A Downside of Racial Awareness?

One of the most popular assessment tools in higher education is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a questionnaire administered each year to some 300,000 first-year and senior students at diverse institutions across the country. It has items on how many books students read, how many papers they write, how often they meet with professors outside of class, and a host of other out-of-class “engagement” queries. One of them goes like this:

Had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than your own.

Students answer “Never,” “Sometimes,” “Often,” or “Very often,” and school administrators, presumably, use the results as a fair measure of racial/ethnic mixing on campus. (The 2009 results may be found here). To anybody who eschews counting people by skin color, needless to say, the item is somewhat annoying. One senses behind it the social engineer, someone with designs on personal attitudes and behaviors. Obviously, too, it signals a leading intention, namely, to make the number of inter-racial exchanges go up every year.
The fact that if the inter-racial rate for a particular university ever went down it would embarrass school administrators indicates how deeply racial diversity awareness has penetrated campus affairs. Diversity is, of course, the notion of the moment in higher education, the incessant announcements of “diversity-is-our-strength,” “we-are-diverse,” and so on forming the white noise of campus life. That NSSE makes talking to people of another race a separate measure, and that respondents likely answer the question without blinking, shows just how normal and routine racial counting has become.

For all the approval of diversity thinking, though, it may have a downside precisely for the universities that proclaim it so forcefully. For what if, in raising racial diversity awareness and emphasizing the racial climate of the campus, a university raises sensitivities to racial difference at the same time? If campus counselors, diversity officers, and others administrators lead seminars, training sessions, and orientations that underscore racial elements in social interactions, they might also heighten the perception of racist attitudes in others and the attribution of racist motives to them. Minority students might feel less “acceptance,” now and then over-reading negative responses to them as race-based. Administrators want to improve the racial atmosphere in the institutions, but if sensitivities go up along with awareness, then the institution will end up with a lot more cases of race-based allegations than it did before—in other words, a worse racial climate.
This is the dilemma posed in an important essay by Steve Chatman, a researcher at UC-Berkeley, in the Spring 2010 issue of New Directions for Institutional Research , edited by Serge Herzog. Entitled “Working with Large-Scale Climate Surveys: Reducing Data Complexity to Gain New Insights,” Chatman pulls data from the 2008 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey that distinguish “interpersonal and diversity skills, campus climate, overall satisfaction and inclusion, and individual characteristics [religion, income, race, etc.].” The data also include the respondents’ programs of study, allowing Chatman to break down student perceptions by major.
Here is what he found:

Upper-division area and ethnic studies students rated Climate of Respect for Personal Beliefs at 4.16. Humanities and social science students gave it a substantially higher 4.80, and science, engineering, math, and business students rated it even higher at 5.05. Obviously, field of study affected scores.

Chatman attributes the low climate scores in area and ethnic studies precisely to the instruction students receive in those classes. “Students in area and ethnic studies should have learned to recognize prejudicial communication and should be more sensitive to communication that might be prejudicial,” he writes. Whereas a math student might hear a remark and think nothing of it, an African American Studies student might discern prejudice and stereotyping. Does this mean that students in area and ethnic studies are more perceptive and accurate in their assessment of campus climate, or have they acquired in their classes a “warped lens” (Chatman’s term) that sees social life in overdone racial categories? Chatman even draws a logical possibility that might appall area and ethnic studies instruction, that is, that the climate in those fields is a lot worse than it is in engineering classes and labs. One wonders how area and ethnic studies professors would feel if they were ordered to undergo diversity sensitivity sessions themselves to try to straighten out their problems.
Chatman draws no policy conclusions, only calling for further research. But his findings certainly challenge the automatic assumption that more diversity sensitivity equals better undergraduate experience. It also introduces a needed critical element in the understanding of diversity itself. The term has acquired so much psycho-political freight that its usefulness for constructive discussion of higher education is practically zero. Such complications as those unveiled by Chatman are not a setback to rational understanding of campus social life. They are an advance.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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35 thoughts on “A Downside of Racial Awareness?

