Racial Tensions on Campus

by Ruth Sidel, Viking Press, 1994. 290 pp. $22.95

by Paul Rogat Loeb, Rutgers University Press, 1994. $24.95

Reviewed by Reginald Wilson

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 19, Summer 1995]

Reginald Wilson is Senior Scholar at the American Council on Education and a member of the New Politics editorial board.

Everybody seems afraid -- afraid for their jobs, their safety, their children's education. And politicians have whipped this fear into a frenzy, a Red scare from within rather than without. Now the enemy takes the form of the poor, the elderly, the black, the alien. Can America discover its soul before it degenerates into total race and class warfare?

Bart Schneider

HATE MAIL WAS STUFFED INTO THE MAILBOXES OF BLACK LAW STUDENTS at Boalt Hall, the law school at the University of California at Berkeley this winter. Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien said to black students in response, "I know that I speak for the campus community when I assure you that what offends you offends our entire community." But Dr. Tien's brave words may not be quite accurate. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll found 68 percent of white Americans are opposed to preferential treatment for minorities in college admissions among other things.

At the University of Pennsylvania this spring, a white student campus paper, The Red and Blue, printed derogatory remarks about Haitian people that provoked an explosion of outrage among black students and, in another incident, tensions increased between black and white women students.

Variations on these incidents have been occurring on college campuses all over the country with increasing frequency since the 1980s. For example, in 1987, 42 campuses reported ethnoviolence that drew some media attention. In 1988, there were reports on 103 campuses and in 1989 there were 113 reports. By 1993, 85 percent of campuses with enrollments over 10,000 had reported at least one incident of ethnoviolence. Most scholars who study such phenomena agree that such incidents are vastly underreported, since most racial conflict and disruptive situations are not reported. "The opposition and hostility to the increasing enrollment of black students (and later to Hispanic and Asian Pacific students) was predictable," says Howard Ehrlich, director of the Prejudice Institute, "a rapid shift in the ethnic composition of a population is almost invariably accompanied by increased group conflict." However universally anticipated, what was conspicuously absent on most college campuses was the preparation for such disruption and racial tension. Students were left to flounder and respond on their own to racial conflict in various ways; campuses only reacted and attempted to contain them when these incidents got out of hand. What was also conspicuously apparent was that campuses seldom learned from these incidents: first denying their racial basis; then dismissing them as an aberration on a "normally" peaceful campus; then finally, reluctantly, acknowledging the racial basis of the disturbance.

Most of the widely publicized incidents are well known -- the racist jokes at the University of Michigan, the "water buffalo" incident at the University of Pennsylvania -- and have been studied in depth in news reports and commissioned studies. Less studied are the reactions of individual students of the current generation to the increasing presence of racial minority students on college campuses and the reaction of these minority students to life on predominantly white campuses. In addition, there is a rise in incidents of sexual harassment and gay bashing on campuses which appears to be related to any appearance of difference on what were racially homogeneous campuses only a few decades ago.

The two fine books reviewed here explore the complex questions of race and related issues on college campuses and how they affect the lives of individual students. Both books were published near the end of last year. It is unfortunate that they appeared before the November elections. It would be interesting to learn students' reactions to Republican proposals to cut student financial aid and their plan to introduce legislation eliminating affirmative action. Nevertheless, both books are valuable for what they do tell us and their speculations about the future.

RUTH SIDEL, THE AUTHOR OF Battling Bias, is a widely respected sociology professor at Hunter College who has written extensively on the problems of working class women and on child care. In preparing for this study she visited 17 campuses and talked to over a hundred students between 1991 and 1993. While she might be criticized for spending an inordinate time on Eastern campuses and interviewing too few students in static situations, her observations are usually wise and penetrating.

She poses the question early on: "How is it possible to transform such closed, hierarchical institutions into ones that truly welcome people from many backgrounds?" The answers she gets are equivocal. She finds in general "that even on so-called liberal campuses people of color, gays and lesbians and often women are made to feel as though they are outsiders and do not quite belong." In reaction to racist behavior some students are transformed into political activists while others turn inward and focus on academic work, or become alienated and drop out. At MIT, Professor William Watson stated in response to a campus survey, "One must conclude ... that women at MIT ... live in an environment that is much more hostile ... more demeaning ... more dangerous that it is for men."

On the other hand, some students react to their changed circumstances by becoming more politically aware. Lisa Graham, for example, came to the U.S. from the Philippines at the age of two, lived in a white suburb and went to a white suburban school. When she went to college she was "very white-identified," but by the second semester of her freshman year she became more political and tried to form an Asian American support group. She turned for help to the African American community, which was well organized but was rebuffed. "Just because you are dealing with your own oppression," she observed, "doesn't mean you can understand another's oppression." This astute observation could be applied to most relations between and among minority groups -- blacks and Jews, Koreans and blacks, women of color and white women. One would expect their common oppression to bind them but their hostility to each other makes it difficult, if not nearly impossible to build coalitions. Thus, most minority groups suffer their alienation alone except on those campuses like Boston College and Colgate University where groups with the acronym ALANA (Asian American, Latin American, Native American and African American) have been formed that work on issues of common concern without losing their respective identities. But these groups are not mentioned by Sidel as possible models of collaboration to emulate.

