The recent controversies on American campuses such as Yale and the University of Missouri have been sad to watch. They reveal a country of chasms, in which ethnic and racial groups see, experience and speak of the world so differently. I find it difficult to comment confidently on what triggered the outrage among so many minority students. Every new video of the mistreatment of African Americans should make all of us pause and recognize that there is still a deep, unresolved problem in the United States. My concern is that the remedy for it, at least on college campuses, is more segregation.
Over the past four decades, whenever universities have faced complaints about exclusion or racism — often real — the solution proposed and usually accepted has been to create more programs, associations and courses for minority students. This is understandable, because these groups have been historically ignored, slighted and demeaned. But is this solution working, or is it making things worse?
A 2004 empirical study led by Harvard University psychologist James Sidanius (who is African American) concluded that “there was no indication that the experiences in these ethnically oriented . . . organizations increased the students’ sense of common identity with members of other groups or their sense of belonging to the wider university community. Furthermore . . . the evidence suggested that membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.”
The academic programs that have been created and expanded also reinforce feelings of separateness. Again, there was a need for greater attention to many of the areas of study, and some extraordinary scholarship has been produced in these fields. But the cumulative effect is one that distinguished scholar Tony Judt wrote about in an essay for the New York Review of Books in 2010. “Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: ‘gender studies,’ ‘women’s studies,’ ‘Asian-Pacific-American studies,’ and dozens of others,” he noted. “The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves — thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.”
There is increasingly a perception on campuses that there are groups of students who have administrators, social clubs and courses specifically for them. This does not help minorities. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1954, in words that were meant to change the United States, “separate . . . [is] inherently unequal.”
It is worth keeping in mind that segregation on campuses is simply a reflection of the growing segregation of American society. Increasingly, people live among others of the same socioeconomic class, political orientation and race. In fact, because of the generous financial aid policies of many elite schools, Ivy League campuses are far more diverse than most American communities. Kids arriving there will encounter, often for the first time, substantial numbers of people who are very different from them in terms of income, class, ethnicity and race. Negotiating these encounters is complicated, and it shouldn’t surprise us that they produce tension.
The solution to this tension is surely open discussion in which everyone can participate. And yet, the prevailing ethos seems to be that if one feels hurt or offended that is the end of the discussion. You cannot understand another’s experience or arguments. But a liberal education is premised on precisely the opposite idea, one that requires not safe spaces to retreat to but a common space to engage in. And democracy requires that common ground, one that anyone can access. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois . “Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius . . . and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
Today in the United States, we all believe that we are victims and nobody understands our pain. If you want to see that view in its crudest form, though, don’t go to college campuses — just listen to the followers of Donald Trump. They are mostly angry whites who feel that they are being shafted by society. And don’t bother trying to bring up facts or argue with them — you just don’t get it.