How the Ban on Affirmative Action Affects Black Librarianship

The US Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action marks a significant setback on the path towards social justice. Moreover, it reflects over a century of bias against Black librarians. To ensure equitable opportunities it is crucial to recognize this legacy of institutional harm.

This post is part of a series that provides think pieces and resources for academic librarians.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently decided to eradicate affirmative action in higher education, ruling that such policies are unconstitutional. This means that members of racial and ethnic minority groups will no longer be given preferential admission to the country’s universities as a way to remedy historical discrimination. For many Americans, it is hard to fathom higher education’s entrance into a post-affirmative action era. That the SCOTUS decision came just before Independence Day on July 4 struck some as particularly poignant.  

And yet, this decision did not come as a surprise, as it marks the culmination of prolonged opposition to affirmative action. The Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) cases against the affirmative action policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina underscore that historically excluded groups, particularly women and/or people of color, are unfortunately blamed, as one online comment put it, for “decreasing standards to accommodate a subpar academic individual.”

The landmark ruling is reminiscent of how Black librarians have had to defy strategic, exclusionary bureaucracy by creating avenues for progress – that is, affirmative steps.

The SCOTUS decision especially affects African Americans whose fight to achieve social advancement inspired civil rights laws that include affirmative action. Among myriad far-reaching ramifications, it also raises concerns about the recruitment of people of color to librarianship. The landmark ruling is reminiscent of how Black librarians have had to defy strategic, exclusionary bureaucracy by creating avenues for progress – that is, affirmative steps.  

The library profession’s racial disparities are evident in the disproportionate representation of Black individuals in different roles. Specifically, Blacks are more likely to occupy positions as library support staff rather than librarians, or as librarians rather than library directors or Library and Information Science (LIS) faculty. Unsurprisingly, the same racial disparity is true in higher education; Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans disproportionately comprise 46 percent of professionals in low-level service roles (e.g., groundskeepers, maintenance workers, food service staff and custodians) but account for only four, five and one percent of professors, respectively. 

Transformation Requires Deliberate Action

To think that race-conscious admissions are unconstitutional points to a denial that, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson admonishes, “those who demand that no one think about race refuse to see, much less solve for, the elephant in the room – the race-linked disparities that continue to impede achievements of our great nation’s full potential.”  

Remedying racial disparities in educational systems cannot be left to chance alone.

Remedying racial disparities in educational systems cannot be left to chance alone. Instead, transformation necessitates intentional initiatives for increasing not simply the admission of students of color but the development of faculty of color and institutional support for people of color, especially when it comes to historically Black colleges and universities. 

The library profession often points to a stubborn racial demographic composition of 88 percent White and female-identifying – ironically, the segment of the U.S. population that is thought to have historically benefited most from affirmative action initiatives. Increasing the numbers of Black/African American librarians, which for decades has hovered around eight percent of the professional library workforce, has largely involved creating pathways – including master’s programs in library and information science (MLIS) and supportive library systems – for attracting, enrolling, training and supporting emerging librarians.  

Book Bans Silence Marginalized Voices

Our view is that the U.S. Supreme Court decision runs parallel to recent attacks on other ways of knowing and understanding the United States’ history, which has culminated in heightened censorship and book banning, along with efforts to defund libraries and arrest librarians.  

Data from the American Library Association indicates that a record 2,571 unique titles were challenged in 2022, 58 percent in school libraries and another 41 percent in public libraries. 90 percent of attempts in this well-funded campaign involve demands to censor multiple titles. 40 percent of these cases encompassed lists of 100 or more titles, some of which the libraries receiving the complaints did not hold in their collections.   

In its statement on intellectual freedom, ALA cautions that by “falsely claiming that [banned] works are subversive, immoral, or worse, certain groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections.” Similarly, the Black Caucus of the American Library Association stated it “strongly condemns these acts of censorship propaganda” that threaten the “academic freedom of educators, the free access to information that libraries provide, and the banning of literature that represents diverse and marginalized experiences.” 

