Race Still Matters

Colleges need a new set of discussions -- involving students, professors, administrators and their communities, write Michelle Asha Cooper and David A. Longanecker.

September 3, 2009

Does race matter? As rhetorical as it seems, this question continues to emerge as a topic worthy of debate. In the wake of electing the first black American as the 44th president of the United States, many people had a sigh of relief that America had proven to be post-racial. For many others, however, particularly many people of color, their excitement about electing Barack Obama was muted by the awareness, reinforced daily, that race still matters greatly in America, and that the election was diminishing the perception of this reality, particularly for the non-minority population.

Six months into President Obama’s term, we now celebrate the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court. In between these two historic events, we also witnessed the unfortunate debacle in Cambridge, Massachusetts involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Police Sergeant James Crowley, of the Cambridge police department. In varying ways, each of these scenarios has raised numerous questions about race and its prevalence in today’s society. Does race matter? Inarguably, yes! Even Barack Obama’s election last November reflected this unfortunate tradition, with an increase in ugly racial incidents both on-campus and off, surrounding that momentous occasion.

As colleges and universities nationwide start the semester, the events of the past six months, especially the two occurring this summer, present exceptional opportunities for our postsecondary institutions to actively engage and critically examine where their respective campus communities – faculty, staff, and students, new and old – currently stand regarding issues of race. Yet, even without such an examination, we know from years of research that racial/ethnic gaps persist in almost every corner of our nation’s campuses.

  • There are racial disparities in college enrollment and college completion. Over the last three decades, undergraduate enrollment rates for racial/ethnic minority students have increased, nearly doubling. Minorities have also made gains in completion rates at the high school and collegiate levels; however when compared to Whites, gaps in student achievement remain for nearly all minority groups.
  • There are racial disparities in fields of study and graduate education. Fewer racial/ethnic minority students graduate in fields like science and engineering; fewer receive post-baccalaureate training and attain master’s, doctorate, and professional degrees.
  • There are racial disparities in perceptions of campus climate. Racial/ethnic minority students are less likely to express satisfaction with their overall undergraduate experience. They also are less likely to feel a sense of belonging, interact with faculty/staff, and hold leadership positions in clubs/organizations.
  • There are racial disparities in hiring, tenure, and compensation policies. Post graduation, racial/ethnic minorities earn less, with the same credentials, as their White counterparts. Even within the ranks of our liberal-minded institutions, Blacks and Hispanics are grossly underrepresented in our faculties. And where people of color do find positions within our institutions, it is too often in adjunct faculty positions, bereft of the pay and benefits appreciated by regular faculty, and in our service departments, perpetuating the inequalities that we so often condemn in society in general.

Certainly, there are those who firmly embrace the belief in the achievement ideology, which considers American society to be fair and meritocratic. For them, success and failure are based on individual differences in ability and motivation, and not societal or economic barriers. And while they strongly hold to their beliefs, there is a mountain of evidence to show that our society -- including some of our campuses -- is filled with longstanding, persistent barriers that fall along a color line.

Many have been saying that we need to have a national conversation on the issues of race in America. Some have said we need this because race issues are being swept under the carpet; others because the election of President Obama provides the most comfortable segue into such discussions in recent times. Whatever the reason, now seems like the opportune moment.

The discussions surrounding Justice Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court provide a unique opportunity for conversation about the lines between pride in heritage and pride in race. Many responded to Justice Sotomayor’s personal characterization of herself as a “wise Latina” as evidence of her inherent racism. Yet, many of the same people found Justice Samuel Alito’s espoused proud heritage as the son of Italian immigrants as enduring and humanizing. Why the difference? It is because we all see the world from our own worldview, and that worldview is shaped by our race and ethnicity?

As Eugene Robinson states so eloquently in his July 14, 2009 op-ed in The Washington Post, the dominant perception has often been that “being white and male is seen ... as a neutral condition, the natural order of things. Any ‘identity’ -- black, brown, female, gay, whatever – has to be judged against this supposedly ‘objective’ standard.” His observation offers a true learning opportunity – a moment to explore in open dialogue how our past defines our present; a moment to challenge assumptions based on a world view that we almost always perceived as legitimate, but which is almost certainly biased, whoever we are, by our own experience.

The case involving Gates and Crowley also gives us a moment to explore critical questions about race. Was race an issue in the arrest of Gates, in his home? Where you stand on this issue seems to depend on where you sit. Some clearly argue this as a case of racial profiling, while others consider it an issue of belligerence leading to arrest. Even after their meeting with President Obama and Vice President Biden, these two gentlemen resolved the issue by agreeing to disagree. This situation also provides us with a great opportunity for dialogue around issues of race, individual worldviews, and differing perceptions of reality. This is a particularly powerful case for discussion because it raises so many critical questions about race and power, and as we have seen, offers no definitive resolution.

We in higher education have an opportunity – a unique teachable moment in which to engage our students about race matters on our campuses and in our communities. Though the both of us work in the higher education policy community, not in the campus environment, our work does provide ample evidence that race matters in America and in American higher education. We want to encourage those of you who lead our colleges and universities to use these unique circumstances to begin a dialogue on race in your institutions -- and not just in orientation and freshmen seminars, but also in faculty senate meetings, staff retreats, board meetings, and the like. We also strongly encourage faculty and administrators to engage students, inside and outside the classroom, to have deliberative dialogues on topics of race. Certainly, many institutional leaders would state that they already have a commitment to racial justice and equity on their campuses.

Some faculty and administrators may suggest that courses and activities focusing on race only draws those who are already have an expressed interest and passion. In other words, they may feel as if they are preaching to the choir. Other institutional leaders are simply cautious about invoking race and discussions of race in fear of being personally attacked for their beliefs and values. Regardless of where you or your institutions currently stand in this respect, we strongly encourage you to take advantage of this unique moment.

Some institutions have already begun such efforts. For example, leaders at Ithaca College’s decided to use President Obama’s Dreams from My Father as the text for freshman convocation preceding the beginning of classes. For campuses that have already begun their semester, and thus cannot adjust class schedules, one possibility would be to devote a day to discussions – certainly this topic is as important as a reprieve from snow or storm. Alternatively, faculty should participate in and establish an extramural seminar for their own benefit and/or for their students. Many options and resources exist for faculty and administrators interested in pursuing this path. We do not advocate any particular strategy; we simply want to urge institutional leaders and faculty to capitalize on the moment and consider the benefit it could yield for students and campuses.

It is indeed the right time to start the conversation, and the events of the summer provide a unique avenue into this discussion.


Michelle Asha Coooper is president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. David A. Longanecker is president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.


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