One of the most controversial topics in the country is affirmative action in college admissions. A primary justification for affirmative action is the belief that diversity on campus is beneficial to the student body. Diversity creates opportunities for discourse that cannot occur in a homogenous institution. Affirmative action advocates argue that these experiences may not just improve students’ education, but could ultimately help eliminate the deep racial divide in America.
Although I agree with this assertion, simply having a diverse student body is not enough to achieve these goals. Even if a school has substantial minority representation, when there is no interaction, there will be no discourse. Most white students do not have as much social contact with minority students, especially with black students, as the admissions numbers may suggest. Students may talk to each other in the classroom, but it is very easy for them to revert to grouping patterns many have followed their entire lives. Often they live and socialize with people who appear to be similar to themselves. This self-segregation undermines the efficacy of campus diversity in many universities in the United States.
The obvious solution is for all students to reach outside their comfort zone. By challenging themselves and attacking social barriers, students of all races can receive the improved education diversity should provide. White students have an obligation to reach out on the individual level to students of different ethnicities. This is difficult for most students. It is hard enough to make friends in college, and most students are afraid to take on the greater challenge of reaching outside of the most familiar social group. Many students may feel they are not welcome in a group or at a table where their race does not predominate. They are often content to follow the easier path.
This is where the university administration should help students take advantage of the diversity available to them. The administration should be aware of racial divides on campus and take an active role bridging them. It should encourage predominantly white organizations to recruit a more diverse membership and hold programs that reach across racial and ethnic lines. The administration should work to increase relations and exchange between races as well as between white organizations and multicultural organizations.
Multicultural and minority organizations play an important role in the interactions and experiences of minorities. For example, a friend of mine who goes to Georgetown was invited to a minority orientation program the summer before freshman year. During that program she met almost all of the other African-American students going to Georgetown. She was given a safety net for the difficult transition from a predominantly black high school to an almost exclusively white university.
Although this was valuable to her, it had a downside as well. At the beginning of the year all of the black freshmen had already met, which actually led to a degree of isolation from white students. Some white students may have felt intimidated by the fact that the African-American students already had a circle of friends at the outset of the semester. A helpful program for minority students can actually limit interracial exchange.
Multicultural and minority organizations walk a difficult road, where good programs can alienate parts of the student body. Some programs openly exclude white students, causing them to feel unwelcome. Programs should not exclude groups of students from participation. An example at Tulane is the Indian Association’s regular nights of food, drink and dance at Nirvana. These events have universal appeal and have fostered greater interaction between races. Multicultural organizations could also work to create more joint programs with other campus groups while emphasizing the importance of intercultural interaction. Instead of only promoting the awareness of diversity, multicultural programs should utilize it.
I would like to stress that this article is not meant as a denunciation of Tulane’s administration, our campus organizations or their efforts to improve racial relations. I am simply offering possible solutions to a nationwide problem that frustrates me greatly. Real change will be the result of individual initiatives. Students of all races should do more to reach out to people different from themselves despite any initial difficulty or awkwardness. The role of administration and campus organizations is to encourage this behavior and provide more opportunities for interaction. Campus diversity can be a valuable tool. It can change our country as well as our college, but only if all of us take advantage of what we’ve been given.
Ben Turner is a Tulane College sophomore. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org