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History Has a Race Problem, and It’s Existential

History, as a discipline, has a race problem. White people dominate the study of history, as students and as those who earn PhDs. According to federal government statistics, in the school year 2016–17 (the most recent for which we had data at press time) white students received 74 percent of all history bachelor’s degrees, but only 56 percent of all US resident students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities were white. Additionally, as we pointed out last year, Asian American students, particularly women, have been deserting the major since the Great Recession. Although the share of majors who are Hispanic (as the government refers to them) has increased slightly, Black students were just 5 percent of all history majors: just over 1,300 students nationally. 

But that doesn’t mean students of color aren’t studying history. Interdisciplinary majors—such as African American studies, gender studies, and ethnic studies—typically offer historical content. According to data from Humanities Indicators, history is among the worst-performing majors among students of color, while “cultural, ethnic, and gender studies” performs best. History also has one of the worst track records in failure rates among students of color in introductory courses. (Remedying this situation is one of the goals of the AHA’s recently initiated History Gateways project.)

What’s more, if you pay attention to job ads, you know that searches for historians sometimes include joint lines in interdisciplinary departments or programs. Depending on the institution’s demographics, a single historian might teach a course in African American history to mostly white students and a course in African American studies to mostly Black students. Given all this, a student of color interested in history might decide not to enroll in straight history courses. 

Read entire article at AHA Perspectives