. immigration policy has not only changed black identity today but will also do so in the foreseeable future. This is important to note because Black immigrants are also more likely than U.S. born blacks to have a college degree or to be married (Anderson, 2015).

Globalization of higher education

According to Kent (2007) "higher education has been a favored route for Africans coming to the United States" (p. 9). Education and social mobility are strongly favored by not only immigrant Black students, but also by most immigrant students who leave their countries of origin. As a result, Massey et al. (2007) argued that Black immigrants are more likely to be overrepresented in the most selective schools. This phenomenon has caused some tensions with U.S. born blacks who argue that foreign born blacks are benefitting from affirmative action policies instead of the descendants of slaves which the policy was designed to redress (Kent, 2007). For this reason (Cokely et al., 2015) said, "addressing only the traditional barriers to higher education is no longer sufficient given the emerging challenges related to the conflation of black ethnic groups and the increasing numbers of biracial and multiracial identification" (p. 48). Therefore, in order to more fully capture the diverse narratives of Black students in higher education, proposed below is an interdisciplinary framework addressing these trends.

Reconceptualizing Black Studies in higher education

Applying interdisciplinary frameworks would allow Black Studies to move away from the white/black binary and conduct further self-examination of the discipline's scholarship generated. Critical Race Theory and intersectionality provide useful frameworks for critically analyzing race relations but not so much for analyzing growing black hybridity. Munoz (2008) argued that "transdisciplinarity" or interdisciplinary scholarship provides 'fertile ground' to 'explode the arbitrary categorical restraints of discipline" (p. 297). In order to respond to these constraints, scholars will need to look outside of their disciplines for inspiration to create new theories. Some of the popular conceptual frameworks for analyzing racial oppression of the "black community" - such as CRT, intersectionality, and disability studies - fall short in accounting for black students' complexity due to an overreliance on structuralism. To move beyond structuralism and its essentializing tendencies, a more self-reflexive approach is needed in Black Studies (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2002). Making such a move would allow students to engage in critical inquiry with themselves, and the discipline would provide them with a framework to find their voice in the curriculum. The framework proposed for dealing with black identity in the post-civil rights era is epistemic privilege as emerged from Women Studies, inquiry as influenced by critical theory frameworks, and multiplicity as presented by realist accounts of identity.

Identifying epistemic privilege in Black Studies

According to Kotzee (2010) epistemic privilege advantages members of marginalized social groups to describe their oppression. This is because the oppressed "have a systematically clearer view on political reality than their oppressors" (p. 274). As is the case, black students emerging from intermarriage, globalization, and immigration also should have the privilege to assert their knowledge claims and push back on grand narratives of blackness. Borrowing again from Women Studies, Janack (1997) argued:

"Members of oppressed groups, including all women, have a perspective on the world that is not just different from the perspective available to members of the ruling class, but is also epistemically advantageous" (p. 126).

For the purposes of this paper, the ruling class are defined as the gatekeepers of the Black Studies discipline in higher education. Black scholars hold the keys for entrance into the academy, including the levers to move knowledge from the margins and into the center of higher education. Feminist scholar Alcoff (2013) reminds us that epistemic privilege was appropriated from Marxist thought as a means of empowering the socially marginalized. As such, Black studies must use its privileged position within the academy to once again empower the marginalized, and not only serve the interest of the neoliberal plutocracy. Meaning, Black Studies must place the Black student community's needs first and resist higher education's tendency to reify black students.


Structuralism is heavily valued in the civil rights tradition of Black Studies, including higher education. Therefore, critiquing the white/black binary's dominance in education research requires critical inquiry within the discipline, and critical engagement with sister disciplines. For example, Crowley (1999) argued that the construction of the oppressor/oppressed binary within Women's Studies had to be reconfigured in order to prevent "under-theorization" about the experiences and knowledge about women. Black Studies will need to make a similar move to prevent marginalization of phenomenon happening amongst the diversity of Black students.

According to Douglas (2017) inquiry or "searching" involves three interrelated concepts which are research, "mesearch" and "wesearch (p. 22). Mesearch involves interrogating the inner core of who you are; while wesearch searches involves asking questions about what is needed for those we serve; research investigates available research (p. 22). Douglas (2012) said that asking questions would help Black students to harness their story, as well as engage in critical dialog with other students bringing their personal histories into the classroom. Therefore, the discipline should accept that some of the questions posed by students will not lead to support of the traditional framework, but to questions of problematizing.

