King Award Recipient: “Neither thrilled nor honored”


The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (may be paywalled) this morning that Naomi Zack, professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, is the recipient of an award from her university in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The story made the Chronicle for Zack’s reaction, in which she expresses gratitude for the award but is “neither thrilled nor honored” to receive it. Upon request, she forwarded her acceptance speech to me:

I know that those who receive this award say they are honored and thrilled. My situation at the University of Oregon complicates my reaction. I was hired as a full professor with tenure in 2001. While I have African ancestry, I identify as multi-racial. At present, there are no full professors who identify as African American or Black in the entire UO College of Arts and Sciences. But I am a woman of color. At present there are only two full professors who are women of color throughout the entire University of Oregon. I am one of them. Given this situation, I am neither thrilled nor honored to receive an award in the name of Martin Luther King at this time, here at the UO.

I am embarrassed.

I think the absence of African American senior faculty in what presents itself as a world class research institution is an embarrassment for all members of our community. The black absence is also shameful for those directly responsible insofar as it is caused by selfish cronyism and cults of mediocracy or fear of principled intervention. A world class university requires a broad base of human resources with a variety of practical experience. This is what it means to say that excellence requires diversity. In 21st century America and throughout the world, American blacks have very different human experiences from those of other racial groups.

There have been attempts to achieve inclusive human diversity through unit self-governance. But the democracy of majority vote often eclipses the democracy of individual rights and meritocracy. Needed is central administrative leadership willing to take direct action. I have heard that such action has begun on this campus. I would be honored and thrilled to work toward a racially diverse University of Oregon community that welcomes African Americans on all levels and treats them with respect after they join.

I thank my colleague Colin Koopman for nominating me for this award and the Equity and Inclusion Committee for accepting me. I am grateful to participate in this expression of loyalty to Dr. King’s dream of racial integration.

While philosophy is not the least racially diverse field in the humanities,  in the U.S., blacks make up just 1.32 percent of the total number of people professionally affiliated (as grad students or faculty) with philosophy departments. Sometimes it seems as if these numbers are a problem for “the profession” to deal with, with the responsibility for change so dispersed it vaporizes. Professor Zack’s remarks are an opportunity to think about what our own universities and departments are doing.

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