The Battle for Black Studies: AAAS helped me achieve my full potential. Stanford should departmentalize it.

Opinion by Alex Ramsey
Jan. 19, 2021, 9:21 p.m.

The Battle for Black Studies is an article series run in collaboration with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and the Black Student Union (BSU). It comes among a decades-long struggle for a department of African and African American Studies at Stanford. This series, however, is not only born out of a desire to highlight the need for a departmentalized AAAS program — it is an ongoing project of imagining and theorizing possibility, in line with the long tradition of Black Studies. It is a project of education, addressing the realities of race and fighting for a more equitable future. We hope you will join us. 

The summer after my first year at Stanford, I managed to get an internship at a small tech company in my hometown. Like many, I’d been dazzled by the idea of programming as a freshman, but as July turned to August I began to feel disenchanted. In part it was the hours I spent debugging code, but more immediately it was the hours I spent watching Ferguson burn on the news. When I returned to campus as a sophomore, I decided to expand my knowledge of the world and of my own history and identity by enrolling in “Introduction to African & African American Studies (AAAS).” In hindsight, it was one of the most consequential decisions I made at Stanford. A year and a half later, I switched my major from Symbolic Systems to AAAS. In June 2017, I graduated with honors.

Not everyone shared in my sense of accomplishment. A few months after graduation, a close friend from high school shared a story with me about a conversation she’d had with a former classmate of ours. The classmate asked her if I had ended up graduating as a SymSys major as I had previously planned to. “No,” my friend replied, “he actually switched to African and African American Studies.” The classmate shook his head ruefully. “Aw man,” he sighed. “He had so much potential.”

It’s not hard to see why he might think this. Surrender a chance to land a job at Google or Facebook? Really? Every time I received a curt rejection email from a prospective employer during my senior spring, I had to momentarily wonder if I had made a mistake. But the more time has passed, the more confident I’ve become that his statement was profoundly, incredibly wrong. Studying AAAS was not a waste of my potential: It was critical to achieving my full potential.

AAAS offers students the opportunity to study the Black experience from a number of academic perspectives — from history to literature, sociology to performance art. It is perhaps no surprise that this diverse mix of disciplines trains graduates who go on to become (among other things) community organizers, artists, academics and lawyers. I fall into the latter category (graduation from Harvard Law notwithstanding), and I credit my AAAS education with providing me with a more critical lens to assess the U.S. legal system and its impacts on not only Black Americans, but all marginalized people in this country. Becoming a AAAS major also allowed me to become a part of an incredible community of peers and friends who consistently amaze me with their passion and accomplishments, and it connected me with Black professors and mentors who helped guide me through my undergraduate experience.

Unfortunately, the benefits of AAAS (and Black studies generally) have largely been ignored by the University, which has tended to adopt the attitude of my high school classmate. This is perhaps best on display on the far western edge of campus. There, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute — home to the authoritative resources on King’s life and legacy — still sits in a shabby portable in the literal shadow of the colossal Engineering Quad, even after decades of broken promises to move the institute to a better location. AAAS itself — created in direct response to student activism in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination — has been held in a similarly separate-but-unequal status: It is an academic program rather than a full department. Among other things, this prevents AAAS from hiring its own faculty and limits the program’s ability to provide adequate mentorship and support to its students.

Financial constraints simply cannot justify this treatment. From 2000 to 2016, under President John Hennessy, Stanford raised $13 billion in donations, “leading the country every year but one.” Nor can the failure to promote AAAS to department status be premised on some sort of argument about academic impact or fit. African American Studies departments exist at universities across the country, including at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Berkeley. Moreover, Stanford already has full departments in German Studies, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Iberian & Latin American Cultures and others. If these are any guide, it would clearly be appropriate for AAAS to be a department; indeed, it’s more remarkable that AAAS is not included among this list.

At this point, Stanford’s position cannot be attributed to anything other than a systemic devaluation of Black studies. Following last summer’s widespread Black Lives Matter protests prompted by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne released a plan for “advancing racial justice at Stanford.” Among the plan’s components was a “University-wide self-study” that would consider the “future status” of AAAS and “whether the research and educational missions of the university would be better served with departments” than programs. These developments are heartening, but it doesn’t take a study to answer those questions. It simply requires listening to the faculty, students, alumni and members of the Stanford community — and the Black community in particular — who have called for full support of AAAS.

Last summer’s uprisings and the inequalities of the pandemic have made it abundantly clear how much work is yet to be done to achieve racial justice in this country. In this moment, an AAAS education is more important than ever, and it is past time for Stanford to put its considerable money where its mouth is. AAAS helped me achieve my full potential; with departmental status, it can ensure that generations of future students, and the University itself, can do the same.

Alex Ramsey is a second-year law student at Harvard Law School, where he is an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated with honors from Stanford in 2017 with a degree in African & African American Studies.

Contact Alex Ramsey at a.ramsey525 ‘at’

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