Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Racial inequality on campuses plays out in a variety of ways that must be dealt with on many different fronts, says Judith Shapiro.

December 17, 2015

The range of ills associated with racism in our society is wide. Our nation can address some of these ills only through major changes in income and wealth distribution and by repairing the dysfunctions in our political system. Racial inequality on the campuses of our colleges and universities also plays out in a variety of ways that must be dealt with on many different fronts. This is not usually recognized in the list of demands that students involved in the recent campus protests have put forward.

A lack of diversity in the student body is best addressed by programs that help underserved students to flourish at institutions of higher education. Such programs confront the major barriers to a student’s progress from high school to college and from two-year to four-year institutions -- barriers that notably include the kind of remedial courses that turn out to be dead ends. Best of all are programs that give high school students some direct experience of what to expect at a liberal arts college through exposure to special courses taught by faculty members and involving undergraduates as mentors.

While focusing on socioeconomic inequality is certainly the right place to start, research has shown that this alone will not suffice to address race-based disparities. Various studies of what happens when affirmative action policies are discontinued provide ample reason for watching with anxiety, not to say trepidation, the current U.S. Supreme Court case on the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions.

The student protesters have called for an increase in the proportion of faculty members of color on their campuses. It is difficult to imagine how to achieve that in a substantial way, short of enhancing the attractiveness of a career in academe -- in other words, reversing recent trends that have had the opposite effect. That is clearly a long-term project. In the short run, pressure to increase the number of faculty members of color is likely to lead to predatory raiding by relatively advantaged institutions that are in a position to make the kind of offer a faculty member would be hard put to refuse. An alternate and more desirable strategy for the immediate future might be to make sufficiently generous visiting positions available.

While these and many other major problems will take time to fix, we in higher education should consider why we have not done a better job of addressing the social afflictions of race in everyday life on our college and university campuses. After all, that is something we ought to be able to tackle immediately.

We can begin by admitting that no one who grows up in these United States is in a position to take the “I am not a racist” approach. It is, in fact, not possible to grow up here and not assimilate, whether one wants to or not, some race-based attitudes. Better to say “I do not want to be a racist.” And let us bear in mind that the persisting level of segregation in our neighborhoods, schools and general social lives can leave far too many white folks relatively clueless as to what is inappropriate and insulting to black fellow citizens.

We all must engage in a continuing level of consciousness-raising. Let me share one relatively modest experience that has always remained in my memory.

A number of years ago two friends and I were at an ATM, each of us making withdrawals. As we were taking our turns, a large, elegant black car pulled up. A large, elegant black man got out of the car, clearly intending to use the ATM himself.

Now, there is an etiquette involving ATM behavior: one should stand far enough away to avoid expressing an untoward degree of impatience, much less giving the impression that one is trying to see the current user’s PIN. But this man was keeping a far greater distance than usual. He remained standing near his car. And the thought that came to me was that he wanted to spare himself (and perhaps even us) the experience of a black man frightening three white ladies. I have no idea if my interpretation was correct. But it receives ample confirmation both from things I read and conversations with friends.

A common administrative response to how we can achieve a greater level of racial sensitivity is to establish or strengthen an institutional office for diversity. But an overreliance on such offices can be a part of the problem rather than the solution. It can result in outsourcing to a special unit something that should be the responsibility of all.

Special diversity training sessions can also backfire if they come across as time-bound re-education camps. Changing how we behave with one another is steady work. And, insofar as it is ongoing work for us all, we should not leave the responsibility to the relatively small number of administrators and faculty members of color who bear an undue burden in addressing the general campus climate around diversity.

Students of color might, for their part, develop an ability to react to insults with displays of strength rather than weakness. Perhaps black students could respond to white students asking about their hair by turning the question around: Why do you want to wear your hair so straight? Aren’t you afraid that blond hair makes your pale complexion look washed out? Such an approach would be all the more effective if the questions were asked with a straight face and a tone of serious concern.

We have seen that faculty members have an important role to play in creating the social atmosphere that we want to cultivate at our institutions, one in which the ratio of light to heat remains high. It means, for example, that members of the history department can contribute significantly to discussions about the complex legacy of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. It means faculty members showing that they themselves are always in learning mode, at the same time applying critical intelligence to what they are hearing. It means setting a tone for discussion -- one that can be strong and spirited as long as it remains fair and clear-eyed. It means that faculty members should take care with how they themselves behave online, and not justify troll-like behavior by appeals to free speech and academic freedom.

Some of the student demands have constituted a gift to those who lie in wait for an opportunity to ridicule the world of higher education. For example, we have recently seen a student demand that an institution change the name of a building commemorating a former president whose name just happened to be Lynch -- a name that has apparently not stood in the way of our current attorney general’s career. It is episodes like this that enable a pundit like George Will to conclude a Washington Post op-ed on higher education with the rhetorical question “What, exactly, is it higher than?”

We also might consider how much of the current polarization we are seeing is connected to the intensity of the cultural focus in this country on the individual. There is nothing wrong with a desire to be recognized as an individual -- indeed, none of us wants to be simply reduced to some group identity. The problem is that, as Americans, we are especially likely to suffer from a deficit of what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination. That is, we fail to understand how history shapes our identities and our experiences. It is thus easy for an emphasis on group experience to be dismissed as identity politics -- or, for that matter, to degenerate into it.

There are aspects of our political and economic life that we must do our best to change in our role as citizens, voters, petition writers, demonstrators. There are aspects of our system of higher education that we must seek to transform through programs that enable a wider range of students to succeed at our colleges and that provide appealing career opportunities for a wider range of potential faculty members. And then, there is what each of us must do in everyday social life in order to turn our institutions into true communities in which we can all become less parochial and more intelligent by seeing the world through different eyes.


Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.


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