An Academic Partnership
Housed as one department, Black and Hispanic studies at Baruch College do more than just co-exist.
Dina M. Horwedel
New YorkBlack and Hispanic studies are separate fields at most universities. But at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system, the Black and Hispanic studies minors are housed under the same roof. The somewhat unique partnership seems to be working, as the minors are among the most popular on the business-oriented campus.
Dr. Héctor Cordero-Guzmán, chair and associate professor of the Black and Hispanic studies department, says the mission of the program is to chronicle and participate in the creation of an increasingly diverse America.
The 2000 U.S. Census was the first to allow respondents to list multiple races, permitting a more accurate picture of the population. The census found that Hispanics accounted for 12.5 percent of the population, up from 8.8 percent in 1990, making them the nation’s largest minority group. Forty-eight percent of Hispanics identified themselves as White. More than 42 percent of Hispanics self-identified as “some other race” and about 2 percent as “Black.” More recent studies by the Pew Hispanic Center, among others, have placed the current percentage of Hispanics at closer to 14 percent.
Dr. Arthur Lewin, who teaches African history, Black Americans and mass media at Baruch, says census figures are a red herring.
“I think the idea of anyone being a No. 1 minority is an oxymoron,” he says. “This is a multicultural society. Everyone can identify who they want to be and we should respect that.”
Lewin adds that on the world, national and educational stages, people should never see themselves competing on the basis of race or ethnicity, or perceive one group as getting ahead at the expense of another. “I think it’s important that in America we are beginning to reflect the world. This country was built on forced labor and immigration, but now it is more reflective of the world, because it is the world’s capital.”
Baruch College is also a reflection of that diversity.
Cordero-Guzmán says the program creates awareness, understanding and support for the Latino and Hispanic and Black communities and the issues they encounter in American culture. The faculty is “keenly aware of policy, social and political issues facing these groups. To students, it comes as no surprise to hear about these issues because they live the experience. They know there is a connection between the communities, but they may not have a theory that explains why the groups are in the position that they are,” he says.
Lewin affirms this, adding, “It makes a lot of sense to have [both] programs in the same department because of overlapping issues with cultural and racial identity.”
Students study either Black studies, Hispanic studies or a combination of both. All students take courses on race and ethnicity and all programs culminate with a course in African and Latino diasporas in America. As part of the program, students look at civil rights movements and the history of discrimination and segregation to create a balanced picture of the past. Students also examine how ethnicity, race and nationality play a role in identity. For example, Cordero-Guzmán explores the cultural differences between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Although the two nations share an island, the Dominican Republic identifies itself as Hispanic in ethnicity and culture, while Haiti considers itself Black and French.
Creating a Social Context for Business
As important as the program is at Baruch College, it is not offered as a major.
“We don’t offer Black and Hispanic studies as a major because we don’t see this as our universal mission at the business school,” Cordero-Guzmán explains. He says that Black and Hispanic studies do play a central role by providing a social context for business.
New York still struggles with race and culture issues, but the department and CUNY help make the issues more substantive, Cordero-Guzmán says.
“We want all students to take these courses to enrich their education, not just Black or Hispanic students.”
Dr. James DeFilippis, an assistant professor in the department, agrees.“It is hugely important that we’re here foregrounding the histories and experiences of something other than the dominant culture, giving students the chance to know different sets of histories other than those they are familiar with,” he says.
“There has definitely been a change in Black and Hispanic studies over the last 40 years,” says Dr. Clarence Taylor, a professor of African-American history in the program. “These programs were born out of protest. Students demanded them. Activist academics were professors in the classroom,” he says. “Programs have moved away from that model and are more academic in nature, and universities demand more of the programs. At Baruch there is an emphasis on diaspora studies,” he continues. “I see my courses as more than service courses. It is very important for students to gain knowledge of historical events of the world they live in. You can’t function in the world and understand current events without an understanding of historical events.” Automatic Role Models“Many students have told me, ‘You’re the first Latino professor I’ve ever had,’” Cordero-Guzmán says. He stresses the importance of professors as role models for all students regardless of race or ethnicity, and explains that all students need a developed awareness of how a racial or ethnic group perceives its experience.
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If students don’t see someone like themselves in that role, then they don’t move into that role,” Lewin says. “Baruch is the most diverse college in the country, but people of European descent are still over-represented in every sector of our country.”
He points to the political arena as an example. “How many women are in the Senate? How many Blacks? How many Hispanics?” he asks. “We have a problem of ‘two Americas.’ Change does happen, but it is painful and it is slow. For all intents and purposes, affirmative action is dead, but it is being kept alive in more enlightened sectors that see the value of diversity.” Education is one of those sectors, he says, but it, too, needs to improve its reflection of the population.
“Baruch struggles to attract diverse faculty like all universities,” Taylor says. “It has made headway, but a lot of us feel we could do better, especially in the business school … because of the dearth of Black and Latino professors at Baruch, the ones here automatically fall into the category of role models. The professors in the department have gone the extra mile with extra-curricular activities, advising student groups and students, and organizing events.”
Cordero-Guzmán says his department works diligently to shape the curriculum and department’s mission to reflect their value of diversity.“It creates a sense of ownership and value for the enterprise as a whole,” he says. “We know it works because we receive validation from the students and their appreciation of the work we do, and their attendance at events.”
The department receives outstanding student evaluations university-wide, Cordero-Guzmán says, and feedback about professors’ research and publishing keeps their program on the cutting edge. Baruch stands apart from similar programs in other institutions, because “for some colleges,” Cordero-Guzmán says, “these kinds of departments are starved for resources and exist just to show that the college is doing something to prove its commitment to diversity.”
Bringing the Community to the School Cordero-Guzmán is a strong believer in building community strength through economic development. He considers it a priority to “bring the community to the school.”
“The average university department does not have a responsibility outside of the university,” he says. “We’re a public university so it is an extremely important role for us to bring people’s community experiences to the classroom,” he explains. “It validates not just their experiences, but their identities. When people see themselves in the books, they say, ‘I am in the books, therefore I exist. I am valuable.’”
“The impact we have is tremendous and hard to measure,” DeFilippis adds. “Our courses cut across all disciplines. What the students learn cannot always be measured on an exam. Students leave understanding and respecting history, and they understand and respect themselves more than when they began.”
“It is a privilege to be in a university and use your knowledge and skills to better the community,” says Cordero-Guzmán.
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