ONE ISSUE THAT SHARPLY DIVIDES WHITE AND MINORITY STUDENTS is the question of different admission standards, with most white students insisting that the criteria should be based strictly on "merit" (read test scores and GPA), and minorities insisting that prior racial exclusion and inferior education should be considered as well. In both Sidel's and Loeb's books, most white students express the view that "merit is the American way" and are angered at the possibility that some "undeserving" minority may get a place that some "deserving" white student should have. They are completely indifferent to the idea of compensating for past racial discrimination. Indeed, their sense of history is that discrimination existed in the distant past and that "everybody's equal now and should be treated the same." They evince no sense of responsibility for what "somebody's grandfather" did to "somebody else's grandfather," saying, "It's not our fault," therefore why should we pay? In her book, Racism and Justice. The Case for Affirmative Action, Gertrude Ezorsky makes the useful point that the Germans born since World War II are still paying reparations to the Jews. A people may not be responsible for what happened in the past but they enjoy a present day advantaged position because of that past. In a society purporting to be egalitarian the advantaged may have to make some adjustments to accommodate the disadvantaged.

There have been some proposals recently to strike all preferences due to race and gender and grant scholarships based strictly on need. But this distorts the original intent of the concept of affirmative action which was to correct discrimination and exclusion based on race and gender irrespective of need. Sidel makes the point that when institutions give scholarships based only on need "many black students [choose] to go elsewhere." However, she does not pursue the point that black students may not go just anywhere. At the University of California, for example, if merit principles were strictly applied, and scholarships were given based only on need, the student body would be perhaps 80 percent Asian and 20 percent white, and this in a state population nearly 40 percent Hispanic and over 35 percent Caucasian. And this does not even begin to address the question of "legacies" (sons and daughters of alumni who bypass the merit criteria) or athletes (who are admitted with much lower SAT scores than regular admits). In their rush to do away with preferences, proponents of the merit principle will create more problems than they think they are eliminating.

Sidel interviews white, mostly Jewish, students who have a variety of opinions on the issues described above, from qualified support to outright opposition to minority preferences. As with most students, they bring the attitudes and political viewpoints of their parents to the complex issues they face on campus. The campus is, therefore, indeed a microcosm of the larger outside society and exhibits the same ambivalence to confronting its complex problems.

Ending on an upbeat, cautiously optimistic tone, Sidel makes several sound suggestions. For example, among other things, colleges should be providing compensatory help; reconsidering the preference for legacies; considering the positive aspects of activism, and other prescriptions. And she admonishes the academic community to work "for a more humane society [that] is truly a way of bringing people together ... ."

PAUL ROGAT LOEB CASTS A WIDER NET THAN RUTH SIDEL and attempts something more ambitious. He has spent six years researching his study, has visited over 100 campuses and not only interviewed his students, but gone to class with them, lived in their dorms and participated in their protests. He is a true participant- observer and his book reflects that. He, too, has previously written on the travails of working people (Hope in Hard Times), and gets into the lives of students in an intense and immediate way. He is also interested in issues beyond race, including how students respond to concerns with the environment, with nuclear policies, with individualism, how these complex topics shape their lives and how they all relate to each other.

Loeb writes in his introduction: "the students who attended college during the eighties and early nineties represent the most ambitious and fortunate slice of their generation." But he cautions, "They have emerged, if anything, more cynical and politically inactive, in part because America's economic decline has landed so hard on their future," and this can be seen in their selfish "me-firstism." According to a 1992 UCLA poll of freshmen, where 20 years ago their primary goal (85%) was to "develop a meaningful philosophy of life," today their main ambition (73%) is to "be very well off financially." But contradictorily, their "commitment to promoting racial understanding" jumped to 42 percent from a low of 27 percent in 1987, and six of seven freshmen (85%) disagreed with the statement that "racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America."

These contradictory attitudes show up in Loeb's interviews. He notes that white MBA graduates wore signs at graduation saying "For Sale," and that black MBA graduates wore them, as well. Loeb observes that "instead of civic involvement they concentrated on their careers" and "most were afraid to act politically." They had one dimensional views of race. They asked "why should we care about black issues?" and thought it was alright to recruit minorities as long as "it doesn't jeopardize some deserving whites," thus, implicitly expressing the view that blacks are not as valuable as whites or equally "deserving."

On the other hand, people like the Assistant Chaplain Bobbi Patterson, at Emory University, felt the need to face "the same challenge of how to build a more inclusive community." And Loeb notes that in his travels to campuses around the country "the same racial tensions continued to surface. Minority students voiced the same frustrations and complaints. White students voiced the same ambivalent concern, bought into the same myths that said you could strip away historical contexts and still understand people's lives."

In Loeb's travels around the country many other important issues came up. From the University of Washington where the myth of peace marchers spitting on soldiers while protesting the Vietnam War was exploded; to the University of Nebraska where Barbara Meister's activism on farm issues led to "learning to care for each other and respect everyone's rights and needs and wants," to the University of Michigan, where Matt Greene went from being apolitical to organizing "Greeks for Peace" among conservative fraternity members.

Paul Loeb also ends his study on an upbeat note. His concluding chapter follows his activist and conservative students to the next stages in their lives after graduation and says, "Though we should be heartened by renewed campus concern, no single generation can bear the sole responsibility for healing the world."

BOTH RUTH SIDEL AND PAUL LOEB HAVE PROVIDED US with the most in-depth look at college students since the 60s studies of campus activism. This generation of students is very different, more ambivalent on issues of race and somewhat more conservative, but there are also some activists. The 60s saw an expanding economy and welcomed diversity. With a faltering economy and increasing selfishness among students fighting for jobs and university slots, the atmosphere is decidedly not as welcoming as it was 30 years ago. With the conservative assault on student financial aid and affirmative action we may, in fact, see our campuses return to what they were before World War II, with expensive elitist, private and highly selective public universities becoming predominantly white again and with most minorities shunted to the affordable, open admissions community colleges. This would set back the battle for educational opportunity nearly 50 years and lead to class conflict such as we have not seen since the Great Depression.

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