The Systematic Self-Segregation Syndrome
If one was to look at a timeline of racism and segregation throughout American history, it’d be pretty reasonable to assume that the trend is that racism is slowly but surely being eradicated. Sure, there are instances of racism on the news, but a lot of people think it doesn’t really play a role in their day to day lives. However, this is not because people are no longer racist, but because racism has become more subtle. It has learned to hide in plain sight, to blend into the masses unrecognized under a new guise: modern racism. While it is infinitely better than the Jim-Crow-type racism prevalent in previous decades, this new form of racism is a lot harder to identify. It shows its face whenever a job applicant’s skin color lowers their chances of landing a job, whenever a working man’s poverty is dismissed as a result of his race’s innate lack of skill, or whenever someone stereotypes all members of an ethnic group as being the same caricature of a person. But most of all, it is the limitations people impose on themselves based on their racial or cultural background that defines modern racism. Self-segregation in particular is an increasingly complicated issue that still affects millions of college students every year, and while some argue that it is being addressed by college campuses around the United States, there’s strong evidence to suggest that self-segregation is actually systemically facilitated by universities.
Self-segregation starts shaping college students even before they sit down for their first class. It is not unusual for universities to schedule different orientation days for minority students under the assumption that since many of them may be the first generation of college students in their families, they’ll have a harder time to adjust to life in college. For many students, orientation is their first opportunity to meet new people and establish relationships in an environment that’s entirely foreign to them. While there is a definite correlation between a person’s race and their education level, grouping minority kids on the first day can have a huge influence on the type of people they will associate with throughout their college career. This can severely limit their desire to expand their social groups to include people with cultural backgrounds vastly different than their own.
North Carolina State University is one such school where orientation days are scheduled based on race. Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste, the Vice Provost for Diversity and African American Affairs at North Carolina State University, claims he has frequently heard complaints from minority students saying they find it hard to relate to people of other races because they don’t have any experience doing so. Many students come from very homogenous backgrounds, and they base their knowledge of other races on stereotypes. This is obviously not helpful when trying to build lasting relationships. Dr. Nacoste goes on to say that college is a crucial formative period in these young adults’ lives, and that they should be exposed to multi-cultural interactions as early as possible.
Grouping all minority students in orientation can also give them a false perception of what class demographics are actually like in their respective colleges. For instance, an African American student of Dr. Nacoste's relates how the shock of being in a predominantly caucasian university was amplified following her all-black orientation, as she knew none of her non-black classmates on her first day of school. She naturally distanced herself from her white peers, opting instead to meet up and hang out with the African Americans she had already been acquainted to previously. Dr. Nacoste blames this on her lack of interaction with a diverse group of people on orientation, and he states in his book “ “ that if he had unlimited institutional power, he would avoid having separate orientation days and simply require first generation college students to take an “Adjustment to College” course their freshman year.
Dr. Nacoste is not alone in his emphasis on the importance of orientation week. In his dissertation, Professor James Michael Davis wrote about the impacts of a strong orientation program in student retention rates, their GPA and their overall engagement with fellow students. He concluded that “to enhance student integration within the campus community, institutions must demonstrate authentic interest in student success and thereby create a campus culture that values each student and their personal achievement” (Davis, 2013). Likewise, there is strong evidence that students usually develop their independence, study habits, and most important social networks during the first few weeks of freshman year (Gardner and Siegel 2001). Orientation and other institutionalized student activities that promote student inclusion and engagement also have been shown to have substantially positive impacts on student achievement throughout their college careers.
College is a formative period for young men and women in their road towards becoming a fully fledged adult, and thus they are very malleable individuals when starting their freshman year. Throughout this first year, students develop many of the characteristics that will come to define their adult selves, for instance their general desirability to extend their social circles, A study conducted by Koen and Durrheim shows that levels of segregation in college classrooms tend to heighten as the first semester progresses, which indicates that as people become increasingly comfortable with their “in-group”, they are less inclined to seek friendships in “out-groups” (Koen and Durrheim, 2010). Most incoming students have expectations about trying out all kinds of new experiences in college, but by the end of their first year many seem to come to terms with who they are and who their friends are. This is obviously not the case for everyone, but its hard to see how widespread this trend can be. By defining their social circles early on, students become less likely to befriend many people of different races if their circles are already mostly homogenous.
