Fulbright and Race

A few years ago, I noticed gaps in the literature on educational exchanges/PD around race and gender. It seemed odd, because academics always seem to include those two approaches to a subject, and rightly so. It’s a step towards addressing the dominant white Western male voice and perspectives that are so often the default. Including perspectives on race is often done as an afterthought— Anamik Saha pointed out how textbooks usually include “the bit about race” somewhere around chapter ten. I would love to see a study on the Fulbright Program and race. I’m not qualified to undertake it myself, as I don’t want to be a white researcher trying to add a race lens to their work. I would hate to see women’s experiences in the Fulbright Program ‘mansplained,’ so I won’t do that with race in my work. Here are a couple of potential areas to explore…

1) Senator Fulbright had a bad record on race.

As much as we can admire his ant-war stance during Vietnam, and appreciate his promotion of educational and cultural exchanges, we have to acknowledge his record on race.

Fulbright voted against integrating schools. He claimed it was a matter of representing the views of his constituents—if he wanted to stay in Congress, he had to vote the way his constituents wanted him to. He said they didn’t care about his views on foreign policy—he could vote his conscience on those issues, because his constituents didn’t know or care about them. But when it came to integration, they cared because it effected their day to day lives, and they were outspoken in their opposition.

As an interesting aside, when Johnson and Fulbright fell out over Vietnam, Johnson claimed that Fulbright’s opposition to the war was because he was racist—Fulbright ‘didn’t care about brown people’, whereas Johnson believed in helping them. Fulbright rejected that, of course, and questioned how bombing was helping them.

I always wondered whether it really was a matter of political survival or if Fulbright was racist. When I interviewed his biographer, Randall Bennett Woods, he was an elitist rather than a racist, and his views on segregation and race transformed as his political views shifted towards the left throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

“You know, Fulbright was a segregationist to begin with…But his views changed dramatically. Like so many white middle-class Southerners like my parents, he was radicalized by the civil rights movement. His racism had more to do with class than it did with color. If he was dealing with the elite of Ghana or Kenya or India, skin color didn’t matter. If you were educated and part of the elite, you were acceptable to him, so it wasn’t race prejudice as much as class prejudice. But he even moved away from that.”

28 January 2013 Interview with Randall Bennett Woods

2) Information gaps lead to literature gaps.

The lack of research on race and exchanges might be down to practical challenges for researchers: missing demographic information. Data on race (and gender) hasn’t been collected throughout the program’s history, so it’s difficult to paint a full picture of BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program.

An organization’s decision to collect data on race is complicated, as there are risks involved in both options–acknowledging or ignoring the role of race. National census data collection illustrates this challenge on a large scale. Some countries ask about race/ethnicity, while others do not (this is a very interesting 2017 report about EU countries’ varied practices). France is a well-known example of not asking about race. Race, ethnicity, and religion are all deemed irrelevant to French identity, at least in terms of official statistics. It’s about liberté, égalité, fraternité instead.

But excluding race from data has significant consequences. It can exacerbate inequality, because problems must be seen in order to be addressed. Discrimination can be swept under the rug more easily. In terms of the current fight against COVID-19, for example, France has noted a high number of cases in “poor and multiracial communities,” but because they don’t include race in their COVID-19 data, they haven’t made that connection.

“While the United States and Britain have come to recognize that their racial minorities are dying disproportionately of covid-19, France inhibits itself from making that sort of assessment. Critics say that may limit the country’s ability to identify and protect vulnerable populations, especially in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.”

James McAuley, “How France’s aversion to collecting data on race affects its coronavirus response,” Washington Post, 26 June 2020

The U.S. is currently undertaking a census, and as this piece from the Daily Show points out, when people of color don’t participate in a census, their household might be assumed to be white. I was shocked that this was a thing…I assumed that if a household’s demographics are unknown, they would just be counted as “unknown”, not added to the local majority count. That’s crazy.

What do we not know about BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program, due to this missing demographic data? We don’t know of people of color are underrepresented in the program. We don’t know whether they apply at the same rates as their white peers. We don’t know the top destinations of US Fulbright students of color, the top academic fields of Fulbright scholars of color, etc. There’s also the more qualitative side of this information–we don’t know their stories, good or bad: their experiences with discrimination, their achievements and cultural knowledge gains. As I mentioned in the recent post about Nancy Snow’s webinar, when exchange students experience discrimination, it’s going to have a major impact on their views of the host country.

3) Some profiles of BIPOC Fulbrighters:

–Ruth Simmons, first African American woman to head a major college or university (Smith College), and the first African American President of an Ivy League institution (Brown University). Fulbright to France, 1967.

–BIPOC Fulbrighters who have been Heads of State, including two Presidents of Ghana: John Atta Mills (Fulbright 1970) and Kofi Abrefa Busia (Fulbright 1954). (Why haven’t I seen a study on Ghana’s Fulbright Program?!)

–John Hope Franklin–Pre-eminent American historian who also played a significant role in the Fulbright Program’s history. He was a civil rights activist, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965–while he was a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships (appointed 1962). Fulbright to Australia, 1960.

–Joy Buolamwini, computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League that tackles algorithmic bias–the failure of facial recognition software to detect the features of people of color. Fulbright to Zambia, 2012.

I’ll close here and publish, as this draft has been dragging on for a month and I never have time to do it justice. I would love reading suggestions re: exchanges and race, or public diplomacy generally and race–I’m familiar with some of the work on jazz diplomacy, but would love to see more. If you have any recommendations, please do get in touch!

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