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Last week the Census Bureau announced that the Hispanic population had jumped to roughly 37 million. For the first time, Hispanics nosed past blacks (with 36.2 million) as the largest minority group in the United States.
To some, the figures promise to shake up a field that has always relied to some extent on a political and cultural landscape that cast racial problems in black and white.
"African-Americans and the African-American leadership community are about to enter an identity crisis, the extent of which we've not begun to imagine," Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard University said of the new census numbers.
"For 200 years, the terms 'race' or 'minority' connoted black-white race relations in America," he said. "All of a sudden, these same terms connote black, white, Hispanic. Our privileged status is about to be disrupted in profound ways."
Just how black studies will be affected, though, is debated by scholars. Even before the Census Bureau's announcement, the field had already been wrestling with a series of challenges from concerns about waning support from university administrators to the very nature of the discipline itself. (Cornel West's rancorous departure from Harvard to Princeton last year was caused in part by questions from Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, about whether his work on such things as a rap CD was scholarly enough)
"We're in a new political age," said Kim D. Butler, a professor of history in the department of Africana studies at Rutgers University. "A lot of the people who founded black studies programs are retired or have moved on. We do not have that political groundswell or demand to support the expansion of black studies. We're out of style."
The new census figures add to that problem, Professor Butler says. "Since the demographic shift, people are concerned with the Latino vote, the Latinos as a marketing bloc."
Of course, the statistics can be misleading, as Professor Butler and Professor Gates are quick to point out. Latinos can be of any race or nationality. And the 2000 census for the first time allowed respondents to choose more than one race in identifying themselves, so that the number of Americans who declared themselves black "in combination with one or more other races" is now 37.7 million slightly higher than the overall figure for Latinos. Nor do the numbers erase the African-Americans' unique history of slavery and oppression.
"There is something deep and profound in the DNA of the country that is tied to the enslavement of Africans, the trauma of slavery and the legacy of disfranchisement," said Noliwe Rooks, associate director of Princeton's African-American studies program. Conversations about the legacy of slavery, she said, "don't change because there are more Latinos in the country." And, she added, the fights over the direction of the field are healthy.
Still, others argue, black studies a broad rubric for roughly 400 programs, departments and institutions across a swath of disciplines, with about 140 offering bachelor's degrees face a world different from the one that prompted its creation in the late 60's.
Black studies grew out of a civil rights movement that was united around clear goals like school desegregation and voting rights. Now, the field's direction is complicated by deeper divisions within the black community, including class and ancestry.
Some scholars have already begun exploring this new reality by researching how black identity is affected by national origin, ethnicity and class. This new trend is known as "African diaspora" studies, and includes blacks who identify primarily as Hispanic or Caribbean .
Adrian Burgos Jr., for example, a 33-year-old historian, will present a paper at the conference on a Harlem baseball team called the "Cuban Stars" that played from 1923 to 1949. Its owner, Alex Pompez, was an Afro-Cuban who was born in Key West, Fla., and moved to New York.
"Harlem was this dynamic place where people throughout the Americas settled in the teens and 20's," said Professor Burgos, who has appointments in both Latino studies and the African-American Studies and Research Program at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign. "People saw blackness more broadly, aligning themselves with Ethiopia, the Caribbean, the West Indies."
Professor Gates, who is himself in the early stages of filming a series on the black presence in Latin America, added, "The new attention being paid to diaspora studies is in large part a new way to bring Hispanic experiences into the African fold, a nod to the changing demographics."
Some scholars think that the recognition of overlapping cultures will help diminish fights within the academy about whose programs are financed and about the race and ethnicity of the professors hired.
"My counterparts at the Chicano Studies Research Center and Asian-American Studies and the American Indian Studies Center all recognize our interrelated experiences in this country," said Darnell M. Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at the University of California in Los Angeles. "In terms of black studies, the new numbers are important for the discourses about race, the importance of groups as we try to form alliances and to see historical parallels."
But others counter that it will only intensify the competition for funds and political influence. Frank L. Matthews, the publisher and editor in chief of the journal Black Issues in Higher Education, argues that given limited resources and population shifts, college presidents are more reluctant to maintain black studies with the advent of Latino studies and other ethnic programs.
One scholar who isn't that concerned with the changing demography is the man who helped organize the forthcoming conference, Howard Dodson, the chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The conference, which is free and open to the public, begins at the center on Thursday night and then moves to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. (The co-sponsors are CUNY's Institute for Research on the African Diaspora and Princeton's program in African American studies.)
"I don't see any reason why it should have any impact," Mr. Dodson declared. To him, a much more pressing problem is that unlike traditional disciplines, black studies programs often lack the power to hire faculty and grant tenure. Mr. Dodson has been talking with Princeton about creating some type of formal relationship between the Schomberg Center and the university. The university is also considering making the black studies program a department, Professor Rooks says.
If anything, Mr. Dodson argues, black studies are losing their focus. He questions the social utility of some of the new scholarship, which has broadened beyond the work of early scholars in correcting omissions of black contributions and shaping public policy, to explore topics like gay blacks and multiracial identity. "The early black political studies folks had a clear political agenda vis-Ā-vis their relationship to their universities and to use their knowledge to inform and advance black folks," Mr. Dodson said. "Now, that commitment and clear sense of direction seems to be missing."
Mr. Dodson conceived the idea for the black studies conference after years of working with scholars to establish standards for the discipline. When mostly young scholars responded to the call for research papers, Mr. Dodson said, he began to imagine the coming conference as a chance to get two generations of players in black studies into the same room to exchange ideas.
Professor Burgos, for one, argues that these questions about black identity and scholarship aren't so new, however. "This conference looks at where the field has gone and where it's returning to, because people like Carter G. Woodson and DuBois understood it was not just about African-Americans in urban centers," he said. "We don't need to think about Latinos replacing African-Americans but how alliances in the past were built. The future politics in the U.S. will be centered around questions of how Latinos fit in."