Publication Date

March 10, 2017

Perspectives Section

From the President

As part of a 2013 AHA Roundtable in Perspectives about the Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which upheld affirmative action in university admissions, Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University observed that the almost-universal support of diversity in US educational and political culture has gone hand in hand with a substantial retreat from the struggle to integrate America’s schools. The country that had recently elected its first African American president also maintained public schools that had become more segregated since the 1970s. As Zimmerman noted, “‘diversity’ has replaced ‘integration’ as our central racial motif.”

Zimmerman’s intriguing comments help frame both the achievements and challenges of the historical profession as it strives to become more inclusive. I am proud and honored not only to be the new president of the American Historical Association, but to be the third African American elected to that position, following John Hope Franklin and Thomas Holt. It is not only deeply meaningful personally, it also speaks to greater inclusiveness of the profession as a whole. It is also worth noting that I am the first black historian of Europe to receive this honor, and that fact also speaks to changes in the historical profession.

Over the last half-century, the discipline has become much more open to women and members of ethnic minorities. This greater inclusivity has both arisen from and promoted new fields of historical inquiry foregrounding gender, race, and ethnicity as meaningful fields of study—so much so that some have complained about the prominence of race, class, and gender as a “holy trinity” among historians. The acceptance of these fields, especially in American history, has created spaces for new generations of minority and women faculty.

These historians have not gone equally into all subfields, however. As a 2010 report on diversity in the profession noted, “There are wide variations in representation of minorities among the particular field specializations in history, ranging from as high as 50 percent of the new doctorate recipients in Latin American history to as low as 5 percent of the new PhD recipients in the history of the Middle East.”1 George J. Sanchez of the University of Southern California has observed that in 2007 every member of the AHA’s Committee on Minority Historians had a joint or principal appointment in an American studies or ethnic studies department. The historical profession may be becoming more diverse, but at least for many minority historians the problem of internal segregation remains.

Some integration is far better than none at all, of course. Moreover, such an observation should in no way be construed as a rejection of women’s and ethnic studies, without which contemporary historiography would be much poorer and the historical profession much more white and male. But it does suggest that simply adding more people from different backgrounds does not in and of itself constitute true inclusion and equality. Furthermore, it implies another kind of inequality, in which heterosexual white men are allowed to study everything, whereas others may consider only histories directly related to their own personal experiences. A friend and colleague, now a well-­established historian of modern Britain, recently reminisced to me about beginning graduate school:

“I will always remember when I was beginning the MA program . . . with a desire to study British history. I met with the lead professor in the field and we had a good conversation. When he discovered that I was indeed serious about the field, he paused and went down the hall and asked a professor who taught African American history if a black person could get a job teaching British history. Of course! the person exclaimed. The professor returned to his office and said yes, I will work with you. The professor noted that his concern was that he currently had too many students who were not working in the profession. And of course I was his first black student. I am sure there must have been other thoughts in his mind. I must say that I had a very positive experience working with the professor; he was extremely supportive and played a major role in furthering my career.”

There are a number of issues at work in this reminiscence. The professor’s question seemed eminently reasonable precisely because of academia’s history of segregation and discrimination; while not rejecting the student, it consciously singled this person out on racial grounds. Additionally, the professor posed the question to an individual in African American history, who did not necessarily know the hiring practices in British history but might have had some idea of the job realities for African American graduate students in general. One wonders what the professor would have said had his colleague responded “No” or “I don’t know.” Finally, my friend’s relationship with this professor was ultimately positive; he clearly played a major role in making my friend a historian of modern Britain.

I chose this example because European history has usually been less diverse than other fields of the discipline. Here the “fly in the buttermilk” syndrome has long reigned supreme: relatively rare are the times when I encounter other African Americans or other people of color in lectures and conferences devoted to the subject. The reaction against “Eurocentric” history has certainly played a role in the lack of diversity in the field, as has the common (and erroneous) perception of Europe as a “white” continent, populated exclusively by white people. At the same time, however, some people of color have perceived European history not only as irrelevant to their own experiences and historical interests but also unwelcoming, even hostile. As a result, in most history departments the Europeanist faculty are exclusively white. One irony is that questions of race, to an important extent invented in Europe, have often been regarded as marginal to that historiography.

A combination of tradition and exclusion, or at least perceived exclusion, has added to the internal segregation of the profession. But it does not have to be this way, and in our profession, as in the world, there has been change over time. In the case of Europe, the rise of the new colonial historiography and transnational approaches has foregrounded the experiences of people of color and helped increase the diversity of those who study and teach this history. The increasing racial diversity of Europe has inspired new perspectives on that region’s history, and comparisons with other parts of the world have created a space for transnational discussions of race and identity.

Historians should feel free to study any field of history they choose. Our inability to live up to that ideal has shaped efforts to diversify the profession, so that diversity and segregation can coexist. The challenge is to use diversity to realize the goal of integration. This will not only broaden the horizons of individual historians but also, by bringing a multitude of perspectives to all fields, enrich history as a whole.

Tyler Stovall is president of the AHA.


1. See also Eric Foner, “On Diversity in History,” Perspectives, April 2000; Carla Hesse, “Report on the Status and Hiring of Women and Minority Historians in Academia,” AHA Committee on Women Historians, 2004.

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