Journey In The Promised Land
Perhaps the most popular argument against Black Graduation is that white students could never have a “White Graduation.” Some find this comparison inappropriate, contending that many blacks are first-generation college students, which makes their accomplishment more meaningful to them and their loved ones. There are certainly graduates who are neither black nor from families where people finished college, including many first-generation Americans for example. But college graduation is about recognizing academic achievement, not race or background. Personally, sharing this moment with several classmates who came from incredibly privileged environments made me particularly proud of my accomplishment.
Regardless of whether there is a double standard or completing college is a greater milestone for black students, a more pressing concern should be the message that universities send by enabling blacks to self-segregate as they enter and exit college. Is comfort more important than the broad experiences widely deemed beneficial for most college students? Does racial solidarity trump sharing an academic rite of passage with peers who labored through the same discipline? Endorsing self-segregation for some via separate dorms and graduations, while emphasizing diversity and integration to others, warrants the consideration: are universities teaching students of different races contradictory lessons.
Since higher education is often the foundation of professional and economic success, I sought out distinguished black professionals to learn the effect they believe integration had on their careers. I interviewed judges, lawyers, doctors, professors, university officials, political activists, and commentators on race. Their ages ranged from early thirties to late seventies and their politics ran the gamut. However, I turned to them not for some statistically significant conclusion about race relations but rather for thoughtful insights on a complex matter.
With each person, I discussed the racial make-up of their upbringing, their opinions on self-segregation and the role they think racially diverse experiences played in their success. Because various sensitivities often inhibit the candor necessary to shed light on controversial issues, I wanted people to disclose their views without fear of damaging their reputation. So I offered not to identify people with particular statements if they preferred. Several did.
Despite staunch disagreement between some people on affirmative action and other race-related issues, there were unexpected agreements and alliances on every aspect of self-segregation.
Thelton Henderson is currently a federal judge, one of the first blacks in the United States to earn this position, and was the first black attorney in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice in 1962. Also known for making headlines when he blocked the enforcement of Prop 209 (the 1996 initiative California voters passed to ban public schools from considering race in admissions), Judge Henderson offered his take on the cause of black separatism in college. He thought that the emergence of black militancy at the end of the Civil Rights Movement symbolized “the beginning of blacks turning their backs on America and integration and thinking it’s hip to want our own.” Admitting to a touch of cynicism, he said that an increasing effort from black America to reject the values of larger society has led many blacks to “remove themselves from reality” and create a “fantasy world” in which they exaggerate the extent and effects of racism. He noted enormous progress in race relations since his birth in 1933 and asserted “the belief that integration and assimilation get you nowhere is a misconception.”
Two outspoken opponents of affirmative action in higher education agreed with Judge Henderson. Ward Connerly, the former UC Regent who led the Prop 209 campaign, called Judge Henderson’s decision on the initiative “one of the most perverse examples of jurisprudence.” On self-segregation though, Connerly also thought that many blacks abandon the mainstream for “safe-havens” that enable them to embellish the pervasiveness of racism and hold onto “the baggage of paranoia born of valid history.” A Senior Fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and the author of several books on race, John McWhorter, said black college students self-segregate because black separatist ideology dictates both that black America is sovereign and whites are eternally racist.
One professor attributed the tendency of blacks to self-segregate to the long-held belief “that there is something intrinsically valuable to being surrounded by blacks.” Judge Henderson was adamant that any notion of an “unspoken connection between blacks is a myth.” Another judge went a step further, arguing that most blacks who claim they self-segregate to develop or retain their culture “don’t know what the hell their culture is.” Seeming more frustrated by this defense of separatism in the black community, this judge rhetorically asked, “Is being black a speech pattern and sagging pants? Is working hard, being punctual, and wanting an education being white?”
Many people said that comfort was a critical factor in self-segregation because black college students want to strengthen their cultural identity and socialize with people who share their awareness of racism and the experience of being black on a mostly white campus. Eva Paterson, a well-known supporter of affirmative action and the founder of a national organization that raises consciousness on race in public policy, said she “can’t disagree if someone was raised only around blacks” and sticks with their own because they are “suspicious of other races.” I have heard people express the same opinion with respect to different minority groups, but never whites. So I asked Paterson whether she was equally sympathetic when whites from all-white neighborhoods prefer the company of whites. She acknowledged, “I guess I have a double standard.”
