Journey In The Promised Land

In high school a classmate described Passover as a time when Jews celebrate their ancestors’ liberation from bondage in Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. When a friend invited me to join his family for a Seder dinner during my sophomore year of college, this was still the extent of my knowledge. I accepted his invitation because I was eager to learn more about the ceremony and see how a wealthy, white family celebrated their freedom from slavery. And of course, like most college students, I couldn’t afford to turn down a free meal.

Once inside my friend’s home, it was obvious that his family was at least a couple thousand years out of slavery. Their house sat on top of a hill in Piedmont, California – one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America – and overlooked San Francisco, where his parents owned a successful law firm. I had been in their home before, so I knew that my friend came from more-than-comfortable beginnings, but coming to college from South Central, Los Angeles – notorious for its gangs – I found his family’s wealth jarring. Yet somehow celebrating the end of slavery inside their home magnified their affluence even more.

As I learned was customary at their Seder, my friend’s father told the story of Exodus. I recognized the birth and childhood of Moses, his pleas for the pharaoh to let his people go, and the plagues God wrought upon Egypt. However, my familiarity with the story ended once the Jews crossed the Red Sea. I didn’t know that soon after Moses led Jews away from centuries of slavery, they complained about the physical hardships of their journey and longed to return to Egypt. Apparently this caused God to declare that the entire generation born into slavery in Egypt must perish before the next generation, which would be born into freedom, could enter the Promised Land.

As an African American, I have always been surprised that blacks don’t celebrate Emancipation. But it wasn’t until I heard a detailed narration of Exodus while dining with a white family that the absence of a black celebration of freedom struck me as particularly odd. Giving my thoughts more attention than the dinner conversation, I wondered if today’s Jews have a greater appreciation for their people’s transition from slavery to freedom because, unlike blacks, they fled the society that had enslaved them. Perhaps starting a new life in the Promised Land freed Jews from constantly worrying whether they could be treated as equals. Did the inability of newly liberated American slaves to have their own Promised Land condemn today’s blacks to expect this country and whites to be forever indebted to them?

Listening to my friend’s father describe a new generation of Jews finally reaching the Promised Land, I considered how Jews and Egyptians might have interacted had Jews been emancipated but remained in Egypt. I wondered if enslaving Jews was a sin for which Egyptians never would have been forgiven. Could Jews assimilate into Egyptian society or would they want a separate identity? Could Egyptians learn to stop brutally oppressing Jews and treat them as equals?

Although attending a Seder led me to view the impact of history on race relations from a new perspective, my experiences as a black student at the University of California, Berkeley inspired my interest in what some call “self-segregation,” or people choosing to associate primarily with other members of their race. Throughout secondary school almost all my black peers equated having white friends (or being articulate) with “acting white.” I eventually learned to accept that schoolyard bullies believed blacks should kowtow to abstract and narrow tenets of “authentic blackness,” but I later realized that racialized expectations are also prevalent amongst black college students.

I applied to Berkeley hoping it would be a place where students could discover and pursue their passions while learning both from and alongside people of different backgrounds. Berkeley didn’t disappoint. I routinely noticed ways for students to satisfy their interests, from those in love with astrophysics to those hooked on The Simpsons; and it was not uncommon to come across classmates who had served in the military, grown up in rural areas, or only recently moved to America. It didn’t take long to learn that Berkeley also offered several opt-out options for black students who didn’t care to experience the school’s diversity – to use a loaded word. Days after being accepted, I was invited to live on the “African American Theme” dormitory floor and attend “Black Senior Weekend” (a weekend for underrepresented admits to visit Berkeley).

I frequently met black students who seemed determined to participate in activities and organizations that were exclusively black, despite the likelihood that their professional ambitions would be better served elsewhere. The most illustrative example is an acquaintance who was looking to meet other students interested in the law. Having made the same search and joined the Cal Mock Trial Team, I recommended she tryout. Competitors study evidence, examine witnesses, and compete around the country in mock trial tournaments to receive feedback from judges and attorneys. To bolster my sell, I explained that our coach (whose home I would visit for Passover) was a founding partner of a prestigious law firm in San Francisco. I waited for questions about costs and time commitment, but she only bluntly asked “How many blacks are on the team?” I didn’t see how it was relevant, but answered “Right now, just me.” Noticing her interest fade, I quickly added that many members of the team were great people and some of my closest friends. She then put into words the dismissive look that came across her face as I made my last point: “Girl, I can’t be kickin’ it with all them white people.”

I didn’t understand why she found the prospect of socializing with white students unappealing, so I turned to a friend active in the black community at Berkeley for some insight. Ignoring my question, my friend immediately launched into her opinion of race relations in the 1960s. I was about to redirect her attention to present day college students when she nonchalantly claimed that blacks would have been “better off” if integration never happened and whites had just “left us alone.” I couldn’t absorb the significance of her assertion quickly enough to say anything other than “Is that what you really think?” She briefly explained that “forced association with whites” had prevented blacks from establishing their own identity.

These encounters strongly suggested that some black students had no desire to experience racially diverse environments. But in post-Prop 209 Berkeley, the focus was the number of minorities the university admitted, not the separatist route many of those same students chose once, and sometimes before, they arrived. (In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 209 to prohibit public schools from considering race in admissions.) I heard professors lament that Prop 209 had devastated the acceptance rate of minorities, and saw black students sport shirts with “Overqualified and Underrepresented” plastered across the front and statistics noting the drop in black student enrollment after Prop 209 on the back.

