When Shaun Harper went to high school in Thomasville, Georgia, students voted for homecoming queen. Each year, students cast their ballot for that year’s winner. And each year, there were always two winners. One Black queen and one white. One ballot, two queens.
He went back to visit his family not long ago, and during a town parade, his high school’s float featured, 25 years later, two queens. One Black queen and one white.
From the age of five, Harper noticed clues that his community was stratified. At that age, he may not have had the words, but he noticed that his family and most Black families in town were living in poverty and that most of the white families were wealthy. And as he grew up and heard the misinformation people used to justify that stratification, he also observed that his family was not simply unlucky, they were the opposite of lazy, and they were in no way inferior. Something else was going on. In that small town on the border of Georgia and Florida, a social scientist and a leader for justice was emerging.
Harper’s curiosity and commitment to creating something different has led him to develop systems of radical inclusion in K-12 and higher education, knowing those shifts can affect the whole nation. Today, he is one of the nation’s most highly respected racial equity experts. On October 25, the College of Education welcomed him as this year’s speaker in the Dean’s Lecture Series on Education and Society. His talk was entitled “Understanding and Confronting Politicized Attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Education.” This event was co-sponsored with the Division of Student Affairs and University of Maryland’s Anti-Black Racism Initiative.
Having been in the world of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in education for almost 30 years, Harper’s current home is at the University of Southern California (USC), where he is a University Professor and Provost Professor in the Rossier School of Education and the Marshall School of Business. He serves as founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.
While DEI efforts in education have been underfunded and underprioritized for decades, the last several years have seen a significant increase in attempts to restrict DEI and queer, trans, Black and people of color’s rights and representation in educational spaces. Harper’s Race and Equity Center has recently rolled out the National DEI Defense Fund, which seeks to confront organized disinformation campaigns in K-12 and higher education on multiple fronts. The fund supports the center’s work to distribute DEI-focused books to students affected by state and district book bans; invest in DEI initiatives that have been underfunded due to “politicized, ill-informed budget cuts”; provide legal support to educators fired or sued for teaching accurate race content; and fund research on the impact of anti-DEI policies on democracy.
“My lifelong quest is not just to understand DEI issues but also to be the person who forces conversations that are long overdue–and to become an architect of solutions,” Harper says.