‘Poison in the Ivy’

Author discusses how college diversity programs can result in students overattributing success to factors like merit and hard work, while ignoring systemic or institutional problems.

October 17, 2017

Drawing on decades of social science research as well as original analyses of campus race relations, W. Carson Byrd, an assistant professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville, paints a bleak picture in his new book, Poison in the Ivy: Race Relations and the Reproduction of Inequality on Elite College Campuses (Rutgers University Press).

Diversity programs at colleges aren’t doing enough, Byrd argues. The stated aim of exposing college students to people of diverse backgrounds might not be doing enough to break down social and racial divisions that still plague American society.

Focusing on elite and selective colleges -- since students from those institutions often go on to have an outsize role and influence in shaping policy and the national discussion -- Byrd finds that mingling in elite social worlds, even diverse ones, can result in students downplaying the consideration of systemic and structural racism. Instead, being among “the best and the brightest,” or at least being under the impression that is the case, might result in students overattributing things like merit or hard work for people’s success and failure, to the point where institutional racism is pushed under the rug.

Before the book goes on sale in November, Byrd answered some questions sent via email. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What did you see while doing research for the book that was most striking to you?

A: As I started digging into the research and talking with colleagues, I found, on the one hand, a general narrative that supports the overall findings of intergroup-relations research that prolonged social interaction between members of two groups under certain conditions could reduce a person’s racial prejudice and even their anxiety to enter social interactions.

On the other hand, there were some findings that did not fully support this narrative, and I took a cue from researchers who suggested more work needs to uncover how social interactions may reduce prejudice in some instances, but not in others. This led me to search for a way to examine how different forms of social interactions such as friendships, romantic relationships, who people roomed with and who were in their student organizations during college influenced what people believed about race and inequality more broadly.

As students who attend some of the most selective institutions also have access to resources and opportunities that position them well to be in leadership roles after college, I wanted to examine how these students’ social interactions and the college context of those interactions could shed light on what current and future leaders may think about racial inequality and what should be done about it.

Q: You write that, since you were young, when you started witnessing people from your small Virginia town go off to college, you noticed the themes that your research in the book touches on. You write, “I was confused how people who were given many opportunities to learn about the world could begin narrowing their explanations about the inequalities and life experiences that surrounded them, even for their childhood friends.” How long have you noticed this trend, and what has changed as you’ve worked to make sense of it?

A: This trend grew more pronounced for me when people discussed life after high school. Some conversations revolved around deciding whether they were able to attend college, and if so where, while other aspects of these conversations focused on why some people may or may not “make something of themselves” later in life. The conversations people would have after many began college were a strange mix of individual blame, structural blindness and apathetic prospects for the future for some groups of the community, and in some cases, people would write off the town altogether.

As I worked to unpack how these views around race and inequality interconnect with the college experience, I came across an important point noted in the 1960s that researchers are elaborating on more in research today with their studies on college students’ interactions and ideologies (i.e., frameworks to rationalize circumstances in society such as racial inequality). Social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew noted at a conference in 1965, “I think one of the great fallacies we have had in the field of race relations for many, many decades has been to worry about attitudes rather than about conditions. It is a crude but, I think, generally correct statement to say that attitudes are more often a result than a cause of most of our race-relations situations.”

Studies of college students’ interactions and ideologies are including more contextual information about the college environment to provide a window into how students make sense of race and inequality, and how their interactions inform these views. Two prominent recent examples that come to mind are [University of Maryland, College Park, associate professor of education] Julie Park’s When Diversity Drops, and [Harvard associate professor of education] Natasha Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain. From this work, we garner more information about how cross-racial interactions may not reduce prejudice or the belief that individual efforts are the key to overcoming racial inequality based on the structure of programs such as intergroup dialogues, for example.

Further, when you put my study in conversation with Park, Warikoo and other research, the findings suggest how difficult learning about the realities of race and racism is for students whether it is through conversations with friends, in the classroom or in specific college programming. The learning process is neither linear in progress nor comfortable as students, particularly white students who are least likely to have such in-depth conversations prior to college, must confront how they individually relate to racial inequality around them.

In a sense, what have changed in this area of research are the multiple angles scholars are taking to examine the context of everyday interactions on college campuses to understand why sometimes cross-racial interactions and particular programming may work to reduce certain beliefs about race and inequality, while in other circumstances they do not.

Q: If students at these elite institutions tend to overcompensate or believe in merit and individual effort, what are the factors that they’re missing? And what risk does missing those factors hold?

A: One result people may find confusing is that students were less likely to attribute racial inequality to individual actions when they graduated college, and this was less often the consequence of their social interactions than some would expect.

However, this is not to discount the importance of their continued beliefs in merit or individual efforts, nor is it to suggest that students believe structural barriers are more influential on racial inequality in society. When we step back to examine the position of these students within higher education, it becomes more of a question of how does one connect individual efforts to racial inequality rather than ask if they support an explicit view.

