Argument

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Did America’s Racial Awakening Reach IR Professors?

Nearly half of international relations scholars spent more time in class on race and racial justice—but with key demographic differences.

By , the founder and director of the International Justice Lab at William & Mary.
Students march in a racial justice protest
Students march in a racial justice protest in Baltimore on April 29, 2015. Win McNamee/Getty Images

A year ago this month, Meredith Loken and I wrote “Why Race Matters in International Relations” in Foreign Policy as protests for racial justice rippled in city streets, in town halls, and on college campuses across the United States following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. In our world of academia, there were parallel calls to contend with race and racism in the profession, including underrepresentation of faculty of color and the marginality of critical perspectives. The discipline of political science and its subfield of international relations (IR) were no exception.

To meet the moment, several scholars curated resources for teaching about race, racism, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. One excellent example is the BLM micro-syllabus created by Nadia E. Brown, Ray Block Jr., and Christopher Stout, which draws on articles from Politics, Groups, and Identities, a peer-reviewed journal with a focus on U.S. politics. With last year’s essay in Foreign Policy, we wanted to start something similar for IR, where there is what Sankaran Krishna calls a “systematic politics of forgetting, a willful amnesia, on the question of race.”

A year ago this month, Meredith Loken and I wrote “Why Race Matters in International Relations” in Foreign Policy as protests for racial justice rippled in city streets, in town halls, and on college campuses across the United States following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. In our world of academia, there were parallel calls to contend with race and racism in the profession, including underrepresentation of faculty of color and the marginality of critical perspectives. The discipline of political science and its subfield of international relations (IR) were no exception.

To meet the moment, several scholars curated resources for teaching about race, racism, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. One excellent example is the BLM micro-syllabus created by Nadia E. Brown, Ray Block Jr., and Christopher Stout, which draws on articles from Politics, Groups, and Identities, a peer-reviewed journal with a focus on U.S. politics. With last year’s essay in Foreign Policy, we wanted to start something similar for IR, where there is what Sankaran Krishna calls a “systematic politics of forgetting, a willful amnesia, on the question of race.”

Our essay proceeded in three parts. We first discussed how race and racism have for centuries shaped world politics, including U.S. foreign policy, and how mainstream IR thought is “built on raced and racist intellectual foundations that limit the field’s ability to answer important questions about international security and organization.” Next, we discussed how mainstream IR’s inattention to race has knock-on effects for the profession, including who is standing at the front of IR classrooms, whose work makes it onto course syllabuses, and who pursues undergraduate and advanced degrees in IR and, ultimately, careers in academia and policy. Finally, we laid out recommendations for addressing race and representation in the classroom, academic departments, and IR professional associations. One year later, have meaningful changes been made in IR?

Discussions about the role of race and racism in IR, as both an academic field and a policy area, have certainly grown. Our analysis on the state of play was quickly followed by excellent essays in Foreign Policy including “When Did Racism Become Solely a Domestic Issue?” by Robbie Shilliam and reflections from nine experts on race and IR. The peer-reviewed journal Security Studies issued a call for papers for a special issue on race and security studies, and the Bridging the Gap Project convened virtual workshops on strengthening inclusion efforts in the profession and rethinking how we teach race in undergraduate and graduate programs—our essay’s main goal. The International Studies Association, the preeminent professional association for international studies experts, also organized a roundtable at its flagship annual convention based on the essay, featuring thought leaders in the study of race in IR such as Adom Getachew, Audie Klotz, Sithembile Mbete, and Robert Vitalis.

While there is a growing conversation on race and racism among scholars, have IR professors changed how they train undergraduate and graduate students? Over the past year, my co-author and I were encouraged to hear from colleagues at more than 90 universities in 20 countries that “Why Race Matters” was now required reading in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs—from Oxford and Pretoria to Seoul and Bogotá. The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute provides further insight into shifts in IR instruction at U.S. colleges and universities over the past year.

Time will tell how much the developments of the last year affect not only teaching but also IR scholarship, hiring, and retention of diverse faculty.

Between April 28 and May 3, my colleagues at TRIP surveyed approximately 800 U.S.-based IR scholars in a snap poll covering a range of issues related to foreign affairs, the Biden administration, and the IR profession. One question asked respondents if they had increased, decreased, or not changed “the amount of time spent in class on race as a category in IR and/or on issues of racial justice.” Before moving on to what the data reveals, it is important to note that I do not attribute any reported changes to “Why Race Matters” alone. No single essay, article, conference, or workshop could ever on its own change how the field operates. Moreover, globally consequential events like Floyd’s death and the subsequent summer protests likely influenced how IR faculty approached their teaching. That said, I hope that our work played some small role in shifting the conversation.

