Race as Unintellectual


For the past forty years, efforts to racially integrate the nation’s most selective universities have coalesced around a central idea: underrepresented racial minorities have unique perspectives, and universities are unable to provide the highest quality of education without incorporating those perspectives into their campus community. When specifying the unique contributions that students of color offer, elite universities often cite these students’ ability to inject important racial perspectives into classroom discussions. Based in part on this argument, a slim majority on the Supreme Court has consistently upheld affirmative action, finding that the inclusion of minority viewpoints facilitates lively classroom discussion, promotes crossracial understanding, and produces culturally competent leaders.

Using the results of an interview study of Black and white law and social science graduate students attending an elite, predominantly white institution (PWI) and a historically Black university (HBCU), this Article reveals a widespread but understudied perception that prevents students of color from fully contributing to the “robust exchange of ideas” on their campuses. Although Black students commonly report both a desire to talk about race and a belief that discussing race and racism is essential to understanding course materials, they are deeply reluctant to bring up either topic in class discussions. When explaining their reticence, they cite a widespread view that talking about race diminishes their intellectual standing. Across the law schools and various social science departments, Black students identify three dominant perceptions that make them hesitant to share their racial views: (1) The impulse for Black students to use race as an analytic frame is driven by emotion rather than reason; (2) Race is a distraction from the most important lenses through which students should understand legal, social, and political developments; and (3) Black students resort to racial analysis in order to mask their inability to engage with more intellectually demanding subjects. Perceiving racial analysis to be devalued within their respective departments and sensitive to the longstanding stereotype that Black people lack intellectual ability, Black students report adopting various strategies to minimize or altogether avoid discussing race.

This Article suggests that the norms around discussing race at some elite predominantly white universities has deleterious effects on Black students, in particular, and undermines the stated goals of the diversity rational and racial integration more broadly.