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Stagnating Progress in Racial Diversity of Cultural Resource Management

Image via Oxford

Heritage does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is carefully mediated by a billion-dollar industry that employs professionals with advanced degrees to manage, conserve, and interpret what we call culture. This is where Cultural Research Managers (CRMs) come into play. CRMs, including archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians, and museum administrators, maintain heritage by building our public memory. 

After the passing of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CRM industry is set to grow substantially in the next decade. In fact, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) estimates that by US fiscal year 2031, American annual spending on the industry’s projects will “increase from about $1.46 to $1.85 billion,” and create 11,000 new jobs, with almost 8,100 of them being archaeology-based. But 70 percent of these jobs require an advanced degree, such as a Masters or PhD, and it seems that the field may be facing a deficit of capable students entering the workforce to fill these roles. In 2020, the number of advanced degrees awarded in archaeology decreased by a staggering 11 percent. 

The lack of degrees awarded in CRM-related fields may exacerbate a larger crisis: the attack on public history. When one considers the fervent attack on public history by elected officials, the necessity of trained professionals who can preserve the country’s troubled history becomes even more evident. In the wake of increased efforts by elected Republican officials (such as Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida or Governor Greg Abbott of Texas) to erase the history of racial discrimination from American classrooms, it is more necessary than ever for the artifacts that produce our public history to be managed by qualified professionals. 

Furthermore, given that it is largely the history of BIPOC Americans that is being contested, it is vital that we enable archaeologists of color to participate in how their heritage is preserved and utilized. In attempting to do so, a question arises: With an overall deficit in advanced degrees awarded to students in the United States, how are students of color being deterred from pursuing archaeology degrees necessary for a job in cultural resource management? 

Even as many archaeology and anthropology societies continue to advocate for BIPOC-focused scholarship and increased racial diversity, there still is no comprehensive profile of cultural resource management fields. The most recent complete profile of the field was completed in 1994 by SAA, when the pathways that people of color walked to obtain higher education were vastly different. 

Aside from that profile, much of the data regarding the demographics of the field has been acquired through internal surveys such as the SAA Needs Assessment Survey of 2010. That survey found that just 16 percent of all members registered with SAA identify as non-white. Although this represents an increase in the field’s demographic diversity in 1994 (when only 2 percent of respondents identified as non-white), this data set is not representative of North American archaeologists as a whole, especially not today. Furthermore, as the membership for SAA costs anywhere from $85 for students to $170 for professionals, internal surveys may continue to exclude those who are unable to pay a hefty membership fee. As such, it is vital that institutions such as the SAA revitalize efforts to produce exhaustive profiles on archaeology and anthropology with the hope of allowing universities and research institutions to better target and address the blindspots of the field. 

Even without statistical data, it is possible to speculate why a student of color may hesitate to enter the field. Considering the racialized history of heritage management in the United States—American archaeology began with the looting of Indigenous graves and burial mounds and continues to use Indigenous remains in the teaching of bioarchaeology and osteology—it seems critical that fields such as archaeology and anthropology welcome BIPOC students in order to repair strained relationships with marginalized communities. 

And yet, higher education in the field of archaeology continues to make itself inaccessible. First and foremost, a college education is expensive. In 2020, the top institutions commonly awarding degrees in archaeology charged a median out-of-state tuition of $53,425 and an in-state tuition of $9,660, increasing from last year by 1.07 percent and 3.62 percent, respectively. Elevated tuition deters students from entering college, an opportunity cost that is especially large for Black and non-white Hispanic students, who have an average household income of $48,297 and $57,981 respectively. Comparatively, their white counterparts maintain an average household income of $78,999, a key privilege in opening doors to higher education. 

Secondly, of the 327 total archaeology degrees awarded at these colleges in 2020, only three recipients were Black/African American, two were Asian, and one student was Native American. Given the impact that racial isolation in graduate programs may have on the mental health of students of color, universities’ inability to retain BIPOC students may be creating a cycle of underrepresentation, exacerbating the racial disparities in degree conferral. 

In addition, the problematic history of archaeological and anthropological research may discourage students of color from entering these fields due to intergenerational traumas. Early fathers of American anthropology, such as Samuel George Morton, hoarded hundreds of Native American ancestors’ crania for the purpose of racist pseudoscience. Moreover, modern institutions, such as UC Berkeley in California, have failed to repatriate thousands of Native American remains. These legacies may discourage students from considering the field. 

Further, many community-based projects, such as the New York City African Burial Ground, have, at best, ended in sour relations with the communities they aim to serve, and at worst, catastrophic ones. As such, it is easy to assume why many young people of color who may have been interested in pursuing archaeology and related fields find themselves uncomfortable doing so. Still, relying on speculation alone is not enough to create feasible solutions and doing so renders efforts to diversify the field as nebulous.  

Without comprehensive data on what is drawing BIPOC students to or away from cultural resource management, the field as a whole is at an impasse. Even as countless scholars of color make themselves heard in major publications of the field, there are doubtless many more who have been silenced by a lack of comprehensive outreach. Through polling, internal surveys, and a comprehensive profile of the field, institutions would be able to provide BIPOC students with the resources necessary for them to thrive in the industry. 

Archaeology is not just the study of long-forgotten artifacts under the dirt, but a means of looking into the past to understand how our ancestors asserted their personhood through material culture. The ability for Native Americans to demand repatriation of their ancestors is tied to Indigenous sovereignty, just as the ability to use underwater archaeology to recover slave trading ships in the Atlantic Ocean allows descendants of enslaved Africans to regain control of slavery’s narrative and impact. Thus, the importance of making positions of power accessible to archaeologists of color cannot be overstated. The management of heritage is itself a political act, and it is important that the heritage resource agency reflects the people it is serving.