  1. The mish-mash of assertions in the entry by “diversityguru” are no surprise once one visits his website and reads material such as what’s at this link: diversityofficermagazine.com/?page_id=65
    As Jared Taylor has written ( http://www.lrainc.com/swtaboo/taboos/jt_diver.html ), “It would be edifying to count the number of public and private organizations that exist in the United States only because of its diverse population, and that are not needed in places like Japan or Norway. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Office of Federal Contract Compliance, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and every state and local equivalents of these offices exist only because of racial diversity. Every government office, every university, every large corporation, and every military installation has employees working full-time on affirmative action, discrimination claims, and other ‘diversity’ issues.
    “Countless outreach programs, reconciliation commissions, blue-ribbon panels, and mayoral commissions fret professionally about race every day. Not one of these would be necessary in a nation of a single race. There must be tens of thousands of Americans consuming hundreds of millions of dollars every year enforcing, adjusting, tuning, regulating, and talking pure nonsense about the racial diversity that is supposed to be our strength.

    “If diversity were a strength people would practice it spontaneously. It wouldn’t require constant cheer-leading or expensive lawsuits. If diversity were enriching, people would seek it out.”

  2. Your comment says nothing about the research cited in this post, diversityguru. Do you have nothing to say about it?

  3. As H.E. Baber found out in her research, in a multicultural society there are two options: assimilate or segregate.
    The problem is inherent to “diversity” itself, in that societies are founded around core value systems and beliefs, and that requires immigrants to either give up their old values system and assimilate, or hold on to their old values system and be in permanent diaspora.
    And as a researcher named Putnam found out, “diversity” causes instability because no citizen can be sure that other citizens are viewing life through the same values filter. Trust is eroded, and it’s not through the fault of any of the “ingredients” in diversity — it’s the diversity itself.
    This applies to any form of diversity, whether religious, ethnic (specialized evolution producing tendencies toward different value systems, as Haidt alleges), political, social class, even intelligence or physical strength. Some can be overcome; wide enough gaps cannot.
    We either learn from that and accept it, no matter how difficult it is, or insist on an illusion and march to our dissolution.

  4. I have never taken an “ethnic studies” course and I have more sympathy towards other races because all of the business courses I was taking in class exposed me to every ethnic group possible. I’ve had classes with Chinese, Japanese, French, Dutch, Thai, Portugese, Mexican, Arab, etc. These classes did more for me than any “ethnic studies” course. In fact, when you think about it, “ethnic studies” courses segregate people into their respective ethnic groups and then these groups are educated by people from the same ethnic background. Is it not possible that when people go into these courses they will come out with a more jaundiced view of America? Of course it is. Morgan Freeman said it best, “The best way to solve our problems about race is to not talk about race.”

  5. Research by psychologist Patricia Devine and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin has shown consistently that white and non-white Americans see their country very differently. That is based on their experience. Americans consider themselves non-prejudice, but they lack the sophisticated competence needed to behave accordingly. The gap between your self interest in believing you are tolerant and your lack of competence will lead you to believe that ethnic studies is limited, racist, and requires less scholarly challenge than the “hard sciences”. Try being authentically compassionate towards differences, which any good ethnic studies course will do. That will challenge the heck out of you.

  6. njoriole’s comment, “The fact is, there are no separate races; we are ALL Homo Sapiens, i.e., the human race.” fits right in with an observation of mine.
    The least prejusdiced people I have ever met are science fiction fans at the several SciFi convenstions I have attended. I suspect the reason is this- When you deal with concepts such as rishathra, miscegnation loses all meaning.
    Some rishathra jokes are incredibly funny- if you grasp the concept. They’re all (well, mostly) one liners.
    Rishathra? I’m sorry, but you have an insufficient number of orifices.
    Rishathra? Can you breathe underwater for 20 minutes?
    That should give you the idea.

  7. Perhaps the actual personal beliefs of ethnic and area studies majors inherently command less respect than those of science and engineering majors.
    The perceived differences in respect could in fact be entirely real without anybody being prejudiced at all.

  8. The best racial diversity training I ever had was basic training in military. It was the first time I ever slept in the same room with a man of color. You learned to get along.
    We lost that positive racial admixture experience when we eliminated the military draft. Think about it.
    And think about all the leaders we have today who managed to miss out on that experience.

