Q & A with Khalilah Brown-Dean

How did you develop your interest in your particular areas of expertise?
I grew up in Virginia, and at one point participated in a voter registration project. Someone said to me, “I’d like to register, but I can’t vote.” I naively replied, “Of course you can; you’re an American citizen—we can all vote.” It turned out that he had been convicted of writing a bad check years earlier, and in Virginia that meant he’d lost his right to vote for the rest of his life. That’s what got me interested in the questions, “What is democracy? What does it mean to be a citizen?”

My interest in criminal justice was sparked when a cousin of mine was murdered three years ago. It got me involved in the welfare of victims’ families. We spend a lot of time talking about developing a system fair to perpetrators of crime, but rarely talk about victims’ rights. I launched a foundation in January called the Community Dignity Fund, which provides financial, legal and counseling assistance to those families.

What are your concerns regarding the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act?
I think it will impact the communities we already know are most vulnerable—urban residents and older Americans—not just in the South, but across the U.S. We’ve known for the last eight years that they still face big hurdles when they’ve gone to vote, even with federal protection. I expect these problems will increase and stretch across party lines.

There’s been a fair amount of coverage in the media recently about the rise of African-American faculty in higher education, particularly the Ivy League. You were previously an assistant professor at Yale, but were denied tenure. Do you find the expectations placed on you as a faculty person are greater? And are we really seeing more African Americans in positions of prominence, or is that a myth?

I think the expectations are the same, but the demands are much greater—not just from university administration, but also the community. You get put on the national stage very quickly, and you have more students clamoring for your attention and support. That’s not just specific to the Ivy League. Once you get someone in that position, they also become the “go-to” nominee for every committee, every special role. It’s extremely challenging to try to balance all that.

And yes, I think the idea that that there are more African-American faculty members getting ahead in higher education is a myth. If anything, what we end up doing is fighting to maintain the status quo. If we manage to hire four professors of color this year, it’s to replace the three who didn’t get tenure last year. So we end up at a standstill.

 

Q & A with Khalilah Brown-Dean

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