America has a race problem and universities are part of America

I finally realized what has been bothering me so much about the recent campus protests and it is encapsulated in the title of this post.  Of course, American universities have a race problem.  American universities are part of America, which clearly has a race problem.  That said, I would posit that universities have far less of a problem than America in general.  Universities are typically run by liberal persons with a real commitment to diversity and ending racism.  Universities actually have real institutions in place, e.g., Diversity offices, multi-cultural centers, curriculum requirements, to try and address the problems of racism.  So, I’ll got back to the Ayers post I recently included on quick hits (and clearly should have just saved for here):

Conflicts often arise between aggrieved students and university administrators or faculty, which is an example of the lamppost fallacy: tackling what you can see, rather than going where the problem really is. The fundamental conflict is between members of minority groups (blacks, latinos, transgender, etc.) and members of the majority group who want to discriminate against and oppress them. If that is the core of the conflict, there is no unilateral solution – neither group can wipe the other out, both must continue to live in the same society together. The question is, how?

Colleges are great places to have protest.  There’s a a huge tradition of it.  University administrators are actually a sympathetic audience for protesters due to the aforementioned factors.  But universities are not the problem.

And, while I’m at I should mention with regards to protester demands for more minority faculty that virtually every university in America wants more African-American faculty.  Seriously.  NC State is far from alone in having a special fund just to make this happen.  But wishing it will not make it so.  Simply put, there are not enough Black PhD’s in the pipeline.  Presumably, universities could do more in this regard (though, see efforts above), but this is not a problem that can be solved at the university level.  This is a problem with, quite obvious, deep-seated historical and sociological roots.

Of course universities should do what they can, but I would argue that your typical public university is already far more progressive on these issues than most aspects of American society.  The difference is that, for a number of historical, sociological, and logistical reasons, universities are great places to protest.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

5 Responses to America has a race problem and universities are part of America

  1. ohwilleke says:

    I largely disagree. The race issues at American colleges is different than the issue in the vast majority of the United States.

    One important reason that this is the case is that a meaningful part of the humanities and social science faculty is involved in a research agenda that conceptualizes issues of race and more generally of identity in a manner that is very rare outside academia. This conceptualization is passed on to students who adopt it (often in a more crude and unnuanced manner than their professors). This conceptualization encourages a much more forceful and affirmative set of responses to race issues, and also encourages viewing the world in a much more racialized and identity driven manner than is common outside academia.

    As a result of the strength of this worldview in academia, many incidents which would not have been conceptualized as racial or identity based incidents outside academia, are conceptualized as race or identity based based conflicts within academia and evolve differently through the institution than they would otherwise as a result.

    The institutions you allude to, in part, perpetuate and institutionalize the tendency to view incidents as race or identity based and favors attempts to resolve these incidents in a manner consistent with the assumption that they are race or identity based, something that would rarely happen outside academia.

    I won’t say that an identity focused approach is wrong, and the strength of this approach in academic contexts is that is does tend to put everyone on a new playing field that ultimately can build cohesion across identity lines among cohorts of college graduates and that can build commitments to inclusiveness in the resulting managerial-professional elite of the nation.

    But, the identity focused approach does so at the expense of other time tested academic values among the strongest of which are norms of civility that specifically discourage prying into the personal identity traits of participants in academic discussion and seek to banish ad hominem arguments from the discussion, in the interest of unity and group cohesion rooted in shared academic pursuits that are conceived of as having meaning that transcends personal identity.

    This approach also basically insists upon using bureaucratic means of institutional coercion to crush alternative world views of incoming students which are particularly common among conservative whites from the South and to re-indoctrinate them. Maybe this is good policy, maybe it isn’t. But, institutions rarely admit that they are committed institutionally to the agenda of demolishing and replacing the world views of a significant share of their incoming students, and that is one of the reasons for the intense anti-intellectualism of the right in the United States. They don’t trust an institution that is determined to stamp out significant aspects of their culture.

    I’m not much of a fan personally of the culture that academia is trying student by student, year by year to stamp out, but I also think one has to be frank in acknowledging that the project is not culturally neutral, is somewhat aggressive, and itself seems to be at odds with some of its stated premises of cultural relativism.

    Now, academia is not of one mind and in fact is an ongoing negotiation of multiple forces, with a big divide being between an identity politics oriented set of constituencies and constituencies with typical pre-identity politics academic norms. The area some matters upon which these two constituencies (which aren’t the only voices, but are the most important in the debate) are in agreement and about which there is little controversy, and there are others where they contest fiercely and repeatedly in ongoing skirmishes, which means that there is a sort of dynamic equilibrium that emerges, which is been shifting only incrementally for the last twenty or so years after some relatively rapid shifts sometime around the 1990s or so when some sort of tipping point was reached.

    Unlike the red-blue divide, these conflicts are mostly within institutions rather than between institutions. It is a national melee fought predominantly intramurally. It also has spillover effects on the political system, although these effects have been fairly muted relative to the effect that they have within academia.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Very interesting analysis. But where do you disagree with my contention that race problems are definitely not worse on college campuses. You give plenty of reasons they are perceived as worse (very interesting, I think I agree, but would need to think through it more), but no indication they are actually worse. I think that’s kind of my point.

      • ohwilleke says:

        I agree that race relations are probably better in fact on college campuses (on average anyway) than outside them, despite self-perception that they are worse. Part of this is due to the fact that economic and SES inequality is less pronounced on campuses than in real life – people who are really getting screwed over on account of race rarely make it to college campuses especially even modestly selective institutions with residential campuses which is where most of the media focus is directed. Students mostly have similar means at their immediate on campus disposal (albeit financed in different ways), and differ much less from each other in age/education/IQ/values related to work and social interactions than the far greater diversity that exists within every race and ethnicity in the larger world.

        Indeed, as much as anything else, the fact that college students are on average measurably smarter than non-college students, makes a huge difference. Lots of the worst out breaks of race based incidents is a product of stupid people resorting to violence/insults/racism because they aren’t smart enough to find other solutions to their frustratingly hard to solve problems. While there is a small mostly covert “respectable” collection of individuals at the top of the SES hierarchy who are crassly racist and act accordingly, this is conduct disproportionately reserved for people who are basically failures in the 21st century in the U.S.

        The Civil Rights Acts, outside public education desegregation, were profoundly ineffectual as tools for providing real remedies to victims of discrimination (e.g. in hiring and housing), but because this law made it effectively illegal for anyone in a managerial or professional position to be overtly racist and also symbolically offered up a national consensus on acceptable conduct and statements about the issue, the Civil Rights Act had profound indirect effects on how society works by causing the predominant share of law abiding members of the middle class and upper middle class to conclude that overt racism or racist motivated actions were morally wrong. This profound change in norms in turn changed conduct, especially at the level of “Big Business” which is the dominant force in our economy, and those values have trickled down to everyone below the managerial class who aspires to join it.

  2. r. jenrette says:

    A way to lessen racism is to increase contact among races, especially important with emerging adults. A year tour in National Service for all able Americans when they graduate high school or reach age 18 in desegregated conditions would bring our people together by providing a common experience for our largely segregated people. We are segregated by race and wealth and separated by geography and the rural/urban divide. Public schools used to bring us together but now can be part of the problem.
    The way to build a national purpose and identity is to bring people together in working for the nation.
    Going to college after National Service would give the professors students with more maturity, a broader outlook. and thicker skin.

  3. Terrant says:

    Reblogged this on My Corner to Vent II and commented:
    This post raises some interesting points.

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