The Persistent Racism of Theological Schools

GraduationAcademic departments of religion lack faculty of color not because they have difficulty finding any; but simply, they lack the will to hire any. If you are considering attending a theological school that does not have core professors (as oppose to adjuncts) who are from multiple communities of color, or simply has the one or two tokens, then seek another school. If the faculty fails to represent the diversity of the population, then that school – even if it claims to be among the Ivies – lacks academic excellence and rigor.

Since childhood, those of us who resided in the underside of history have been taught to see and interpret reality through the eyes of the dominant culture, specifically white, heterosexual, middle-upper class, patriarchal eyes. Scholars of color in general, Latino/as in particular, are usually kept at bay from contributing to the construction of how we perceive reality. Just look at any religion department. How many scholars of color are among the core faculty? How many of them are Latino/as? I am painfully aware that our presence is requested to demonstrate a politically correct diversity; nevertheless our scholarship remains confined to the barrios. Latina/os, who comprise the largest ethnic group in the United States, remain the least represented group of all full professors in the academy. Hispanics usually are relegated to the “instructor” or “lecturer” rank where they possess little if no voice on how the academic institution structures itself, or in influencing doctoral students.

What would occur if Hispanics were to gaze at theological schools to uncover the disenfranchisement of Latina/os, specifically the Ivy Leagues? Imagine if you will what our reaction would be if I was to state that in all these schools, during the 2012-13 academic year, there were a total of only three women as core faculty teaching religion. No doubt there would be an outrage. Protests would be organized throughout the academy – and rightly so! We would seriously question the academic prowess of these schools, regardless of the fact that they are called the Ivies. And yet, it has become normative to say that today, while there are white women (although not enough women of color) working at these institutions, there are only three Hispanics teaching as core faculty in religion. No one blinks (although some may wink) because it is the acceptable racialized norm. Only having three Hispanics teaching as core faculty at the Ivies means that Latina/o voices are absent in providing any direction or leadership in shaping the future of these schools, and by extension, because these are the Ivies after all, the overall discipline. If Hispanic voices were truly at the table, they might instill fear that maybe, just maybe, the universality that has for the past centuries privileged Eurocentric methods of theological contemplation is really its own form of the particular.

Hence, either consciously or unconsciously, three strategies are employed to maintain Eurocentric academic supremacy. The first is to hire Hispanics to teach courses that do not deal with the U.S. Hispanic context. The search is on for Latino/a brown faces that speak with white voices. Quotas are met without having to deal with the scholarship being generated by these communities, or worse, fuse and confuse Latin American theological scholarship with Hispanic scholarship. The second strategy is to hire junior scholars, without tenure, to teach courses about the U.S. Latino/a context while continuing the historical trend of seldom granting tenure. In this way, after seven years, the school can find a new Hispanic to use, misuse, and abuse ensuring they will never amass the power to challenge, influence, or change the discourse at the institution. The third strategy is to invite well-known Hispanic scholars to serve as visiting professors. Again, while the U.S. Latino/a context is explored, the institution protects itself from structural change, because, after all, once the year appointment comes to an end – the scholar returns to her or his home institution. As radical as they may have been, their absence quickly helps the visiting institution forget whatever challenges may have been raised.

Yet ironically, these schools – and others like them – which lack a Hispanic presence also lack cutting-edge scholarship. According to the Census Bureau, Latina/os witnessed a 43 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2010. They presently represent the largest minority group in 25 states and a majority in 82 counties. This means that in most urban and industrial centers, where Hispanics are predominant, the essential theological perspective IS Latino/a. And these figures don’t even include the undocumented at about 9 million strong! According to the Census Bureau’s projections, by 2050 Latina/os will be 132.8 million strong, or 30 percent of the U.S. population.

Because Hispanics represent the largest minority group in American colleges today, any institute of higher education that ignores these changing demographics does so at its own peril. Why? Because the religious and ethical dilemmas, questions, and concerns faced by Hispanics are the dilemmas, questions, and concerns that will be faced by the largest group of Americans. To continue to ignore Hispanic voices is to ensure the loss of cutting edge academic analysis. Indeed, this is the real danger for academic institutions and societies. They stand posed in losing its relevance for the emerging majority of Americans.

“But we can’t find any scholars of color to hire,” is the excuse used to justify maintaining white theological supremacy. Here is why I do not believe them. The school where I teach just conducted a search for a position in social justice. Looking at ourselves as faculty, we recognized a need for the voice of a womanist. Not because we have black women attending our institution, but because our non-black students (and fellow professors) cannot consider themselves educated without this voice contributing to the discourse. As chair of the search committee, I was told: “You won’t find one, and if you do, they will not want to move to Denver with its small African American population.” I believed that if we failed to find a womanist scholar it would have been due to a lack of will.

Not only did we hire a womanist, we hired two. Why? Because the “first and only” was not enough. If we truly wanted to include this voice beyond simple political correctness, we needed more than one womanist. Even though my school (like ALL schools) still struggles with sexism and racism; at least I can take pride that we have two African Americans, two Asian Americans, one African, one Native American, and yes, two Hispanics. Almost half our faculty is of color. Now, if my institution, which like many theological schools has its financial headaches, hired two womanist – what excuse has the Ivies who have more money than God? In this day-in-age, the lack of diversity in any theological faculty is the persistent racism of academic institutions, and the lack of will of majority white faculty (especially those who claim to be liberal and progressive) to deal with their institutionalized racism.

Miguel A. De La Torre

5 thoughts on “The Persistent Racism of Theological Schools

  1. To the extent that they ignore people based upon color, class or ‘race’, the “Ivy League” schools and other top prestigious schools are standing still as society and history move past them. Reality and demographics are like water, capable of wearing away rock.

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  2. There are a number of problems with your accusations, which actually border on conspiracy theory. No one these days will deny there is deeply-ingrained bias, and systematic prejudice. But to talk as if there was really a concentrated effort to keep us out? I can’t imagine many Latinos in academia will agree with you, unless they already have a victimization complex. Also, you have to first make the case that Latino Studies, taught by Latino scholars, are crucial to a well-rounded education. I for one believe you when you say this is underappreciated, but you have to sell it, brother, not whine that they don’t already value it for its own sake. It’s not exactly a foregone conclusion, revealed from heaven and written in the depths of the human heart, that a person is not well-educated if he wasn’t exposed to Latino voices in college theology classes.

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  3. Reblogged this on spirituwellness and commented:
    I look at this article and I gather great hope because of the questions it raises. It makes me ask these questions of my current academic home (The Pacific School of Religion) and my previous one (Starr King School for the Ministry.) It also makes me ask these questions outside of the academy and in government and commerce? Check our Part II as well!

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