Others identified self-segregation as a symptom of the flawed attitude universities have toward accommodating minority students. Shelby Steele, a self-described “black conservative” and research fellow specializing in race relations at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, argued that universities end up “encouraging the worst instincts in minorities” because they assume that absolute leniency is necessary even though they demand more of other students. McWhorter suspected that universities that promote segregated dorms and black graduation don’t have “any sincere interest in integration.” Connerly was convinced that “paths that cater to comfort” were nothing more than selfish attempts to “just put numbers on a brochure to recruit the next minority applicant.”
When asked about the possible consequences of self-segregation, people overwhelmingly thought that submerging oneself in racially homogenous environments and actively avoiding interactions with people of other races is ultimately harmful. They expressed with surprising consistency that having experiences with students from different races is integral not only to thriving in the working world, but also college.
Predictions of inevitable difficulties in the work force were common. United States Court of Appeals Judge Theodore McKee said “self-segregation doesn’t prepare blacks for going out into the real world.” He and Eva Paterson anticipated that people who self-segregate will encounter obstacles in job interviews because they won’t be at ease around people different from themselves. Erick Howard, the only black partner at a reputable law firm, emphasized that in addition to academic qualifications employers assess whether people will fit into their work environment. Or as Steele foresaw, people accustomed to thinking of themselves as separate from the mainstream will not rise as quickly as colleagues who appreciate that “employees need to communicate that they’re one of the team.” An anesthesiologist at a major medical school said that delaying diverse experiences until entering the work force “isn’t a good idea since it’s important to know how to navigate a diverse working world on a daily basis.”
This same doctor encouraged black students having a core support group, but advised that if they wish to be successful they think about challenging “certain forces in our society” instead of “taking themselves out of the game.” Howard felt black students should do more than not self-segregate. Recalling a judge reprimanding a white attorney for wearing unprofessional attire, he argued that black students need to recognize that society demands that everybody, not just blacks, conform and meet certain standards. Judge Henderson accepted that “some inequalities still exist in America,” but also advocated that blacks resist blaming their every failure on racism and realize that there comes “a point when you have to have the courage to look in the mirror and admit some things aren’t working.”
Some people considered racial separatism antithetical to the personal development of college students, saying students ought to interact with a broad array of people despite the possibility of unpleasant experiences. Charles Henry, Chair of Berkeley’s African American Studies Department, described college as the “perfect time to have new experiences and leave your comfort-zone.” However, he expressed disappointment that students who refuse to do either “will never grow.” The anesthesiologist thought “people need to be around people who don’t think or necessarily look like them in order to grow.” He said that while students in single-race environments might “get a good education, the isolation means they’ve sold themselves short and limited their educational experience.” Similarly, Howard theorized that students lose out when they don’t “integrate and see how others view their experiences.”
Judge McKee took issue with students diminishing the chance that universities would integrate groups that feel marginalized. He argued that students who willingly exclude themselves from the majority of the student body give “educational institutions a cop out” and take “the pressure off to be inclusive.” Blacks sensing discrimination or being unable to connect with other races is troublesome but, as he explained, universities will ignore both problems when most blacks self-segregate and don’t demand that schools make a serious effort to rectify the situation.
I asked people what responsibility universities have to ensure student integration. Ironically, the only person to suggest that merely attending classes offers sufficient racially diverse interactions was a university official accountable for enhancing the inclusion of minorities. (While discussing a different issue, a professor at the same school mentioned that many black students self-select into certain courses, leaving other courses less diverse.) The people I interviewed advocated relatively proactive approaches to curb self-segregation and promote integration, although specific recommendations varied.
Connerly acknowledged the right of people to socialize with whomever they choose, but felt that if diversity is going to be anything more than a buzzword, students have to “be forced to interact.” He proposed that universities explicitly inform students that college is about being uncomfortable sometimes and learning to relate to different types of people. Conceding that blacks are “probably more comfortable with each other,” he dismissed the notion that integration is too difficult for some students because “the human spirit is sufficiently adaptive.” Despite publicly debating Connerly on affirmative action and other race-related policies, Paterson offered this same exact plan and observation almost verbatim. Dr. Hobart Harris, the Chief of General Surgery at University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, said universities should actively help students overcome perceived barriers.
