Identity Group Commencements

Commencement weekend is hard to plan at the University of California, Los Angeles. The university now has so many separate identity-group graduations that scheduling them not to conflict with one another is a challenge. The women’s studies graduation and the Chicana/Chicano studies graduation are both set for 10 a.m. Saturday. The broader Hispanic graduation, La Raza, is in near-conflict with the black graduation, which starts an hour later at 5 p.m. this Sunday.

Planning was easier before a new crop of ethnic groups pushed for inclusion. Students of Asian heritage were once content with the Asian-Pacific Islanders ceremony. But now there are separate Filipino and Vietnamese commencements, and some talk of a Cambodian one in the future. Years ago, UCLA sponsored an Iranian graduation, but the school’s commencement office couldn’t tell me if the event is still going. The entire Middle East may yet be a fertile source for UCLA commencements.


Not all ethnic and racial graduations are well attended. The 2003 figures at UCLU showed 300 of 855 Hispanic students attended, but only 170 out of 1874 Asian-Americans did.

Some students are presumably eligible for four or five graduations. A gay student with a native American father and a Filipino mother could attend the Asian, Filipino and American Indian ceremonies, plus the mainstream graduation and the lavender ceremony for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.

Graduates usually wear identity-group markers, a Filipino stole or Vietnamese sash, for instance, or a rainbow tassel at the lavender event. Promoters of ethnic and racial graduations often talk about the strong sense of community they favor. But it is a sense of community based on blood, a dubious and historically dangerous organizing principle.

The organizers sometimes argue that identity-group graduations make sense for practical reasons. They say about 3000 graduating seniors show up for UCLA’s “regular” graduation, making it a massive and impersonal event. At the more intimate identity-group events, foreign-born parents and relatives hear much of the ceremony in their native tongues. The Filipino event is so small — about 100 students — that each grad gets to speak for 30 seconds.

But the core reason for separatist graduations is the obvious one: on campus, assimilation is a hostile force, the domestic version of American imperialism. On many campuses, identity-group training begins with separate freshman orientation programs for non-whites, who arrive earlier and are encouraged to bond before the first Caucasian freshmen arrive. Some schools have separate orientations for gays as well. Administrations tend to foster separatism by arguing that bias is everywhere, justifying double standards that favor identity groups.

Four years ago Ward Connerly, then a regent of the University of California, tried to pass a resolution to stop funding of ethnic graduations and gay freshman orientations. He changed his mind and asked to withdraw his proposal but the regents wanted to vote on it and defeated it in committee 6-3.

No major objections to ethnic graduations have emerged since. As in so many areas of American life, the preposterous is now normal.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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