Several years ago, I was a visiting professor at a large public university beyond the Mississippi. Early on, I introduced myself to a few of the colleagues in the department, some of whom proved to be vigorous liberals unhappy with the social state of things on campus. One of them said to me as I nodded hello and sat down in her office (I’d made an appointment earlier), “Just look around—what do you see on this campus?”
I didn’t know what she meant. The architecture? The flora? The stadium? All I could do was mutter a feeble, “What?”
She didn’t hesitate. “How many black people are there?
I paused, an “Uhh,” escaping my lips. It was one of those questions that imply much, much more than the actual words say. Conservatives have learned to wait before they answer, knowing that a simple response to the simple question might sound as if he endorses all the unspoken implications of the question as well.
There was no mystery here, of course. The thrust of her observation was clear. She had in mind the standard institutional-racism point: a bare statistical disproportion in demographics signifies discrimination at work. In this reasoning, the complexity of that result doesn’t factor into the blunt fact of the disparate outcome. Something in the institution was keeping black numbers down.
I had spent the day walking around campus and hadn’t counted the racial makeup of the people I passed. But when she posed her question, it did occur to me that I hadn’t seen any African Americans, or, if I had, there were too few of them for me to have noticed them.
I didn’t say that, but if I had, it would have proved her point. The university at which she worked had few African Americans in residence, and that, in itself, was a big, big problem. She had chosen that issue as primary in our meeting; it preoccupied her. She had that accusatory tone in her voice that one hears so often in academic discussions of race, a tone that bespoke a crime in process. She proceeded to say something about affirmative action, which was a national topic around that time.
That was when I made my mistake.
“Well,” I suggested, “it must be difficult for the university to get those numbers up. What’s the black population in the state as a whole?
She stared at me for a moment; her countenance went blank. I assume she realized that the person sitting across the desk didn’t share her distress. She was on one wavelength; I was on another. She didn’t want to discuss statistics, though the conversation originated in a statistical remark. Numbers for her served only to introduce the real issue, racism—racism on campus, racism in the state, racism in America. To focus on specific details as I had was to ignore the broad and deep condition of bigotry. I had shown myself obtuse.
Yes, the black share of the population in the state was in the middle single digits, and given the racial achievement gap in high school, one had to assume it would be impossible for the school to reach even that low rate no matter how hard it tried to recruit top African American students. (I looked up state data afterward.) But she didn’t want to talk about that, and if I did, it was time to move to other subjects. She proceeded to describe a law and literature course she had designed.
I thought about that episode last week when a report on a controversy at the University of Montana surfaced. Here is how insidehighered.com summarized the affair.
The University of Montana was in the early stages of addressing complaints about the lack of racial diversity on campus when it decided to hold an essay contest marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The contest was seen as an opportunity to engage students of various backgrounds and spur dialogue across the campus about the life and work of the late civil rights leader. But the plans backfired when the university announced, and proudly promoted, the four winning essays—all penned by white students.
Need we go into any further details? We know the outlines of every such case. Lots of indignation, pledges of soul-searching, promises of correction. It got ugly. The administration took down photos of the four winners, all women, after they received threats. That the contest had only six entrants, likewise all white, and that the prize selection committee was mostly non-white (four whites, five people of color, the heads of the Black Student Union and the Latinx Student Union among them) didn’t matter. Those facts didn’t sway the 1,100 commenters on social media who found the results shameful.
Here was my first thought: how many African Americans live in Montana? My family lived in Missoula in the mid-Sixties when I was in first grade, and I can’t recall any black neighbors or buddies. The year before we lived in Southwest Washington DC, a heavily black area, where my parents took us to reside in order to live out their commitment to racial integration. Montana was a whole other world.
The insidehighered story notes that African Americans make up less than one percent of the undergraduate population. What it doesn’t note is that blacks make up only .4 percent of the state’s population, a mere 4,348 person in total.
How in the world, then, do the protesters think that the University of Montana can raise the number of black undergraduates into a critical mass? They must know that the admissions office is desperate to draw African American kids who can handle the college workload. Indeed, the administration has begun plans to hire a “diversity, equity and inclusion” expert, along with resources to help that troubleshooter advance the mission. But given the pool from which the University of Montana pulls undergraduates, what can this person do to make the school sufficiently diverse?
Raising the black share of the student body to 1.2 percent would be a significant advance, but we know that it wouldn’t impress the diversiphiles one bit. As the director of communications at Montana told insidehighered, “We recognize that we have much more to do.” Yes, and as the university adds a few more black students to the entering classes, that admission will only grow more urgent. To a progressive, there is always so much more to do.
The University of Montana and every other public university in a low black population state are in an impossible situation. The top African American high school kids in Rocky Mountain states are coveted by Tier 1 schools everywhere. Just imagine how at a rich northeastern school, the admissions officer’s eyes light up when he sees that a black kid in Helena with SAT scores in the 88th percentile has sent an inquiry letter. The University of Montana doesn’t have a chance in that competition.
The truth cannot be told, however. The dean of admissions cannot say, “Listen, we are trying every day to improve diversity here in Missoula, we support all kinds of initiatives to make the campus attractive to students of color. But reality is reality. We can only play the cards in the deck. We can’t change the population of Montana. We’re sorry.” A dean who said as much might be out of a job by the end of the year.
Adequate diversity will never happen (the black-white gap in high school achievement hasn’t closed at all in the last 20 years). But the righteous anger of the activists and the apologies and promises of the administrators will proceed. Episodes will burst forth, protests will follow, officials will confess, and resources will be steered toward the agitators.
Hence, the game will continue.