However, Dr. Hobart also stressed that students, whether in the minority or majority, have an obligation to enhance their own experiences because “individuals have some personal responsibility to put themselves in an uncomfortable environment.” Dr. Harris said people shouldn’t by default consider students of the same race choosing to spend time together a rejection of others. The problem is when students participate in activities and exclude people who want to join because of race. But Dr. Harris said that even when self-segregation becomes an issue, he was unsure if “patterns of behavior that have been inculcated would dissipate.” Steele, the research fellow at the Hoover Institution, insisted that black students must “become interested in their own development” and use the university as a resource, not become “completely dependent” on it.
And then there were expectations that universities would fail to integrate students, either due to circumstance or choice. In spite of criticizing black separatism and many universities’ interest in integration, John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute thought implementing policies to limit self-segregation would do universities more harm than good because certain people are fiercely protective of the status quo. Stripping black students of their separate dorms and graduation would anger some people so much that improving race relations would be impossible, he explained. Steele saw little room for change but instead faulted universities. Having lost hope that universities would focus on facilitating academic excellence amongst minorities, he said that demanding an end to self-segregation “is a silly goal because officials have little faith in black students.”
As both McWhorter and Steele’s words show, even people who find racial separatism troubling nevertheless do not see addressing racial separatism in college as a simple matter. The issues surrounding self-segregation are both complex and fraught with political minefields.
While many students, particularly minorities who feel isolated, naturally gravitate towards people they believe are similar to them, shirking honest and open discussions of self-segregation does nothing to incorporate these students into the larger university atmosphere.
People who claim students of the same race connect more easily because race is still a significant factor in American society cannot have it both ways; race cannot be the most powerful form of discrimination in this country (think “conservative only” dorm comparison), and at the same time as innocent a reason to associate as politics, career goals, or actual interests. To those who suggest that both are in fact the case, I ask if they would find an all-white dorm or graduation ceremony offensive. Race shouldn’t be a significant factor only when minorities want it to be. Universities that enable racial separatism but also agree “there’s nothing healthy about self-segregation” – as the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life argued – must be more creative in finding ways to improve university life for minorities. Self-segregation is a cop out for both the institution and the individual.
It is difficult to argue with the fact that most people seek comfort and immerse themselves in environments, sometimes separate from the mainstream, because they want to associate with people who understand them and share their views. At least in college, students who self-segregate to the exclusion of others deprive not only themselves but also the people they distrust of an opportunity to learn from and about people unlike themselves. A refusal to recognize this seems incompatible with our supposedly post-racial world of President Barack Obama.
Our country has been at a similar crossroad before. When the Supreme Court reversed its stance on the long-standing “separate but equal” doctrine, it recognized that “separate” cannot be “equal.” Of course, then the issue was segregation compelled by the law, not personal choice. The Court striking down the legal basis for “separate but equal” after centuries of slavery followed by brutal racial discrimination, marked the start of the Civil Rights Movement and a critical shift in our society’s attitude toward race relations. This change was driven by the belief that, in America, people who are kept separate cannot have equal opportunity.
People often invoke the powerful line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in which he expresses his dream that America would become a nation where his children were judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. But his speech included hopes for this country and expectations of its people that were more ambitious.
Dr. King envisioned an America where blacks, “the sons of former slaves” and whites, “the sons of former slave owners” could “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” In a time when blacks endured violent racism from the government and fellow citizens, Dr. King believed the obligation to improve society, and not just end racism, was a burden that rested upon the shoulders of both races. The freedom of blacks and whites in America is “inextricably bound,” as Dr. King said, and blacks must not lead each other into distrusting all whites but instead recognize that “we cannot walk alone” and pledge that “we cannot turn back.” Looking at Dr. King’s dream, so long as a person “still [languishes] in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land,” he is not free.
The current choice of many blacks to carve out their own corners on their college campuses because they don’t feel welcome begs a new question: is voluntarily separate equal?
With an African American now holding the most powerful political position in the world, perhaps we have an opportunity to examine this issue with a fresh look and open mind. As my interviews show, there is no obvious answer to the many questions surrounding self-segregation. And while there is always some distance between our society’s hopes and realistic possibilities, open and honest discussions of this issue seem to be a necessary first step towards offering students something better.
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I screw up with relationships and I mess up at work. I get angry and say things I don’t mean to my friends or people I love.
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