This is an important point I elaborate in relation to how social interactions connect to both students’ racial ideologies [and] also their identities. For students at these institutions, they embody a certain view of individualism and diversity that elite institutions often trumpet. Everyone is framed as bringing their own version of “diversity” and “merit” to campus, and because they are recognized as a diverse group of students in a prestigious space, they identify most (not all) of their classmates as highly talented individuals who achieved their positions based on their hard work and intelligence.

This hyperindividualism is how the belief in meritocracy and the importance of individual efforts becomes immersed not only in ideological beliefs about racial inequality, but in students’ identities as well. My analyses suggest that some students, particularly white students, were gravitating toward a more individualistic conception of their identity disconnected from racial or ethnic identities. A similar reliance on diversity as individuality is noted in Warikoo’s research as well as by sociologists in studies of young elites in boarding schools, as is the case with [Columbia sociology professor] Shamus Khan’s Privilege, and also of universities’ specific rhetoric and policies around diversity, as noted by [University of Toronto associate professor of sociology] Ellen Berrey in The Enigma of Diversity.

Students in these institutions frequently benefit from being around other privileged peers that can blind them to the structural inequalities limiting people’s access to the same educational spaces they seem to “naturally” fit in, and how inequality may manifest on these campuses as well to hinder the achievements of their peers. It is a complex puzzle of how students rationalize their position in elite spaces with colorblind conceptions of merit and individualism they hold dearly, and the prospects that racial inequality can often be the result of something other than a person’s efforts.

Ultimately, students are at risk of truncating their explanations for inequality in our complex social world to a short “elevator speech” among their co-workers when they leave college, and reify the inequalities they can simultaneously find abhorrent.

Q: Do students at elite colleges have this worldview more than students at nonelite colleges?

A: Research finds that relying on a specific worldview to explain racial inequality is not relegated to those in elite social circles, including students attending highly selective colleges. Across segments of society, people find the argument that a person rises or falls on their individual efforts enticing, and echoes beliefs in the American dream. It is often to what degree do they support these views, how do they relate to such individualistic views, how much do they believe structural barriers can influence a person’s position in society and what, if anything, do they think could be done to address racial inequality.

What makes the case of elite college students important is the continual power and leadership opportunities acquired by graduates of many of these institutions, and how these beliefs can be enacted later in life. Graduates of these institutions enter policy forums wherein their beliefs about why racial inequality exists and how they, themselves, landed in the positions they are in can influence what solutions they identify as viable to alleviate these circumstances, or if these inequalities are fixable at all. These are relatively closed-off conversations among people with similar backgrounds, personally and educationally, that affect millions of people not able to participate in the conversations.

Q: You write that your findings throw a wrench in the notion that cross-racial interactions on their own can be an antidote to racism. How can cross-racial interactions be more effective? What needs to change, both at colleges and in society at large? What do you want a college president to take away from this book?

A: Too often people refer to racism as something in someone’s mind. That is, it is simply a matter of challenging the biases a person holds toward another group that will overcome racism in society. However, such a perspective puts too much of the onus on individual-level changes for institutional problems. Although individual change is important, both cultural and structural changes are warranted as well to make cross-racial interactions more effective among college students.

We must address inadequate curricula, policies and programs on our campuses to work beyond diversity toward conceptions of inclusion, which is much more difficult and requires a level of sustained, ongoing effort some institutions may be uncomfortable with, particularly as many face financial constraints that pose a false dichotomy of “diversity and inclusion” versus “educational quality and outcomes.” The straightforward answer is you need both, and [to] hold yourselves accountable for ensuring that beyond your rhetoric you provide each and every student on campus the needed support as they pursue their education.

Yet we cannot expect to identify a singular, universal solution to address what ails our campuses, because that solution may be effective for only one campus community, but not our own. Nor should we look for a 30-second sound bite for a 30-year conversation. The recent protests and demands issued around the nation reflect the need for sustained efforts on college campuses to tackle racially hostile environments for students and faculty of color. Increasing and sustaining conversations about historical connections to current realities is pertinent to prepare students for understanding how racial inequality persists after historical markers from the civil rights movement and the election of Barack Obama as president to our discussions of racial tension on and off campus under the current administration.

Not just college presidents, but everyone in positions of power and leadership on campus must avoid what is possibly occurring among many of our students and become apathetic, viewing racism and inequality as too big, too endemic to address. Although these conversations may vary in form and implementation, they should be based on self-reflection to identify what issues exist, who they impact and what resources are not available to address them. We must be frank with each other about what we are not doing to combat racism and inequality on our campuses rather than point to what we are doing. If our efforts were that successful, we would not need to ask ourselves why we are continuing to have these conversations as new students continue to enter our institutions year after year.


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