Open Letter to Pitt: Racial Justice and the Shifting Winds of a Nation

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh (Flickr/gam9551)

Dear members of the Pitt community,

As chair of the Department of Africana Studies, I, like many people across the country and around the world, was incredibly impacted by the recent public murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. Over the past few weeks I have shed tears, called family and friends, and have had to sit in silent reflection recalling the many faces and stories of men, women, and children of African descent who have died through state sponsored violence.

As a black child growing up in the South Bronx, I learned to fear the police based on their interactions that I observed with people in my community and even with my own family.  As a black woman in the United States, that fear never completely goes away as you can never tell how your contact with law enforcement might go. These incidents take a toll and teach people of African descent hard lessons about our place within our larger nation.

Currently, however, our nation is truly at an inflection point. Our long history of racial oppression and exclusion, which developed from the enslavement of people of African descent, is calling out to be addressed head on.  It is the inability to see the humanity of people of African descent that undergirds the excessive violence that took the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Antwon Rose, Tamir Rice, and so many others (see our department statement on recent events here).

Yet there is another type of violence, often unseen on cell phone videos, that also denies the humanity of people of African descent. This is the violence of institutionalized racism through harmful policies and disinvestment in black communities that snuffs out the life chances of so many more people of African descent whose names will never appear on banners and protest signs.  Already, the national (and global) conversation is expanding to examine not only systemic racism in policing, but also institutionalized racism in other structures and organizations as well.  Confederate statues are being toppled or removed; businesses and sports organizations are re-examining policies and hiring practices, and a general wave of change is sweeping our nation.  What does this mean for Pitt?

The Department of Africana Studies, which was founded through student and community protests and calls for Black Studies courses in 1969, is the only department in the entire university in which every single course is centered on the black experience.  Moreover, every single one of our faculty members is a person of African descent, making innumerable contributions to the University’s diversity mission through our research, teaching and service.  Yet, we are one of the smallest departments in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences in terms of full-time faculty.

Discussions of anti-black racism, stereotypes, prejudice and institutionalized racism, white supremacy and privilege, state-sponsored violence, inequities in health, education, employment and the prison industrial complex, disinvestment in black communities, and black resilience, creativity and ingenuity are all topics and themes that are at the heart of our courses and programming.

Both the University Times and the Pitt News ran recent stories about a petition by a Pitt alumna, Sydney Massenberg, who called for all students to take a Black Studies course as a graduation requirement.  Our department is centered on providing such courses to the university community.  The Department of Africana Studies not only serves as an intellectual center for the production of knowledge about black people, but also as a safe space for students on a larger campus in which they may not always feel welcome and as a partner with community members and organizations who are also focused on black communities.

As discussions of institutionalized racism inevitably turn from policing to examine issues within our own University (see this recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education), we as a community need to take a hard look at how we can contribute to lasting change.

Using the University Fact Book as data, I present you with these startling numbers:

  • In fall 1984, there were 93 full-time black faculty out of a total of 2,176 faculty on Pitt’s Oakland campus, 4.27 percent (from 1985 University Fact Book, Library Digital Collections).
  • Thirty-five years later, in the most recent fact book for fall 2019, there are 139 full-time black faculty out of a total of 4,492 faculty on the Oakland campus, 3 percent (from 2020 University Fact Book).

The proportional representation of black faculty was better 35 years ago than it is today. Moreover, in 35 years, the number of black faculty at our University has increased by 46 faculty members, while in the same time period we have added 1,318 white faculty members, nearly 30 times more. In a city that is nearly a third black, a state that is about 12 percent black and a nation that is about 13.4 percent black, how does this make sense? The disparities become even more stark if we look at how many of these black faculty are tenured versus those who are not. Similar disparities exist for Latinx populations as well (among other groups), and even more can be said about inequities in the student population.

How is our institution enacting its own commitment to equity and inclusion? How is our institution allocating resources, including physical space, tenure-stream lines and other forms of support? Whose contributions are valued and whose are not? Which departments receive resources to grow and which do not?  The Department of Africana Studies wholeheartedly echoes Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s call for “reshaping our university to be more diverse, inclusive, and just…,” and we stand as a partner in achieving this goal. We also realize, however, that our great institution still has a long way to go in its journey.

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Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Yolanda Covington-Ward

Yolanda Covington-Ward is the Chair of the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is an anthropologist whose scholarly interests revolve around performance, group identity, the embodiment of religion and history, and everyday negotiations of power and authority. She is the author of "Gesture and Power: Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo" (Duke University Press, 2015).

Comments on “Open Letter to Pitt: Racial Justice and the Shifting Winds of a Nation

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    As a Pitt Alumnus (BA, 1991; MA 1992), and as a historian/Black studies professor particularly aware of my alma mater’s weaknesses, these numbers come as no surprise. Efforts at diversity, whenever they have occurred, have historically focused on students’ bodies — cosmetic representation. In the 1990s, the complaint was always “there aren’t many minorities in the pipeline,” I remember any number of my White professors in the History Department, in the School of Ed, and at GSPIA saying. But then they would run a search, and some mediocre White male candidate would be a “genius” or “brilliant” in their eyes. And now, after so many of the folks who led Pitt’s meager efforts in the 1980s and 1990s have left/retired/died, here Pitt is again, like so many other institutions, not putting their money and effort where their hollow words are. A shame and a pitiful.

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