  9. “Had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than your own.”
    Personally, I think “non-serious conversations” might be a better factor to study. Sure, I had a lot of serious conversations with the engineering major who was one of my freshman roommates (and who happened to be black)… generally about math or physics. But, if you want to study “engagement”, aren’t the conversations we had about music, food, girls, etc. at least as relevant?
    And what is more applicable to “engagement”… the serious (and class-related) conversations I had with a Physics lab partner, who happened to be of a different racial/ ethnic background, or grabbing a bite to eat after class and talking about whatever non-academic subject comes to mind?
    If you want the right answers, you need the right questions.

  10. One wonders if school administrators will take note of these findings and examine their racial awareness initiatives in light of them.
    By the way, on the 2007 NSSE, when it came to reporting how often seniors had “serious conversations” with people of a different race or ethnicity, the lowest scoring field was “Education” majors (49 percent “Often” or “Very often”). Business majors garnered 50 percent, as did physical science majors. Professional majors rated 52 percent, engineering at 54 percent.

  11. As a science major, I remember being blind to race. We were so consumed with learning mathematics and the laws of nature. Race played no role in any of our equations.
    Bravo to the humanities and social science majors for scoring high on the surveys, since their studies were most likely more “race aware”.

  12. When I was a surgical resident in the late 60s, a senior resident I worked with a lot was black. His father had been a Navy doctor so he was from a middle class background. He was a funny guy and told us that he had been elected student body president at UCLA because he was black. I can’t remember the term he used but the point was that all he had to do was look like a normal guy and everybody loved him. That was over 40 years ago.
    We have regressed.

  13. The answer to a survey showing that emphasizing race identity, diversity, and ethnic studies exacerbates racism will be, of course, to change the survey.

  14. I have noticed less making fun of education majors and more making fun of any given “studies” major. Perhaps it’s the soft grading that exists, and that all students seem to be aware of. Getting an A average in education courses is only slightly less likely than getting an A in a “studies” course, and both are way more likely than earning a C+ or better in rigorous areas of study.
    Most students really aren’t either stupid or unaware of such, you know, no matter what the professors in Colleges of Education or Departments [or Areas] of ‘X’ ‘Studies’ may think.

  15. Here is my experience as an Engineering student:
    If you find anyone (anyone!) who grasps a concept that you don’t you cherish that person’s instruction in helping you. Likewise, I’m willing to help anyone who doesn’t understand what I happen to understand. This person may save me later. I get a sense that on the first day of class we all look around and say to ourselves “We are all in this together”. In other words, the curriculum is difficult enough, no one has the energy to start making racial distinctions about our fellow classmates.

  16. I worked in the office of Affimative Action at a large and very diverse university a number of years ago. In our diversity training we used a model developed by a team at Harvard which emphasized how we are more alike than different no matter our skin color or background. The most defensive and aggressive and hostile person invariably had spent time in “ethnic” classes. In most cases, folks were amazed that their feelings and outlooks were similar to those of other cultures and races. Having said all that, it was fascinating to me to see on campus groups of white students walkng around, groups of hispanics together, blacks together and even Asians separated -by themselves- from others. Who’da thunk that we prefer to be with those most “like” us. I dont know what all this means, except the “smart people” havent gotten it right yet. Maybe in two or three generations but quite a while down the road.

  17. “The term has acquired so much psycho-political freight that its usefulness for constructive discussion of higher education is practically zero.”
    Now who’s to blame for that?

  18. Well qualified white High School graduates around the Country are seeing many much less accomplished black students getting coveted spots at the “top” schools. It is a big surprise to them. Not good for racial harmony.

  19. TO: Mark Bauerlein, et al.
    RE: Why….
    ….am I not surprised by this report?
    Considering how the vaunted American public education system (K-12) has focused on building up self-esteem. And THEN dumping these self-impressed, i.e., conceited young minds, into a collegiate environment where they can ‘improve’ their self-conceit, they’d appreciate other, different peoples MORE?
    Get realistic.
    [Having sown the wind, we shall reap the whirlwind. — Proverbs]

  20. I suspect that the student groups weren’t equal to start with, so attributing differences in attitude to the “diversity” training may be overblown. Simply put, a student going into math or engineering may be too busy actually studying, and less inclined to take offense at minor irritants than a student going into ethnic studies.

  21. It’s also possible that students who have a prior low perception of the climate of respect for personal beliefs are more likely to pursue area and ethnic studies. This is at least plausible and can’t be dismissed out of hand.
    We would need a longitudinal study comparing the perceptions of incoming and graduating students to tie the low rating to coursework.

