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Dissecting Diversity PART II

Dissecting Diversity PART II

Scholars weigh in on group identity, the Black/Brown Alliance and the future of historically Black colleges

In the second edition of Diverse, the editors present “Dissecting Diversity, Part II,” the conclusion of a wide-ranging two-part roundtable discussion on diversity in higher education. As Diverse moves forward, the editors will continue to invite experts to debate and define the meanings of diversity in higher education. As one panelist put it in the first part of the roundtable “diversity, like democracy, is a process.” To that end, we invite you to join in on the discussion by responding and sharing your thoughts.


Lezli Baskerville
J.D., President and CEO, National Association for Equal Opportunity (NAFEO)

Dr. Gerald E. Gipp
Executive Director, American Indian Higher Education Consortium

Dr. William Harvey
Vice President and Director, Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity, American Council of Education

Dr. Anita Nahal
Visiting Professor, Howard University Graduate School

Dr. Narcisa Polonio
Vice President for Board Leadership Services, Association of Community College Trustees

Dr. Ronald Walters
Distinguished Leadership Scholar & Director, African American Leadership Institute, University of Maryland

Frank H. Wu
J.D., Dean and Professor of Law,
Wayne State University Law School

Dr. Claire Van Ummersen
Vice President and Director, Office of
Women in Higher Education, American Council of Education

DIVERSE: What I would like to throw out first, in dealing with diversity, is the numbers game and the power that we are talking about, the political power primarily. How is that going to play out as this dynamic unfolds? 

HARVEY: I spoke to TACHE, the Texas Association of Chicanos In Higher Education, a couple of years ago, and I started by asking people how many were concerned about substandard schools, and how many were concerned about substandard housing, and the same question for health care, etc. And everybody raised their hands, and I said, “Well, that’s interesting, because I raised the same questions yesterday to African-Americans and they all raised their hands, too.”

So it’s pretty clear to me that we have some very important common interests that we need to identify. One of them, obviously, is access to higher education and success in higher education. And those two things, unfortunately, are not always the same thing. I think it’s important for us to accentuate that relationship and the positive connections and shared concerns we have, rather than focus on the games that can be played where in fact we test one another. And I’m not talking just about these two groups, but all historically under-represented groups. The concern for us is that if we can test one another for the crumbs, then the majority, which is increasingly becoming a non-majority, will walk away with the cake. 

POLONIO: I always like to look underneath the cover. The reality is just because you are a minority doesn’t mean you are not prejudiced. We are all products of the same educational system whether you like it or not. And I think the biggest divide is that we don’t have honest

discussions. I’m doing a lot of work in Texas, and the infighting that is going on in the political arena between Blacks and Chicanos, it is what it is. And people know who’s going to get that seat at the table. So you used to have 11 million Blacks. Now there’s 14 million Hispanic people. “Get out of the way. It’s our [Chicanos] turn.” That’s the prevailing attitude there, that there isn’t going to be room for everybody. 

WU: We’re struggling with a set of tensions. On the one hand, we don’t want to encourage individuals to disavow all of their cousins because they’re able to pass, to embrace the notion that Whiter is brighter, or any of the other phrases that you sometimes hear. On the other hand, we don’t want to force everyone to always be a representative of his or her racial group. Everyone in this room has probably had these experiences, something along the lines of the following: “I’m going to China. Do you know any good restaurants in Beijing?” Or, “I just got a tattoo of a Chinese character. Can you just check to make sure that it’s been done right?” So I am sort of an all-purpose expert on China, or sometimes just on Asia.

DIVERSE: That probably goes for African-Americans and others as well. 

WU: Why did I get to become an expert on something that I actually know very little about? And so, there’s no way that we can strike a

balance. Every individual, every family, every community does it differently. And sometimes each one of us does it differently, depending on whether we’re around our cousins at Christmas. And we’re much more ethnic at that time because suddenly we see our grandparents or our great-grandparents or an uncle or aunt who we have to speak to in a different language. And we have this role that’s very different than when we put on a coat and tie and go off to work. [That is] a special setting where you have to have the language, the diction, the dress, the manners of a group that you learn very carefully, over time, to copy so that you can fit in. 

DIVERSE: I think that causes the anxiety, because there are people who say if we are going to reach this American ideal that coincides with this diversity ideal, “You check your culture, you check your ethnicity, you check this stuff at the door and then you can participate.” 

WALTERS: They mean color diversity. That’s where I think this [diversity] is a light concept. They don’t want me to bring in the door my history and my stuff. They want the coloration concept of diversity, and that’s about it. And I think that’s what we are exposing. It exposes this whole colorization thing, and I think it’s at the heart of what a lot of Americans can be comfortable with.