However, systematic self-segregation is not an issue that only affects incoming freshmen. Upperclassmen often come face to face with it when determining their living situation. It’s not uncommon for universities to have differently priced residential halls for students to choose from. It’s simple economics: there is a demand for lavish residence halls and students willing to pay for them, while there is also a demand for cheap run-down halls because some students can’t afford anything else. The real issue is that this unavoidably leads to the poor residence halls being populated mostly by minorities, while expensive ones are overwhelmingly caucasian.
This is the case in Rutgers University, where one of its five residential campuses, Livingston, is commonly referred to as “the black campus” by students. Imani Hayes, a Rutgers student, claims that “nobody really chose to live in Livingston”, and that the old, unappealing dorms are inhabited solely by black students. Seeing as a nice luxurious dorm at Rutgers costs an additional $250 a month, its easy to see how it wouldn’t really be an affordable option for students from lower-income backgrounds who are already struggling to pay tuition. Rutgers has been consistently adding new pricey apartments full of amenities with the hopes of attracting more out-of-state high income students, which has only furthered the preconceived gap between minorities and white students. It is unlikely that many African American students would have many opportunities to form close ties with their white colleagues if they live on opposite sides of campus and if they are not given the opportunity to interact with students outside on their racial group on a daily basis. It also implicitly tells the people living in dorms that are falling apart that they’re not worth as much as those living with ACs, swimming pools and private gyms. As Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab puts it “These campuses tout how they’re the bastions of diversity. No. You may be on the same campus, but you’re having the same segregated experience as you would in the rest of the world.”
Some times students are forced to segregate themselves due to economic reasons, but other times they isolate themselves from other races by choice. What should a university’s response be if students demand to have racially segregated dorms? The African Student Union at UCLA claims that “Black students lack spaces where they feel safe and comfortable” and that an African Diaspora floor would provide such a place. This demand has been replicated by minority students at NYU, UC Berkeley, and many others. However, as the dean of the University of Lewis and Clark, Professor James Huffman, points out, this wouldn’t be the case if universities didn’t make “race and racial differences central to almost everything they do” (Huffman, 2015). He argues that by treating minority students differently through benign discrimination (for instance, by providing a separate and more rigorous orientation to African American students to facilitate their college adaptation), universities actually make them feel even more alienated from their community. Self-segregation is encouraged by design, and the problem is not that students are demanding to be segregated, its that the universities unknowingly help students reach that level of racial isolation.
There are some who argue that the student’s voices speak for themselves, and that if they want to form closed communities based on race, its really not that big of a deal. Others, like Smith Jackson, the vice president for student life at Elon University, vouch for the importance of being provided a diverse environment in college. He says that “living with people who are different from you can be one of the most powerful learning experiences there is”, and that it helps students prepare for post-college life in the most diverse country in the world.
Being thrust into the real world without being in close proximity with a diverse college environment can define the kind of person you’ll end up being, and most of all the type of people you’re likely to be friends with. A poll conducted by Reuters in 2013 shows that a staggering “40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race” (Reuters, 2013). This can be largely attributed to a lack of interactions with people of different races early in life. Many people in the United States assist to racially homogenous high schools due to the socioeconomic status of their neighborhood or city. College is supposed to be the complete opposite, a pinnacle of diversity in which students meet people from all over the world and form bonds based on unifying interests.
Sadly, many universities seem to have lost sight of this by complying with students’ demands of racially segregated living areas. Not only is this action morally reprehensible, it is also punishable by law. Earlier this year, Michel Meyers, President of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, sent a letter to California State University Los Angeles expressing his disgust regarding the existence of its Halisi Scholars Black Living-Learning Community. This residence hall claims to be a safe space exclusively for black students, and according to Meyers it seems unlikely that this could be accomplished without the university’s direct involvement. He goes on to say that this violates Proposition 209 of the California Constitution, which prohibits public officials from differently treating, segregating, discriminating on the basis of race, and from designating or restricting spaces on a public campus to or for the persons on the basis of skin color. CSULA has been under heavy criticism over the past couple of months, and if the officials of the institution’s involvement in this affair is confirmed, they could be facing serious legal repercussions.