  22. Ashland OR, a college town, did a study to see how many renters discriminated on the basis of race and found 6 of 10 were biased (if I recall correctly). I’ll bet the people that designed the survey, coached their rental applicants to show or imply some undesirable behavior (drug use, slovenly slacker, communist political views, etc.) that would turn off most rental property owners. Then they could claim the town was racially biased. Actually I think it is good the hip lib types are shown to be racists.

  23. What does a degree in ethnic studies qualify somebody for. A position as assistant manager at Burger King?
    Student’s who sign up for ethnic studies programs aren’t interested in learning about their cultural vibrancy, etc. They’re interested in hearing how the white man has kept them down. They’re interested in fomenting their own internal anger. They’re interested in inventing excuses for why they’ll only ever be an assistant manager at Burger King.
    Now if they had studied something useful…

  24. The whole concept of “race” is a bogus, destructive force in the body politic. How is it even possible that modern people believe in such a mythical construct? The fact is, there are no separate races; we are ALL Homo Sapiens, i.e., the human race.

  25. I just went through the English language written survey. What a waste of time and paper. It’s been a long time since I attended college but this is pure nonsense.
    It’s no wonder to me why so many students don’t know anything after receiving 16 years of “education”.
    The survey is kindergarten for young adults.

  26. I am a first generation American who worked every hard to get to college, where I excelled. Although I was well aware of my ethnic background, American is what I wanted to be first and foremost. It also helped that I never attended public schools manned as they are today by leftwing teachers many of whom appear to dislike the US of A. My three college-educated sons are much more ethnic than I was. That is the result of their university education. The more schooling Americans get the less American they are. Elites are embarassed to appear patriotic.

  27. Reagan was right again: the best thing for “civil rights” and racial harmony is benign neglect of the forced efforts at bringing us together! It hypersensitizes all minorities who are subject to these “diversity” programs.
    Want to run a real test of this? Dress plainly and shop in an elite shop on Madison Ave. in NYC. Note how you’re treated—shabbily I’ll wager, based upon your plain appearance.
    Then ask a plainly-dressed minority friend or colleague to go into the same shop(without you) and afterward, ask them how they were treated and why. Dollars to donuts they were treated poorly (the same as you), but that they blame it on “racism”!

  28. Causation could run the other way: People who ten d to see more group isolation and inter-group problems are drawn to area studies or humanities/social sciences in greater numbers than those who do not hold such opinions as acutely, with teh latter more drawn to hard sciences.
    I suspect the answer is both—people with chips on their shoulders are drawn to those fields that will justify and reinforce the grievances.
    No need to go the next step, and mention that to succeed in the hard sciences it helps to be smart and have a good academic foundation, whereas succeeding in the bullshit fields mostly requires an aptitude for and comfort with bullshit.
    But, I went there, anyway, ’cause it’s true and may be another factor.

  29. Basically, the majority of people that take these courses are already non-white racists and the courses simply reinforce their views. That’s probably by design. Class warfare works better with constant brainwashing from the statists and totalitarians.

  30. “white noise” — may I suggest Tyrrell’s term Kultursmog, or the English version, “cultural smog?”

  31. The emphasis on diversity is a mistake that is contributing to the disintegration of our society because it places emphasis on things that separate us, rather than the things that bring us together. The melting pot was a concept that celebrated many peoples coming together to create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. This resulted in a society that was the most innovative and prosperous in history.
    Multiculturalism and identity politics have pushed people apart causing social decline at an ever accelerating pace.

  32. So training students in confirmation bias works? That’s my takeaway. AND, that’s not an improvement. Better we back off on the hypersensitivity and just get along.

  33. Too bad young students have not learned that if someone asks a question, you are probably NOT obligated to answer.
    I rarely do surveys. When I do, I do not give racial or income information. If it’s an on-line survey that requires a response, I just close the page and do not bother with any followups.

  34. What it does is reinforces the notion of separate “races” and continues to have students think in terms of “race” with interpersonal actions. Instead of “so&so is my friend”, it’s “so&so is my black friend, or Chinese friend.”
    The whole “diversity” thing is actually the real racism.

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