Four percent of Notre Dame’s students identify as African American, compared with 73% white enrollment.
The Civil Rights Act ended segregation in schools nearly 50 years ago, but some students say that colleges and universities are barely integrated.
“As far as integration, I see that as the next frontier,” said Jamil Hamilton, a sophomore at Georgetown University. “(The nation’s) social policies don’t push integration. We just push tolerance.”
Hamilton, 18, said multiracial interaction is the biggest problem facing elite institutions like Georgetown. In his experience, the students who get into top-tier universities are also the students who had little interaction with minorities growing up.
“There are two distinct Georgetowns,” Hamilton said. “Minorities are separate from whites and don’t always feel welcome in campus organizations. I wasn’t discouraged from joining the College Democrats, but the minorities on campus did tell me that it is mainly a white political organization. Instead, minorities join the NAACP.”
Trevor Tezel, 19, president of Georgetown’s College Democrats, said the organization has been working on minority recruitment and often pairs with minority magnet organizations such as the NAACP and the Black Student Alliance (BSA) to co-sponsor events.
“We recognize that there’s a persistent problem with minority involvement in College Dems,” Tezel, a sophomore, said. “We are committed 100% to being a welcoming club.”
Hamilton doesn’t call what he’s experienced “discrimination” and neither does Olevia Boykin, 20, a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Like Hamilton, Boykin attributes the “close-minded” and “ignorant” attitudes about race to students’ white, suburban backgrounds.
“They have this image of ghetto black people as portrayed in the media,” Boykin said. “Do I think I’ve been stereotyped? Yes. Am I conscious of how I act and what I say? Yes.
“It’s exhausting to be a black student at Notre Dame.”
Diversity’s current role on campus
Boykin is one of the 4% of students who identify as black or African American at Notre Dame, compared with 73% white enrollment, according to the university’s Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Research. At Georgetown, 6% of students identify as black or African American, and 62% as white, according to university data reported to College Board.
Boykin said increasing the number of minority students could be part of the solution to ending racial stereotypes on campus.
Both Notre Dame and Georgetown host recruitment weekends for accepted minority high school seniors. While Boykin and Hamilton both said their own visits convinced them to attend, Boykin admitted the program was not an honest portrayal of diversity at Notre Dame.
“They’re trying to trick you into thinking there’s diversity here when there’s not,” Boykin said.
Upperclassmen who help lead the weekend and provide places for the high school seniors “go along with it” because it is successful in retaining minority students, she said.
“There’s a fear that if we were to tell them any different, then (minority students) wouldn’t come and Notre Dame would be less diverse than it already is,” Boykin said.
Officials at both schools detailed other ongoing diversity programs, which they said receive support from both white and minority students.
Georgetown sponsors pre-orientation programs, including Young Leader in Education About Diversity (YLEAD), and calendar-year programs, including Rangila, a multiracial performance to raise money for a grassroots organization committed to improving the lives of youth and families in Rajasthan.
“Georgetown continues to provide opportunities to build an inclusive community so that all of our students can grow and thrive,” Rosemary Kilkenny, vice president for institutional diversity and equity, said in an email.
In 2012, fried chicken parts were left in the mailboxes of the Notre Dame Black Student Association and African Students Association. Brian Coughlin, associate vice president for student development, said the Call to Action, a movement to raise awareness about racial discrimination on campus that began after the mailbox incident, has led him to believe the discussion about race at Notre Dame is headed in the right direction.
“The beauty of this movement is the leadership provided by students,” Coughlin said in an email. “There are many members of Notre Dame’s faculty and administration that are committed to these goals, but the real power of the movement lies with the students.”
Boykin and Hamilton credited their universities for sponsoring discussion-based programs. But they don’t think those programs work.
“A lot of times it’s the same kids going to these events,” Boykin said.
It isn’t even the college’s fault, Hamilton said, because the aversion to discussions about race begins at home.
“We have this national attitude that you should accept your neighbor’s black kid, but you wouldn’t want your neighbor’s black kid to date your white daughter,” he said.
Georgetown is not unaware that racial prejudice persists. The university does everything it can to provide opportunities for students to be exposed to diversity, Kilkenny said.
“Racial polarization still exists in American society and we at Georgetown, along with other colleges, are but microcosms of society,” she said.
Making it better
At Pennsylvania State University, one sociology professor is working to change the way discussion about racial discrimination is approached on college campuses.
Professor Sam Richards, the co-director of World in Conversation, said the reason students don’t participate in diversity activities is because universities focus their efforts on giving a voice to minority groups and training students in how to approach diversity.