DIVERSE: We are kind of like chameleons, we warp and we change. We act quiet in one situation, we make high SAT scores, but at the same time we go to the Black Panther reunion. Can diversity accommodate that kind of duality for individuals?

NAHAL: I don’t think it’s that simple. For example, I could easily wear a

sari or a Hindu dress and be visually very different. But I choose not to do that because maybe, somewhere inside, I want to fit in. Maybe the circumstances, our global circumstances right now, make me think that I shouldn’t really be parading my own culture traits so outwardly … If I walk into a room wearing my own sari, and start talking about Rosa Parks and speaking about Montgomery, Alabama, — what would the reaction be wearing an Indian sari? I don’t have the sensibilities of a Black woman. So these are not simple things. 

WU: The real question is, who owns the culture? And which culture do we regard as belonging to which individual, which community? You are always expected to assimilate, to fit in, but we never mention the standard to assimilate, and that’s Whiteness. If you are Asian American and you move into a White neighborhood, teach at a White college, have White friends, maybe you’re mainstream, you’re upwardly mobile, that’s the American dream. But if you’re Asian American and you teach at Howard University, people say, “Gee, couldn’t you get a better job? Why are you there? Are you trying to make a statement?”

DIVERSE: Most people around the world know that Condoleezza Rice is now the U.S. Secretary of State. What do she and Colin Powell bring to the dynamics of the conversation we’re having about these kinds of things?

WU: They don’t change because people around the world also see “Baywatch,” and every bad ’80s TV show that is broadcast to billions of people and avidly watched, and whenever you watch any of those shows, except for a few token characters, everyone who is Black is going to be a thug, a prostitute, or engaged in something unpleasant. So what happens is you look at Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, not just outside the country, but inside the country, and you think, “God, those individuals have made it because those individuals are good, decent people. They’re the respectable Negroes. They are not like the rest.” That’s the psychology of it.

BASKERVILLE: They don’t even recognize them as if they’ve been “good Negroes.” The media and those that are telling the story take

pains to indicate their heritage as other than African-American. So if an African-American smacks somebody in the head or if a person of darker hue is accused of a crime, they parade them across the TV and you see a Black face and they say a Black man did such and such. When they are a success, whether it is Tiger Woods or Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, they dig into the roots. Well, the reality is that all of us are many different backgrounds and ethnicities. There is no one who is purely anything, or very few people. So, to dig that deep shows the extent to which our society will go, in terms of public image, to keep the negative image of the African-American, and then to say to the public, if you are doing well, if you are excelling, then that’s because you are all of these things other than African-American.

HARVEY: There is no denying the amount of power and influence that Condi Rice has or Colin Powell has or Oprah has, but our struggle in this country has been a collective struggle. And as long as you are able to pull off one person and say that person made it, therefore, everything is all right for the group, it denies the reality that everything is not all right for the group. And as a group, folks of color, under-represented folks, continue to lag behind, by every indicator, the majority White population that we’ve identified as the baseline.

DIVERSE: Bill, when you run your stats, typically along the lines of SAT scores, or dropout rates, how will those quantifiable dynamics exacerbate inter-group and intra-group tensions among people of color?  

HARVEY: People who are in positions of responsibility, particularly in higher education, have a responsibility to paint the big picture, to talk about what could happen, what might the country become. And if we talk about that, then obviously there’s a benefit to us having more educated people of every persuasion, so that’s not a zero sum game. You want more kids in college. You want more kids to finish college from every community. 

DIVERSE: But the reality is there are a finite group of spaces at Michigan, at Texas Austin, or at Berkeley.

POLONIO: That’s an elitist answer. It’s about people making a decent living and taking care of their families. They don’t care about higher education. It’s about having a life worth living, a life where you make a contribution. And I heard recently on public radio, they were celebrating a charter school for African-Americans where 100 percent of the kids get accepted to college. And it was absolutely amazing the reaction they got — a lot of people said the goal for all African-Americans is not college, the same way that it is not the same goal for all Asians or Hispanics, etc.

WU: But there is an issue about Harvard and other elite schools, which is this: Let’s say you take someone who is White and male and 60, who went to one of those schools, and now wants to know why his son or grandson can’t get in, and says, “Oh, it’s because they’re trying to be more diverse. They are letting in less-qualified African-Americans.” That’s absolutely not true. What’s really happened is when that person went to one of those elite schools, it was really easy to get in. If you could pay, you got in. If you went to an East Coast prep school, you got in. It didn’t matter if you had a C average, and there are plenty of cases that prove that.