Instances such as these are not extremely common and only affect a handful of colleges, but the existence of subtler forms of segregation on minority students is a worldwide problem. Any interaction between students or faculty that could make any minority group feel different from the community at large simply promotes their adherence to racially segregated groups. A study conducted by Koen and Durrheim shows most colleges are consistently experiencing high levels of racial aggregation (Koen and Durrheim, 2010). This largely goes unnoticed because the increased number of minority students in college campuses gives an impression of persistent desegregation.
Another noteworthy result from their experiment was that larger classrooms naturally facilitate racially segregated seating patterns, as they provide an opportunity for students to form crowds of people they are comfortable with while also establishing a spatial barrier from people they are less comfortable with (Koen and Durrheim, 2010). Universities that house large lecture auditoriums for most of their classes inadvertently make it easier for minorities to group together, which can cause them to feel even more isolated. While this can’t be avoided for certain classes and many universities lack the funds to provide small classrooms for all of their students, this should at least be a concern for the university officials. The impact of classroom size on student segregation should have some effect on a university’s budgetary discussions, as the problem could be alleviated if funds are relocated to the proper channels.
Why is this problem constantly being ignored by colleges nationwide? It may be related to the remarkably strong tendency of white Americans to underplay the role of discrimination and segregation in modern America. This tendency was exemplified in the responses given to a Pew Research Center poll conducted shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. According to the poll, 80 percent of black Americans agreed that the incident raises important issues about race that need to be discussed, while nearly half of white Americans disagreed by saying that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves. This failure to realize the overarching effects of race and racial discrimination show a detachment from the very real adversities faced by many African Americans. It’s easy to see how this difference in opinions regarding the importance of racial barriers can be applied to college students as well. If white students are less likely to acknowledge racial discrimination as a serious problem that persists today, it is likely that they will overlook the existence of racially motivated self-segregation in their campuses. High-ranking college officials, most of which are white as well, are also at risk of downplaying the importance of having a multi-cultural environment in which all their students are encouraged to look beyond the experiences they’re already comfortable with.
All of this goes to show that there definitely hurdles in place that make it difficult for students to actively seek out friendships outside of their racial “boundaries”. These hurdles are often provided by the universities themselves, whether it be through wide price differences between student residential areas, orientation days being different for different racial groups, or by having low overall classroom densities. College officials should be more aware of the effects of their institutions on self-segregation, as it can hinder their students’ development as racially-unbiased individuals that feel comfortable with culturally and ethnically diverse groups. Modern racism still afflicts countless students around the world every single day, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Sure, many students may come to college having primarily homogenous relationships and backgrounds, but universities should strive to prevent this lack of diversity opportunities to persist throughout their college careers. By helping students reach outside their comfort zone, minorities will feel less isolated, communities will start being more inclusive, and colleges will feel like the haven of integration they’re supposed to be.
"Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
"Segregated by Dormitory." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/09/segregated-by-dormitory/501602/>.
"Many Americans Have No Friends of Another Race: Poll." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 08 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-poll-race-idUSBRE97704320130808>.
"Self Segregation: Why Is It Hard For Whites to Understand Ferguson." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/self-segregation-why-its-hard-for-whites-to-understand-ferguson/378928/>.
Schow, Ashe. "Segregation Is Making a Comeback -- on College Campuses." Washington Examiner. The Washington Examiner Http:// 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016. <http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/segregation-is-making-a-comeback-on-college-campuses/article/2579962>.
Topic, By. "The Real Cause of Campus Racism." Hoover Institution. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <http://www.hoover.org/research/real-cause-campus-racism>.
"Focusing on the First Year Student." Research Gate. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234620653_Focusing_on_the_First-Year_Student>.
Koen, Jennifer, and Kevin Durrheim. "A Naturalistic Observational Study of Informal Segregation: Seating Patterns in Lectures." A Naturalistic Observational Study of Informal Segregation: Seating Patterns in Lectures. N.p., 15 Sept. 2009. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <http://eab.sagepub.com/content/early/2009/09/15/0013916509336981.abstract>.
Davis, James M. "The Impact Of Orientation Programming On Student Success Outcomes At A Rural Community College." N.p., Jan. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. <http://encompass.eku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1159&context=etd>.
"Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste." University of North Carolina. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016. <http://www.northcarolina.edu/apps/bog/teaching_awards/2013/nacoste.html>.