Derrick Darby strives to emphasize racial disparities in education

Philosophy Prof. Derrick Darby in his Mason Hall office on Monday

Philosophy Prof. Derrick Darby in his Mason Hall office on Monday Buy this photo
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Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 8:02pm

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This article is part of an ongoing series profiling researchers at the University of Michigan.

Philosophy Prof. Derrick Darby has taught all over the country — from Northwestern University to Texas A&M University to University of Kansas and now, at the University of Michigan.

His research focuses on race relations and the value of equal rights in the United States and, though he teaches philosophy this semester, his interests are part of a multidisciplinary discussion surrounding social justice, politics, history and moral philosophy.

During his career, he’s been influenced in particular by various social and political climates on different campuses — a particularly relevant background at the University following a week of social activism — and the significance of the  issues they raise on a broader level.

He has published multiple essays and, most recently, an extensive book project.

Social significance

Many of Darby’s research interests lie in the long history of segregation and inequality in the United States — a history he emphasized is sometimes still present in society today.

In particular, he cited views on whether disparity between races still exist, noting that many believe the Civil War, the passage of Civil Rights legislation and a decrease in legal discrimination were enough to reduce racial tensions nationwide. However, he said he disagrees with this sentiment.

“Our obligation to deal with race matters does not stop there,” Darby said. “We should also attend to gross disparities among Blacks and whites along different measures of well-being — income and wealth, health outcomes, entanglements with the criminal justice system … (and) educational disparities in academic achievement and attainment.”

Darby recently finished his most extensive research project to date: a book and research project titled “The Color of Mind: Why the Origins of the Achievement Gap Matter for Justice” with a colleague at the University of Kansas, focusing on the racial achievement gap and what they cite as an unequal distribution of educational resources.

His research cites a historical lack of equal education for Blacks, along with unequal treatment in classroom settings, which he finds has translated to contemporary inequalities in schooling beginning at the elementary level and continuing to higher education.

He noted that this is particularly relevant at the University, where just 1,216 out of more than 26,000 undergraduates enrolled at the University’s Ann Arbor campus in Fall 2015 were Black, according to a University enrollment report, and a number of colleges within the University still face gender and minority gaps.

In his book, Darby explores multiple disparities between Blacks and other minorities in education, particularly those found through the University of California-Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project, which reported out of the nearly 18 million days of class nationwide instruction lost due to suspensions — often given out for minor behavioral infractions — Black students lost instruction more than any other demographic. This, Darby said, contributed to the academic setbacks this group faced throughout the rest of their schooling.

The book is expected to be published next year and Darby said it shows how historical decision has translated to contemporary disparities.

“It’s easy to forget how much of our present predicaments resemble where we’ve already been,” Darby said.

Examples on campus

As an example of how historical decisions impact the present, Darby pointed to racially charged flyers posted in at least two areas on campus last week and subsequent student protests.

“What we had happen on campus last week — this is not new,” Darby said. “We had on our campus last week a number of really disturbing and painful expressions of hate, disregard for others, and all of us — whether we’re Black or white, rich or poor, male or female, Muslim or Christian or Atheist, abled or disabled — have to care about this because at any time, any one of us could be the object of the same kind of disrespect.”

Because of these issues, Darby said the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan — University President Mark Schlissel’s strategy to create a more inclusive campus, slated to be announced Thursday — is crucial to improve campus climate.

“In a community where we’re silent about that, where we turn the other way, in some ways, we’re part of the problem because we allow this form of disrespect to fester, to grow and maybe even to spread,” Darby said. “All students at U of M have to take these incidents — whether they are directed at African Americans, whether they are directed at women, whether they are directed at Muslims, whether they are directed at students who are on financial aid — have to take them very seriously because it’s creating an environment where we don’t respect one another as equals, and once you create that environment, anybody could be singled out and it’s toxic.”

Drawing from an academic context, he said, however, that the history of Black struggle in the United States points to a need for administrators to consult the student body and make sure they engage in tangible efforts for inclusion.

Engineering senior Max Cornell, who met Darby through his work at a University TedX talk last year, said he thought multidisciplinary research on campus and societal levels like Darby’s was important in understanding institutions.

“The principles that we take from moral and political philosophy guide how we treat each other,” Cornell said. “They govern how governments work, they govern how family works, they govern how businesses interact, and a ton of advances in the way that humans live in terms of quality of life have been attributed to moral and political philosophies.”