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A scholar stops by the PC(USA)’s ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’ to discuss what needs to change in higher education

Recent guest Dr. Jasmine L. Harris has just published a book on ‘revealing the lies of white supremacy in American education’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Jasmine L. Harris (photo courtesy of Dr. Harris)

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Jasmine L. Harris, a guest earlier this month on the weekly edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” talked about what changes are needed for Black women to be truly accepted, welcomed and empowered while pursuing higher education.

Listen to the conversation including Harris, Associate Professor of African American Studies and the Program Coordinator of African American Studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe, by going here. The hosts introduce Harris at the 1:52 mark.

Last month saw the publication of Harris’ book, “Black Women, Ivory Tower: Revealing the Lies of White Supremacy in American Education.”

“It’s a question I get from students all the time,” Harris told Catoe and Doong about the changes in higher education that would welcome Black women. “My response always is we will have to tear everything down institutionally and structurally as we know it and rebuild it” to include more diverse voices “in all the discussions about institutional policy, institutional structure, building curriculum and support services for students — how resources are allocated across the university.”

“Most people in power, and they’re mostly wealthy white men, are not interested in relinquishing their power,” Harris said. “They’re looking for ways to make change while also keeping static the institutional structure as it is, and that simply doesn’t work.”

Harris earned her doctorate at the University of Minnesota about a decade ago. She was part of a cohort of a dozen graduate students, including two Black students. But one dropped out after a year of study.

“I’m lucky I ended up where I did. There was no path laid out for me about how to do this,” she said. “That’s why I talk about in the book so many of us who are Black faculty having to engage in this trial and error.” When she started in the program, “I was behind in terms of understanding academic writing and research, the socialization process into the doctoral program … that expects a whole lot of engagement and interaction with your peers and faculty, who are mostly white.”

“When we talk about having to strip down the entire culture and structure of higher education, we’re not just talking about who the president is. We’re talking about how we inform undergraduates and young people about the profession of being a professor and the mentorship that is available for them,” said Harris, who gets requests from graduate and undergraduate students “from all across the country who ask for mentorship, help with their dissertation topics or help thinking about their applications to graduate schools because there isn’t any trusted source for them on campus … White students can find a mentor on the campus they’re on … and that’s just not true for Black students and Black women more specifically, because we make up 2% of the faculty at colleges and universities in the U.S.”

When it comes to “the lies that white supremacy tells us in American education,” the place to start is that the Brown v. Board of Education decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 “successfully integrated American schools,” she said.

Thanks in part to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision about a half a century before that, “the American education system was completely segregated,” she noted. Many segregated schools were “led by the few Black folks at the time who had PhDs. It was hard for many of them to get professorships at colleges and universities, especially at those who weren’t [historically Black colleges and universities].”

Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., is an example of schools where graduation rates plummeted after Brown v. Board was decided, she noted. “It’s a really good example of what integration actually did, which was to extract everything they could from the Black segregated schools to grow the white integrated schools,” Harris said, adding that “we lost something like 40,000 Black teachers as part of the integration process.”

“We know that having a Black teacher improves the outcomes of all students, regardless of race, for many reasons, most explicitly because of the cultural expansion that it provides for all students,” Harris said. “For Black students in particular, it is important because Black teachers are more likely to identify Black students as talented and gifted, for example.”

When Harris was in school, Brown v. Board “was taught as a good thing,” she said. “But as with so many good things, it was a good thing that was masking negative impacts for Black people.”

Catoe asked Harris, “What are we to do now to build something better?”

“I think it starts with knowledge,” Harris said. “What we are seeing now is a direct and explicit attempt to reduce knowledge acquisition and access to knowledge. … We have to start from a place where we are providing more of that knowledge to people of a younger age. You can’t work to shift and change those systems if you don’t know about it until you’re 30.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“For me,” she told Doong and Catoe, “the best part of teaching African American studies and the social constructions of race and gender is seeing students’ worlds open up,” including “the way they engage with information being put in front of them.”

“We need a coalition of people who have this information and are willing to work together to deconstruct and reconstruct these institutional structures,” Harris said. “The hardest thing for me to do as a professor is to get young white students to understand the social construction of race. When I tell them that race is not biological, that is difficult for them to deal with, because they’ve been so well socialized into believing that race is biological.” With that understanding, white students can conclude that “the bad things that happen to minorities is out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“This thing we call race is set up to disadvantage some and to privilege others,” she said. “You’d think in 2024 we’d be beyond that, but we really are not. In a lot of ways, we’re moving backwards because we’re removing that information from public access purposefully. When you do that, you can allow institutional racism to continue in perpetuity.”

Doong said he heard in Harris’ message “an opportunity for churches and faith communities to play a role” in education. “Or” he said, “we can sit on our hands and say, ‘We don’t want to be too political.’”

“I’m so grateful to you for saying that,” Doong told Harris. “I hope our listeners will hear that and take that back to their own faith communities.”

Additional episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” are here.

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