“Social justice is all about telling white people how wrong they are and how their ancestors messed everything up,” Richards said. “Whereas we (at World in Conversation) say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about race or gender.’ We simply ask people to have an open, honest conversation and we facilitate it. Facilitators are on everybody’s side.”
Richards said the point of the conversation is not to reinforce politically correct dialogue, but rather to allow students to realize their own prejudices by responding out loud to questions asked by the facilitator.
“Do we see radical shifts in people? Absolutely,” Richards said.
In a post-dialogue poll, 84% of students responded that the experience was “really worthwhile,” he said. World in Conversation plans to branch out to other universities in the coming years.
Some campuses have already had success with racial interactions, though.
At Yale University, administrators, faculty and students initiate discussions about race and equal opportunities in the classroom and in the workplace “when they need it,” said Samson Berhane, a 21-year-old junior at Yale.
“There was a recent study that female scientists weren’t getting accepted into post-doctorate programs as much as men at Yale,” Berhane said. “There was a forum and a discussion on it. We’re aware of the fact that diversity matters in terms of race and gender.”
Berhane said he believes Yale’s diverse campus has led to a more welcoming environment for minority students.
“Plenty of my Caucasian friends feel comfortable at the (African-American) house,” he said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done to diversify high schools and as a result, freshmen can have very limited views about race. But there’s a fair amount of representation at Yale between race, class and socioeconomic background.”
Yale’s diversity enrollment numbers differ little from Georgetown’s. Fifty-nine percent of the student body identifies as white and 6% black or African American. Yale does have a higher Asian population with 16% compared to Georgetown’s 9%.
This is not to say that a more diverse student body can’t be part of the solution to racial discrimination. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey – Newark campus has been ranked No. 1 most diverse campus in the nation for 15 years in a row by U.S. News.
Rutgers’ overall enrollment numbers include 47% white enrollment, 19.8% Asian, and 10% black or African American.
Forrest Tennant, 20, a junior at Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, has never experienced racial discrimination on campus.
“We are all just people,” Tennant said. “You don’t really think about race when diversity is something you experience every day.”
Tennant said he can’t see a visible racial divide between students in terms of social groups.
“We all have these prejudices about who is like us based on the color of our skin,” Tennant said. “What you see in college you can find direct evidence of in high school. There are still segregation issues … but this trend isn’t happening at Rutgers.”
How Rutgers does it is a mystery to Tennant, but he said he thinks it might be related to the way Rutgers talks about race.
“They never say, ‘Go to this black fraternity event,’ they just say, ‘This particular fraternity is having an event and everyone is welcome,’” he said. “They don’t stress on race.”
Not just a white majority problem
At Howard University, a historically black college/university (HBCU), white students are in the minority.
Sophomore Sydney Greene, 20, says the white students are usually athletes. While she doesn’t think they are discriminated by the black majority, she said they are not in leadership positions and not as involved in campus life.
“It’s almost like (white students) wouldn’t appreciate the history that we have at Howard and what everyone’s been through,” Greene said. “They do have friends who are black, of course. We’re not mean to them; it’s just very, ‘What made you come to Howard?’”
Bogdan Dzakovic, 22, a senior who plays tennis for Howard, said he knew the school was an HBCU but still experienced culture shock coming from his home country, Serbia.
“There are no black people in my home country,” Dzakovic said. “I probably only saw a black person on TV. Honestly, for the first couple of weeks, the only people I really interacted with were my teammates.”
Dzakovic said he made friends after overcoming the initial shock, and has not felt discriminated even though the color of his skin differs from the majority of his classmates.
“I never thought about it in that way,” Dzakovic said. “I never even considered the possibility that I’d be left out. We don’t have racism in my home country. I guess the biggest impact of my education here is that I thought about racism so much more.”
Howard officials could not be reached to confirm the school’s diversity breakdown or to comment, but Greene estimated that 96% of the university’s students identify as black or African American, based on a number she said she had seen before.
While being in the minority helped educate Dzakovic about race, diversity should not be left off the priorities list for Howard, he said.
“The concept of an HBCU is a little outdated, especially in a country where African Americans are a minority. They’re basically trying to isolate themselves and they’re avoiding contact with people who they can’t avoid in the real world.”
Greene also said diversity is important to promote working together throughout the country.
“It is important for colleges to be diverse,” Greene said. “Why not mingle with people who bring something different to the table? Who am I to say that the next president of the United States will be of the same race as me?”
But even at colleges with more diversity, such as Georgetown, there is a piece of the puzzle left to be solved, Hamilton said.
“Why have diversity if you’re not going to do anything with the minority population you brought on campus?” he said. “That’s the next question in the dialogue.”
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