To provide a brief overview of the sample, 784 of 812 scholars responded to the question about teaching. Of these, 87 percent were in tenured positions (i.e., associate, full, and chaired professors) or tenure-track positions (i.e., assistant professors), 29 percent were women, and 68 percent identified as Democrats. Respondents’ race was not recorded. However, 70 percent of them had participated in the 2017 TRIP Faculty Survey, so we were able to use these respondents’ names to match their racial identification from the 2017 survey to the 2021 data. Of the 552 respondents whose data we were able to match, 88 percent identified as white. Taken together, the sample generally reflects the broader population of U.S.-based IR scholars (approximately 4,800 people).

We were also able to match 563 respondents’ theoretical perspective from the 2017 survey. Just over half of these respondents (55 percent) subscribe to one of the “big three” paradigms in mainstream IR: realism, liberalism, or constructivism. (See “Why Race Matters” for a brief overview and our discussion of how each approach generally ignores race.) Realists made up 21 percent of the sample, liberal theorists made up 15 percent, and constructivists made up 19 percent. The biggest grouping of respondents, 34 percent, said they do not use paradigmatic analysis. A minority of scholars indicated using other approaches like feminist IR.

Now, to see reported changes in IR instruction over the past year. Approximately 48 percent of respondents to the snap poll said they dedicated more time to teaching race in IR and/or racial justice, less than 1 percent dedicated less time, and 51 percent reported no difference. But does this constitute a significant change? That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s certainly more than I, my co-author, or our colleagues at TRIP expected. Professors generally change their syllabuses slowly and episodically; we pass down the received wisdom of the field. So we don’t change our courses, especially introductory courses, on a whim. This tendency explains, as we reported in our essay last year, why even IR scholars who do not subscribe to the big three paradigms still teach them.

Some historical data can also provide helpful comparisons. In 2004, TRIP surveyed IR scholars, asking whether and to what extent they had changed their teaching after significant historical events. Sixty-seven percent of surveyed scholars reported that the end of the Cold War “somewhat” or “significantly” influenced their teaching of IR theory, while 48 percent reported that the 9/11 terrorist attacks “somewhat” or “significantly” influenced their teaching of IR theory. So, yes, that roughly half of IR professors surveyed decided to pay greater attention to race and racial justice topics in class constitutes a significant change, especially within a single year.

But what’s the relationship, if any, between individual characteristics and teaching race and racial justice in IR? Women were significantly more likely to increase their attention to race than men (63 percent versus 42 percent) and Democrats more than Republicans (53 percent versus 5 percent). Assistant professors were slightly more likely to give race additional room in their teaching than tenured faculty (52 percent compared with 50 percent), but the difference is not statistically significant. Among respondents whose racial identification we have from the 2017 survey, scholars of color were slightly less likely than white scholars to increase their attention to race (47 percent compared with 50 percent). It’s possible that this difference is due to IR scholars of color having already been more likely than white scholars to teach about race and racial justice. In any case, the difference is within the margin of error.

Among scholars who adhere to one of the big three schools of IR, per the 2017 data, realists were the least likely to dedicate additional class time (if they spent any at all) to addressing race and racial justice: 30 percent. This is well below the sample average and starkly contrasts with the figures for liberal theorists (52 percent) and constructivists (65 percent). The data is striking.

Yet we noted last year that “realism and liberalism were built on Eurocentrism.” Thus, it’s notable that so many realists and liberal theorists changed their teaching in less than one year on this factor. Very little, if anything, in realist and liberal ontology suggests that race is a relevant category of analysis, yet we see this large shift in teaching. To be sure, many scholars do not live their theoretical perspectives in a purist way, and good teachers introduce new factors outside their own views, but the scale and speed of the change is noteworthy.

We also suggested last year that while many constructivists do not acknowledge race and racism in shaping world politics, constructivism is “perhaps best positioned to tackle race and racism,” given its focus on the role of shared identities and histories in shaping world politics. We find some support for this view in the extent of the change in teaching among constructivist scholars.

To recap, the largest observed differences in increasing class discussions of race and racial justice in an IR context were between women and men (21 percentage points), constructivists and realists (35 percentage points), and Democrats and Republicans (48 percentage points).

Overall, the data offers suggestive evidence that IR professors’ backgrounds shape how they approach undergraduate and graduate education. Individuals who may experience marginalization due to their gender or academic rank, or whose political party promotes racial inclusion, appear to have been more open to changing their teaching to address issues of race and racial justice. So did the United States’ “racial awakening” reach IR scholars? Yes, but it’s complicated.

Of course, teaching is just one part of academia, and the longer-term effects of the changes in IR training reported above will only be known in time. Time will also tell how much the developments of the last year affect not only teaching but also IR scholarship, hiring, and retention of diverse faculty; professional associations’ priorities; and more. Still, we can be encouraged by the progress many in the field have made and are yet to make.

Kelebogile Zvobgo is the founder and director of the International Justice Lab at William & Mary. Twitter: @kelly_zvobgo

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