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Wall Street Journal Tackles Racial Climate on Duke Campus May 4, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
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Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal includes a fascinating article on relations between Black and white students on integrated campuses. The piece, titled “Race on Campus: Beyond Obama the Unity Stops” and written by Jonathan Kaufman, moves beyond the familiar complaints about Black students’ self-segregation, to explore some of the real reasons that students of all ethnicities remain reluctant to reach beyond the comfort of their same-race social circles.

Kaufman is interested in the way that tBlack and white college students have together in support the Obama campaign, and yet,

[…]after classes — and after the occasional Obama rally — most black and white students on college campuses go their separate ways, living in separate dormitories, joining separate fraternities and sororities and attending separate parties.

Most intriguing is what Kaufman’s interview with Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva reveals about the different ways that Black and white students perceive even the minimal amount of social contact that these two groups have on campus. Kaufman writes,

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke sociologist, asked his white students how many had a black friend on campus. All the white students raised their hands.

He then asked the black students how many of them had a white friend on campus. None of them raised their hands.

The more he probed, Mr. Bonilla-Silva says, the more he realized that the definition of friendship was different. The white students considered a black a “friend” if they played basketball with him or shared a class. “It was more of an acquaintance,” recalls Mr. Bonilla-Silva.

Black students, by contrast, defined a friend as someone they would invite to their home for dinner. By that measure, none of the students had friends from the opposite race. Mr. Bonilla-Silva says when white college students were asked in series of 1998 surveys about the five people with whom they interacted most on a daily basis, about 68% said none of them were black. When asked if they had invited a black person to lunch or dinner recently, about 68% said “no.” He says his own research and more recent studies show similar results.

Bonilla-Silva’s findings suggest a trend that has also been identified in other settings, in which white Americans and Black Americans have very different perceptions of the amount of contact that constitutes acceptable integration. On average, Black people’s expectations for what real integration and real cross-racial connections should feel like are much higher than most white people’s.

This all reminds me of a study done back in 1978 and described more recently in Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid (Harvard UP, 1993 [see pages 92-93]). In the 1978 Detroit Area study, a Black population of 21% was the threshold at which a neighborhood became unacceptable to a critical mass of whites. Once a neighborhood became 21% Black, 50% of whites surveyed would be unwilling to move in; despite being less than a quarter of the overall population, 21% was simply too intergrated for half of the white survey respondents. For the Black people surveyed, on the other hand, integration meant a racial mix of somewhere between 15% and 70%, “with 50% being most desirable” (Denton and Massey 93).

The disparity between Black and white perceptions of integration, despite both populations’ common committment to integration, is not limited to Detroit in the late 1970s. Many studies carried out since 1978, in cities across the nation have recorded a similar divide between Black and white perceptions of this this concept (integration). A 1988 Harris Poll sums up the divide between Black and white feelings on this subject quite succintly. In this survey a full 69% of Black respondents believed that the different races in the U.S. were better off living side by side, while only 50% of white respondents expressed this belief.

In 2008, the divide between Black and white perceptions of cross-racial friendship that Kaufman found on the Duke University campus tells a similar story to that which was documented in these earlier studies about the divide between Black and white perceptions of neighborhood integration. Stated simply, many in the white majority are comfortable with considerably less contact with Black people and in considerably more superficial ways that Black people are, and thus Black and white expectations for what true integration would look like are very much in conflict with one another.

For college campuses to reflect the type of racial and ethnic connections that the Obama campaign seems to foreshadow, then Black and white students (and Asian, Native American, and Latin American students) will have to move toward a common understanding of what true integration would look like. On majority white campuses, the racial climate is largely be dictated by the preferences of the white majority. If a cordial high five with a Black guy after an intramural basketball game feels like a true cross-racial connection to students in the white majority, then cross-racial friendships will, for the most part, remain stalled at that point.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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