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'Race and Class Matters at an Elite College'

September 12, 2008

Among the sub-debates in the debates over affirmative action are questions over the relative significance of race and class. A new book attempts to explore race and class simultaneously in a college setting. In Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, Elizabeth Aries explores the insights she gained by studying four groups of students at Amherst College: affluent white students, affluent black students, white students without a lot of money and black students without a lot of money. Aries, a professor of psychology at Amherst, used observation, interviews and questionnaires to analyze the four groups. Temple University Press is about to release the book. Aries recently responded to questions from Inside Higher Ed.

Q: You teach and have written about growing up in the United States, drawing on your background in psychology. Did that shape your approach to this work in ways that might be different from the approach of affirmative action or higher ed policy?

A: My background in psychology drew me to study students’ out-of-the-classroom experiences, to look at how race and class shaped students’ thoughts, feelings and interpersonal interactions. My research focused on psychological questions such as the extent to which students formed cross-race and cross-class relationships and the tensions that arose in those relationships, on the race- and class-based stereotypes they held and whether living in a diverse community helped them to see the world through a new lens.

Q: Of your findings, how broadly do you think they apply in higher education? Do you think the tensions would be similar at residential, non-elite liberal arts colleges? At a place like the University of Massachusetts at Amherst?

A: The entering academic credentials of students at an elite and non-elite residential liberal arts college may differ, but I would argue that the race and class issues and tensions that students face on any college campus are quite similar. Black students at the elite college I studied had a degree of mistrust and wariness about the kinds of anti-black sentiments whites might harbor, about encountering stereotyping and prejudice, and had to figure out how to best respond to the occasional insensitive or offensive racial comments they heard inside and outside the classroom. Further, blacks had to negotiate differences with other blacks on campus, e.g., in social class, in skin tone, in the centrality of race to self-definition, in their self-definition as blacks and whether they were considered to be “black enough,” in whether to hang out with and date primarily members of their own race. Lower-income students at times felt like outsiders due to a lack of economic and cultural capital, were excluded from activities because they lacked funds, or had difficulties connecting to students whose experiences, attitudes, values and outlooks were very different than their own. These issues are not specific to students at an elite college; they are general issues being dealt with or avoided at other institutions of higher education and in the larger society.

Q: What do you think your most important findings are about race?

A: My study shows racial stereotypes to be prevalent on campus (e.g., blacks are less intelligent than whites, blacks have more athletic talent than whites, blacks are poor/whites are rich) but that the development of cross-race relationships and interactions inside and outside the classroom can make an important contribution in breaking down these stereotypes and changing students’ notions about race. The potential for learning from a racially diverse community, however, was not realized for many students.

Two other important findings about race pertain to whites’ misperception and lack of knowledge about blacks. Many whites tend to see black students to be self-segregating. When black friends eat together at tables in the dining hall, or hang out together in groups, whites take notice. Yet no one comments on the tables of whites eating together in the dining hall or on whites hanging out together on campus. The students showing the greatest degree of self-segregation are white. White students reported on average that two-thirds of their close friends were white, but only a third of black students’ close friends were black. In addition, many whites saw black students on campus as a homogeneous group, and were relatively unaware of the divides between black students: divides in social class; in the centrality of race to identity; in whether they are African American, Caribbean American, or African; in preferences for “black” forms of dress and music or “black” forms of speech; and in their experiences with racism in society. My study highlights the importance of these differences and how they are being negotiated between blacks.

Q: What are your key findings about class?

A: Arguments have been made for bringing lower-income students to campus to promote social justice and social mobility. My data reveal that an educational argument can be made as well for the benefits of class-sensitive admissions policies. Cross-class friendships and interactions in the classroom with classmates from differing class backgrounds contributed to new understandings of social class, to greater cross-class empathy, and to the reduction of class prejudice. It also enabled some affluent whites to see for the first time or in a new way their privilege and encapsulation, their lack of attention to and awareness of those less fortunate than themselves.

Another important finding about class is that while a college education broadens employment opportunities, it comes with some personal costs. For example, the changes lower-income students undergo in interests, ways of thinking, and world views as they become part of an affluent community can create dislocation from family, friends and home communities. Lower-income students must juggle two worlds, one at home and one on campus, but some find they are no longer fully at home in the worlds they came from, nor in the new world they are entering.

Finally, despite the great disparities in wealth on campus, lower-income students, for the most part, expressed relatively little resentment or jealousy of not having the benefits afforded to many of their affluent classmates. Rather, they spoke of the advantages of the character traits they had acquired through the economic struggles of their families, traits they felt many of their affluent peers lacked. They saw themselves as more appreciative than their affluent classmates of what they had because they worked hard for those things, as more independent and self-reliant, as more frugal, and better able to connect to those above and below them in social class.

Q: Many critics of affirmative action as currently practiced argue that they would support class-based affirmative action. Having looked intensely at the role of race and class, what are your thoughts?

A: Race and class are highly correlated and thus are often confounded. But they are not proxies for each other. By controlling for social class, racial differences may be reduced, but are not always eliminated. We live in a diverse but racist society and the need for race-sensitive admissions policies has not yet passed. Justice O’Connor argued in the Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger that universities and law schools in particular are the training ground for our nation’s leaders, and that the path to leadership “must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.” Because minority students make up the minority of lower-income students, the elimination of race-sensitive admission and its replacement with class-sensitive admission will result in historically underrepresented groups being given even less access to higher education. My data argue for the importance of both race and class-sensitive admission policies, not just on the grounds of promoting equity and social mobility, but also on the grounds of the learning opportunity it affords to students who will go on to live in a multicultural society. Higher education must seek out and offer opportunities to qualified students of all races and class backgrounds.

Q: You wrote about the institution where you teach. How will the experience of going in-depth in this way with these students change the way you see students or teach?

A: My teaching, research and interactions with my students are intertwined. Hearing from lower-income and minority students about some of the challenges they confront on campus contributed to my interest in conducting this study, and my findings, in turn, have deepened my understanding of the complexities these students face. I hope to do more to encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities they have to learn from the diversity in the student body, to see this potential learning as a valuable part of their college education. I enter the classroom with a heightened awareness of the problems of looking to blacks or lower-income students to speak for their race and class, and of the importance of creating a space where all students can lay out their beliefs about race and class and have those beliefs examined and perhaps changed.

 

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