Critical Race Theory & Barriers for Diversity in Higher Education

May 16, 2018


Without question, America is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Blacks and Latinx are projected to become the “minority-majority” populations. Yet, barriers exist for supporting student and faculty diversity in higher education. In the article “Mentoring Outside the Line: The Importance of Authenticity, Transparency, and Vulnerability in Effective Mentoring Relationships” Fries-Britt and Snider (2015) suggest mentoring plays a critical role in the retention and success of minority graduate students, particularly at predominately White institutions where feelings of isolation may be more intense. I would go a step further, and highlight the critical importance of quality mentoring for Black and Latinx minority students as they move through the pipeline from undergraduate to doctoral-level studies. Through the transition of increasing education in the academy, the presence of fellow Black and Latinx minority students decreases, and feelings of isolation become even more prominent. Further, the visible shortage of Black and Latinx minority faculty on campus or contributing to scholarship may also warrant feelings of not belonging in the academy, particularly among Black and Latinx minority students who wish to transcend from doctoral student to faculty member where responsibilities include not only teaching undergraduate and graduate students, but also contributing to scholarship or knowledge building in their respective field.


Mentoring comes in many forms and quality may exist on a continuum, depending upon the definition for mentoring. Nevertheless, most experts acknowledge it is a relationship between a more seasoned person (the mentor) providing guidance and support to a less experienced individual (the mentee/protégé). While much of the earlier research studies on mentoring is grounded in workplace settings, there is a substantial body of literature examining mentoring for undergraduate students, and a developing body examining mentoring for graduate students. Fries-Britt and Snider (2015) observe, “Connections to campus agents like faculty and staff are the strongest predictors of success among college students in general (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), and evidence suggests that faculty also play a critical role in the success of racial and ethnic minority students” (p. 3). These connections are likely to occur in the form of student-faculty mentoring relationships. Given data that reveals Black and Latinx students are more likely to feel isolated on predominately White campuses, and reports that such students frequently prefer race-concordant mentors, it is troubling that Black and Latinx students are likely to encounter barriers related to availability when they “seek out faculty of color as mentors to gain ‘support, guidance, and mentorship, perceiving those professors as having a unique understanding of their experiences (Griffin, 2012, p. 32)’ “ (Fries-Britt & Snider, 2015, p. 5). Instead, many Black and Latinx minority students must settle with receiving guidance from predominately White faculty in “mentor relationships [that] have been defined through a Eurocentric lens, which is typically a short-term and more academically focused experience”  than the support they would receive from mentoring that includes psychosocial support illustrated with role modeling (Fries-Britt & Snider, 2015, p. 5). This is not to suggest that mentoring from White faculty is never without merits or benefits, or that mentoring from faculty of color is always a positive and productive experience for Black and Latinx students.


After reading the article by Ladson-Billings (2000) titled “Racialized Discourses and Ethnic Epistemologies” and learning more about Critical Race Theory (CRT), it seems logical to examine the lack of diversity and the notion of epistemology within the academy from a CRT lens. Grounded in critical legal studies and based on the early works of Derrick Bell and Alan Freeman, CRT has five tenets: interest convergence, whiteness as property, critique of liberalism, permanence of racism, and counter story-telling (Ladson-Billings, 2000). The tenets of whiteness as property and counter story-telling offer greater insight about protecting dominant ideologies related to epistemology and the diversity challenge that plagues the system of higher education. I believe the two are inextricably linked to the number of racial minorities, specifically Blacks and Latinx, who are admitted into colleges and universities across the United States, and the general absence of minority faculty. The association between the lack of race-concordant mentoring available to Black and Latinx minority students and their increased likelihood to withdraw from undergraduate programs or not apply to graduate level programs is problematic on many levels, including the missed opportunity to increase the number and quality of minority scholars who could have potentially contributed to overturning dominant structures and ideologies that seek to silence counter-stories that “analyze the myths, presuppositions, and received wisdoms that make up the common culture about race and that invariably render blacks and other minorities one-down” (Ladson-Billings, 2000, p. 264). Further, it is incredibly short-sighted and limiting to not address the omnipresent diversity problem in higher education that persists at all levels, but most noticeably among the shortage of Black and Latinx faculty and research scientists. After all, “how can the full range of scholarship be explored if whole groups of people are systematically excluded from participating in the process of knowledge and production?” (Ladson-Billings, 2000, p. 271). The short answer is, it is not possible and to insist or perpetuate anything contrary is a form of social injustice against ethnic epistemologies.


In many ways, this voice of the other, whose experiences may not represent the dominant ideology, is important for knowledge building and scholarship in an America that is undergoing a demographic shift that will yield greater proportions of Black, Latinx and other minority people. Surely, this demographic shift will also indicate a greater need for student and faculty diversity in higher education contributing to knowledge building. Ladson-Billings (2000) writes, “Unfortunately, knowledge of and by people of color has been repressed, distorted, and denied by a Euro-American cultural logic” (p. 268). When the gate-keepers of scholarship and epistemology have historically and disproportionately been monitored and controlled by those who are not people of color, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that there is racial and ethnic diversity, not merely gender diversity that welcomes more White women, among the decision-makers within the academy who are tasked with overseeing the “scholarly recognition, promotion, tenure, and publication” (p.267). However, one must not be duped into believing all Black and Latinx people are Harriet Tubman(s) (Kynard, 2018) who will provide quality mentoring to budding scholars or contribute scholarship from a non-dominant ideology. 







Fries‐Britt, S., & Snider, J. (2015). Mentoring outside the line: The importance of authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability in effective mentoring relationships. New Directions for Higher Education, 2015(171), 3-11.


Ladson-Billings, G. (2000). Racialized discourses and ethnic epistemologies. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2, 257-277.

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