By my junior year, I had become more intrigued by the racial separatism I witnessed and bored with the heated affirmative action debates that infected virtually every aspect of campus life. I knew that I would have to devote time to studying this issue if I was going to answer the questions I had been asking myself since I set foot on campus. So I obtained a fellowship with the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity to research factors that influence the likelihood that black students will separate along racial lines and the potential ramifications of their behavior. With the support and guidance of Berkeley Law’s Dean Christopher Edley, Jr., I looked at measures Berkeley and other universities took to enable black students to separate or integrate, and I interviewed prominent blacks on self-segregation and the contribution they believed integration made to their success.

Based on media coverage of this issue, there appear to be two main camps in the public debate surrounding self-segregation on college campuses. One side argues that underrepresented students at predominantly white universities need separate racially homogenous environments to nurture their identity, socialize with people who truly understand them, and temporarily escape always being in the minority. Opponents insist that self-segregation is divisive and fails to prepare students for environments in which they must interact with other races regardless of the discomfort it might bring. Many who defend “comfort-zones” argue that whites aren’t required to reach out to other races and that blacks (and Latinos) are unfairly singled out when all students engage in some form of separatism.

Creating enclaves is clearly not limited to any one group. People want to be around others like themselves, and certain characteristics – including race – can indicate common ground in additional areas. However, it is ironic for a race, after a long-time struggle against and historic triumph over forced segregation in America, to voluntarily segregate. And though racial separatism surely occurs beyond university walls, college is often seen as the time students are equipped for life outside school.

While there are undeniable and understandable tendencies for similar people to band together, I wanted to explore whether self-segregation adversely affects black students’ ability to maximize their achievement in the “real world.”

Simply entertaining this possibility might cause some to wonder if I am from an economically privileged background or a “black conservative.” I am neither. Nevertheless, I believe that automatic accusations of callousness and racism exemplify the severe limitations on discussions of this issue, and the undeserved vilification with which questioning the behavior of blacks is typically met.

People who disagree with facilitating separatist environments for minority students are often characterized as unsympathetic. These charges don’t concern me. Of over eight thousand applicants accepted to Berkeley, I was one of 108 blacks in the incoming class of 2004. More often than not, I was the only black person in my classes, from sections with twenty students to lecture halls with several hundred, and I had my share of run-ins with people who help create the “hostile” university environment.

Once I familiarized myself with the national debate on self-segregation, I began researching avenues that allow black students to separate themselves from the rest of the student body. Since I was invited to live on the “African American Theme Program” (AATP) dorm floor my first year, I started with university housing designated for black students. I spoke with several AATP administrative assistants about the origins of Berkeley’s all-black residence hall and its overall objective. They seemed highly defensive and more intent on questioning my motives than providing basic information, as if inquiries threatened the program’s very survival.

AATP’s website touted the program as a place where residents could have open discussions and learn to understand students from different backgrounds, but I wasn’t convinced that either objective was a top priority. According to their online pitch, AATP gave students “who share the same interest” an opportunity to live together. Wanting to live solely amongst blacks appeared to be the only “interest” other housing options couldn’t satisfy. After all, every other experience AATP said it offered was available, though possibly more difficult to obtain, outside a racially segregated setting.

Although I chose not to participate in AATP, I appreciated its appeal. With over thirty thousand students and hundreds of student organizations, Berkeley can feel rather Darwinian. I empathized with black freshmen attempting to nurture their identity and more easily transition to college.

What I didn’t understand was university officials actually paving the way for students to avoid living with peers without the same skin color. I wondered if people who defend minorities having their own dorms to cope with an “unwelcoming” university would support a comparable housing option for other groups.

During my college years, which overlapped with the majority of George W. Bush’s second term, few people at Berkeley were confronted with more animosity than Republicans. A “conservative only” dorm might afford some students special comfort in an overwhelmingly liberal and consistently hostile environment, but universities wouldn’t permit such facilities. As my group leader at student orientation acknowledged, universities expect students to cultivate an ability to interact and find common ground with people unlike themselves.

I can’t equate the adversity that black and conservative students face. But something seems amiss if universities encourage conservative students to challenge themselves and their views by living amongst a diverse group of people, and simultaneously help blacks opt out and, as some suggest, miss out. In 2006, when the University of Massachusetts, Amherst elected to stop reserving dorm floors for minorities and discourage students from trying to live with people of the same race, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life said college students “need to be exposed to different opinions and ideas.” He likened letting students live exclusively with their race to “allowing [them] to shut themselves off,” which he argued means that “they are missing out.”

The national debate that ensued after officials at UMass announced their plans to increase integration by eliminating segregated dorms reveals the difficult situation universities are in: appease minority students with special privileges or limit separatism and be branded “unwelcoming.” Given this political predicament, many universities don’t commit themselves to providing all students with the fullest possible educational experience or addressing the problems on campus that motivate minorities to self-segregate; instead, they offer band-aid solutions so that they can dodge allegations of insensitivity.

As I was completing my research of black dorms, I found myself constantly being asked, “Are you going to Black Grad?” Traditionally, universities have a general commencement and individual graduations grouped by major for undergraduate seniors. In more recent years, however, several schools also host “Black Graduation” – a separate ceremony that black students may attend. I looked into this form of self-segregation once I realized that virtually every black senior I knew had plans to participate. Administrative assistants were resolute that the event is open to any student. Technically speaking, this is correct though the name of the ceremony and numerous graduates wearing academic stoles in the colors of the Pan-African flag – a popular symbol of black unity – seem to indicate who is welcome.

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