History Has a Race Problem, and It’s Existential

By November 18, 2019 Editors' Choice
The Library of Trinity College.

By Allison Miller —

History, as a discipline, has a race problem. White people dominate the study of history, as students and as those who earn PhDs. According to federal government statistics, in the school year 2016–17 (the most recent for which we had data at press time) white students received 74 percent of all history bachelor’s degrees, but only 56 percent of all US resident students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities were white. Additionally, as we pointed out last year, Asian American students, particularly women, have been deserting the major since the Great Recession. Although the share of majors who are Hispanic (as the government refers to them) has increased slightly, Black students were just 5 percent of all history majors: just over 1,300 students nationally.

But that doesn’t mean students of color aren’t studying history. Interdisciplinary majors—such as African American studies, gender studies, and ethnic studies—typically offer historical content. According to data from Humanities Indicators, history is among the worst-performing majors among students of color, while “cultural, ethnic, and gender studies” performs best. History also has one of the worst track records in failure rates among students of color in introductory courses. (Remedying this situation is one of the goals of the AHA’s recently initiated History Gateways project.)

What’s more, if you pay attention to job ads, you know that searches for historians sometimes include joint lines in interdisciplinary departments or programs. Depending on the institution’s demographics, a single historian might teach a course in African American history to mostly white students and a course in African American studies to mostly Black students. Given all this, a student of color interested in history might decide not to enroll in straight history courses.

Our discipline gets bad press for supposedly moving away from political, diplomatic, and military history. To some historians, this is a dog whistle for studying white people. And there’s reason for that. The subjects of these fields, which deal explicitly with power, were traditionally white men, because that’s who possessed power in the most obvious sense. The study of political, diplomatic, and military history is much more inclusive now. But the appetite for the study of powerful white men is still there, within and beyond the university.

And appetites are crucial. As Perspectives reported last year, the number of history majors hasn’t recovered from the 2008 recession. Disturbingly, some demographers now tell us that we’re also in for a big drop in the number of college-age people in the coming years. We can’t afford to lose student interest because we might not be able to sustain any further declines. Not only might the number of available tenure-track jobs wither again, it’s possible that funding for contingent faculty jobs will dry up, too.

White students are our mainstay, at least for the foreseeable future. There are no reliable data to indicate that their interests tilt toward historical narratives that center on white people; the chances that white history majors will take only “white history” courses are slim, given widespread content requirements. But if interdisciplinary programs and departments end up absorbing students who would prefer to learn historical content about people of color in more inclusive contexts, the numbers problem we already have gets worse. And, more importantly, the ambitions we have to keep our discipline open to as many voices and hearts as possible become harder to fulfill.

History, thankfully, is everywhere, with new blogs and podcasts and books and movies coming out all the time with appeal to a general audience. We can take heart in this. But if history as a discipline is unwelcoming or irrelevant to any group of students (as well as the faculty we recruit to teach them), we deserve the crisis we have.


This article was originally published by American Historical Association.

Featured image: By Henry Be on Unsplash.

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About IBW21

IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.