Moving from intersectionality to multiplicity

Intersectionality was coined by Crenshaw (1989) to provide a deeper understanding of how race, class, and gender worked together as an interconnected system of oppression on people of color. However, intersectionality was conceived in the 1980s before recent trends started to make a more visible mark in the black student population. As such, Hames-Garcia (2011) said we should re-think our "overextension" of intersectionality, and instead use "multiplicity as a theory of identity rather than a theory of oppression" (preface, 11). As mentioned earlier, waves of new black narratives have entered the conversation, therefore accommodating and integrating these perspectives are crucial for establishing greater solidarity within the discipline, and with students.

According to Choo and Ferree (2010) intersectionality has been essentialized as a framework for only studying oppression. Whereas, multiplicity is described as the self in relation to social identity, because understanding the self only as the sum of discrete parts alone is inadequate (p. 5). Borrowing from Hames Garcia, Black students must steadily find the commonalities, connections, and similarities of their higher education experience in order to "coexist within a complex multiplicity" (p. 34). Meaning that mutual bonds of trust and respect must always be re-affirmed within the discipline to re-ensure that all Black students are made to feel welcome to express their right to generate knowledge.

Discussion and Implications

If the field hopes to survive, it will require building not only interethnic coalitions but also cross-racial allyship built on mutual dialog and solidarity. According to Chavez (2011) "a significant function of rhetoric within contexts of movement activity is to generate coalitions" (p. 2). As Chavez discussed, these multicultural coalitions can function as "counterpublics" to support Black students' scholarship and activism on their campuses. Adding to the ideas on counter public mentioned earlier, Frazer (1995) said:

"Historically…. members of subordinated social groups - women, workers, peoples of color, and gays and lesbians - have repeatedly found it advantageous to constitute alternative publics. I have called these "subaltern counterpublics" in order to signal that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses." (p. 291)

During the civil rights era, institutionalization of Black studies brought the conversation from the margins and into the center of the academy. Whereas today, Black Studies is resisting displacement from the center of higher education and subsequent banishment back to the margins. To prevent this from happening, Black Studies must widen its appeal to the Black students in/outside of higher education. According to Douglas and Peck (2013) references to Blackness must remain diligent in not reducing or oversimplifying Black people. Rebranding the field as welcoming to the heterogenous voices of African descent will require a diligent ground up strategy recruiting students from wider backgrounds.

Fraser (1992) said counterpublics are ''spaces of withdrawal and regroupment'' and operate as ''bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics'' (p. 124). Black scholars and students should work together to identify the issues in the mainstream higher education publics that require scholarship to support their activist goals. Some of the issues that Black students and scholars can begin to map as areas of concern are: 1. increasing student enrollment rates in Black Studies, 2. meeting the diverse needs of students in higher education by generating relevant scholarship and 3. Challenging grand narratives which attempt to dehumanize Black students and essentialize them as stereotypes and monolithic communities.

Reconstituting the field of Black Studies as a site of resistance and praxis during the post-civil rights era will require multi-vocal scholarship (Bakhtin, 1995). Therefore, a multi-vocal scholarship must be privileged so that the discipline can continue to expand and include more democratic accounting of black experiences. A multivocal discipline would allow for multiple narratives which include a broad range of student perspectives. This type of participatory practice might increase enrollment in the discipline and act as a bulwark against further defunding (Rhodes, 2011). As higher education continues its march towards less funding for humanities education programs like Black Studies, these programs will become even more vital for maintaining healthy Black students. Shockley (2011) said fragmentation along the border lines of Black ethnic identity politics risks imperiling the viability of Black Studies to solve modern Black problems.

In order to move beyond these institutional constraints, Black scholars will need to make the case that the traditional civil rights framework is no longer sufficient to move the field of Black Studies forward or to serve its expanded community needs. Santos (2015) said "rearguard theory" is "craftsmanship rather than architecture, committed testimony rather than clairvoyant leadership and intercultural approximation to what is new for some and old for others" (p. 44). One way to validate this idea is to empower Black students to make knowledge claims grounded within their own unique experiences and not in the high towers of the academy.


Black studies need to be reconceptualized to meet the changing needs of the black students population in the post-civil rights era. Globalization, immigration, and intermarriage are trends that are changing black identity, and can no longer be ignored. Innovating new conceptual frameworks in the post-civil rights era is necessary for ensuring that a fuller picture is provided of Black students experiences in higher education. Otherwise, disregarding these trends pose an ominous future for the field of Black Studies and Black students in higher education.


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