I am a black director of a minority orientation program at a predominantly white college. This past semester, I included films about the civil rights movement in the program to try and give incoming black students a sense of mission. On the evaluation sheets most said they considered the movement irrelevant to their purpose at the college. Yet, many of the same students are now adrift, uncomfortable with white students and staff, and performing far below their capacity.
"Why? What can be done to prevent this situation? -- No name, please. Dear Reader:
What you are describing is, for many, what can be called the paradox of improved race relations. For those who have come from a different educational background, it is the difficulty they experience participating in a culture different from their own.
Many middle-income, prep school and suburban black students do, indeed, have good social relationships with white students throughout their pre-college years and experience minimal racial antagonism. Their curriculum, however, seldom gives them an appreciation of the black experience. And because they have no obvious race related problems, many of their parents don't make a special effort to help them establish a positive racial identity. Also, fewer educated blacks are part of the black church, and that, too, hinders the black cultural experience from being obtained in a natural way.
There is no systematic mechanism to instill a sense of black culture. Thus, many black youngsters do not receive a community interpretation of the black experience which would give them a sense of pride, direction and mission, the way some other groups do. The problem is made worse by the emphasis in the larger society on individuality, rather than on group relatedness.
College is a time when more intimate social relations begin, and, in varying degrees, blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, income classes and other groups begin to go their separate ways. Young people with poor appreciations or negative feelings about their own group can feel isolation, self-doubt and confusion. This, in turn, may hurt their ability to concentrate and perform well academically. Unfortunately, all too many become college dropouts and perform at a lesser level than they are capable of.
Many black students from low-income backgrounds and from pre-college schools that are not demanding are overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness and inadequacy in relation to the majority group. Many of the white students they will encounter will have more money, more powerful family and social contacts, better academic backgrounds and preparatory social experiences, although their innate intelligence may be no better. Pride, doubt, denial, fear and anger can work together to prevent such minority students from making the extra effort, or in seeking the extra help they need to catch up academically.
Of course, many do work hard and do catch up; they establish a comfortable individual -- and group -- identity, a personal direction, and recover academically. The minority students who are prepared to manage in a predominantly white, middle and upper-income college situation do well.
We are, of course, concerned as you are about the fact that too many salvageable minority students are being lost. The problem you are having with your orientation program is a common one: it is too little, too late.
The black community -- particularly black parents -- must find a way to make it possible for black youngsters to appreciate the black experience. Blacks must, at an early age, be helped to establish a positive black identity, to learn constructive ways to manage racial antagonisms, to gain direction and purpose, and to become committed to improving conditions for blacks, without being antagonistic toward other groups.
Black churches, civil right groups, fraternities and sororities, for example, must also join in this effort. In addition, there must be a greater sensitivity to this need and to the establishment of appropriate programs in schools and colleges wherever possible.