Black Experiences in Library Access

These recent policies are hardly isolated; they reflect more than 150 years of library bias that points to broader, anti-Black racist societal harm in the United States. While it is laudable that Black and specifically African American librarians have demonstrated resilience in the face of what African library and information science scholar Dennis Ocholla calls “derogatory forms of knowledge that affix Blacks to barbarism and servitude,” Black people should not have had to exert twice as much effort as their White counterparts do or perform what some perceive as exceptionalism in order to realize basic rights like enjoying libraries.  

Black librarians have had to erect their own libraries. From modest reading rooms to elaborate libraries sponsored by industrial juggernauts like Andrew Carnegie and Julius Rosenwald, Blacks opened spaces to empower their own people. Until desegregation laws akin to affirmative action were enacted, many libraries barred non-Whites from entry. Indeed, until the early 20th century, cities with large Black populations like Atlanta, Birmingham, Dallas, Mobile, Montgomery, Nashville and New Orleans had no segregated public library branches for Blacks or other racially minoritized groups. In spite of this bias, Blacks persevered.

Blacks are keepers of their counterstories.”

Black bibliophiles have had to cultivate Afrocentric collections. At the height of the eugenics movement that sought to “scientifically” prove non-White racial inferiority, Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938) cultivated material that tells a fulsome story of Blacks in the United States and throughout the world. A tireless polyhistor, Schomburg cared for artifacts, photographs and publications that represented Blacks as inventors, creators and thinkers. His collection was eventually purchased in 1905 for $10,000 by the New York Public Library, and the Harlem branch that became a safe haven for Schomburg and so many other African American thinkers now bears his name: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Blacks are keepers of their counterstories.

Black library leaders were forced to establish their own library associations. Early African American librarians like Thomas Fountain Blue forged their own paths when there were few avenues for entry in predominantly White librarian credentialing programs, to say nothing of membership in the American Library Association (ALA) and other librarian organizations. Fountain Blue established the short-lived Negro Library Association that later inspired the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA). Part of Mrs. Effie Lee Morris’ and Dr. E.J. Josey’s impetus for co-founding BCALA in 1970 lay in the need to break away from the ALA, which did little to redress the refusal of southern states to integrate their libraries and library associations. BCALA remains a vibrant advocate for Black communities.  

Black library faculty have had to sustain their own library science programs. There were once as many as five library science programs in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Today, North Carolina Central University along with Chicago State University (classified as a “predominantly-Black institution” as opposed to an HBCU) are the only institutions with majority African American enrollment that offer MLIS programs. Robust evidence suggests that had it not been for a strategic, racist weaponization of ALA accreditation, as chronicled in a Journal of Education for LIS article, there would have been a rich feeder pattern of Black librarians from HBCUs into the library profession. In 2022, BCALA launched the iBlackCaucus student group, a virtual organization to support MLIS students and especially attract HBCU students. Black LIS faculty are committed to training new Black librarians.  

Acknowledging a Legacy of Harm

The limitations lie in the residual and compounded impact of racist obstruction, not in non-White people’s qualifications.

It is easy for some to misapprehend the SCOTUS decision and affirmative action itself. The existence of laws that make inclusion possible for underrepresented people of color does not evince that these groups pine for entry into predominantly White institutions. Indeed, Blacks have always fashioned and occupied their own spaces. Neither does it suggest that underrepresented people of color are ill-equipped to thrive on their own merit in mainstream White racialized domains. The limitations lie in the residual and compounded impact of racist obstruction, not in non-White people’s qualifications.  

Affirmative action, in effect, acknowledges an egregious history of concerted acts to limit people of color’s progress in the United States. We, therefore, cannot talk about Black librarianship without discussing the need to repair, through codification, more than a century of institutional harm. 

[Title image by M_a_y_a/E+/Getty Images]

Ana Ndumu

Ana Ndumu is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland College Park's College of Information Studies. She explores the cross between Black identity, libraries, demography, and social inclusion.

Shauntee Burns-Simpson

Shauntee Burns-Simpson is the Associate Director of the New York Public Library's Center for Educators and Schools. From 2020-2022 she served as the President of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

Marlena Okechukwu

Marlena Okechukwu works as Outreach Coordinator for the Hennepin County Law Library in Minneapolis. She is currently a fellow of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

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