And, now what’s happened? Well, now a higher proportion of people go to college — women go to college, working-class people go to college, there are immigrants. College is much more important. And, what’s also happened is colleges are much more heavily stratified. Now it was always true that going to Harvard opened many, many doors and that’s a great thing to do as an 18-year-old. But what’s happened now, if you watch the news, and you can measure it with law schools, if you go to one of the top 25 law schools and graduate at the bottom of your class, in financial terms, at least, you will do as well or better than the top of the class at any other law school. And this is true in so many other fields. This is what is driving the anxiety. People say, “My kid didn’t get in. It must be reverse bias.” The likelihood that it’s reverse bias is virtually nil. The likelihood is that your son didn’t get in because they didn’t have very good grades. They may have done better than you, but by today’s standards that’s still not very good.

VAN UMMERSEN: We didn’t talk very much about economics, but I believe that one of the things that we have to deal with is to really make certain that people have an economic base to grow from. Without that, even the education is not going to help them be successful, to be able to support a family, which if you are thinking about this, it’s the next generation that comes along that will have a better life. And I do think that’s an important piece. And I agree with Bill. I think it takes leadership at the institutions, but it also takes a kind of leadership throughout the whole institution, because if a president leaves, often what you see is a regression back to “she’s gone so we don’t have to do this anymore.” So you have to build it into the institution, and the community can help you to do that.

GIPP: I would agree that the onus is on our institutions to try to take a real leadership role. I think without that we will never get to a point of trying to understand the diversity issue and work together. That’s what needs to happen, I think. I’m also concerned, though, about what’s

happening with higher education in terms of cost. That’s an automatic barrier. As state institutions, for example, begin to privatize more, they are pushing the costs of tuition and all of those things back to the student and the parents. So that’s a barrier that automatically cuts people out of higher education.

BASKERVILLE: I’m not sure that I agree with the conclusions that the institutions have to take the lead. I think institutions have a critical role to play, but public policy has to set the climate and the tone.

DIVERSE: Frank, how do you structure training legal minds, given the legal impact of diversity?

WU: Well, the Supreme Court has made it much harder, but also allowed us to be creative. It’s up to all of us who do have these schools where we are able to lead to make some tough choices. If in the Michigan cases the court had said you absolutely cannot consider race, well, then it would be easy. If they had said, sure, go ahead, and what you then did was absolutely fine, that would have made it easy, too. What they did, however, as we know, was they split. In one case they struck down the pro rata, and in one case they upheld it, and they did, as they often do, write in abstract terms and very general terms. So it is clear that institutionally we are permitted to pursue diversity, but it’s not mandated.

DIVERSE: So what you’re saying, and what I think I hear the panel saying, is that diversity is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Is that an accurate assessment?

WU: Sure. What is going to work for a public university in Idaho is not going to be the same as what works for a private institution in Massachusetts.

DIVERSE: Given the history and the current experiences of American Indians how would you respond to this ambiguity about diversity and how American Indians survive, and indeed thrive, in the context of this ambiguity?

GIPP: We have a different perspective. No question about that. Our tribal people have been so overwhelmed by this nation, one of the things that’s not looked on very seriously is that we do have a different, rural view, a rural view that says that we value certain things differently, one of them being land, for example. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t want material things. We do still want to live well and have things, but the question is to what extent do we want to exploit the resources, the land, the minerals and so forth. And so that’s one
example that one could look at, and that’s a value system that is still there with our people, especially in reservation areas.

DIVERSE: Do you see conflict between, for example, African-Americans and American Indians because your issues are different?

GIPP: Well, they are different, but there are also strong commonalities. And one of the things that we’re trying to overcome, first of all, is being invisible. We have been the “other” category that you check in the box. We also realize that politically we don’t have the numbers. We haven’t had the numbers for many, many years. And so, what’s important for us is to stand together, especially in higher education, and we’re doing that now through the Alliance of Equity in Higher Education. And we can see some results of that because we stand together on certain issues that are common to us, and yet, hopefully, what also happens is that if we have a different issue that perhaps the Black community really doesn’t support because they are not involved in it, they still can support us, depending on what that issue might be.

DIVERSE: From a group that doesn’t have a lot of numbers, to a group that has the largest minority numbers, how is this going to unfold from your vantage point for Hispanics?

POLONIO: Well, the so-called Hispanic community is a combination of people who are probably bound more by language than anything else. You are talking about, maybe, 10 million Mexican-Americans or Chicanos, depending on where they come from, versus Puerto Ricans who are very different, versus Cubans, who are also very different, versus the incredible wave that you are getting now of people from Central America and South America, who are really native peoples. Their heritage is not the same. The political power is not going to be there for a long time. So it’s a very complex group that’s not unified; it really is very separate. 

DIVERSE: Are you optimistic about the Black/Brown alliance in higher education?

POLONIO: I’m optimistic about the next generation. I think the next generation is going to be a lot more mixed, a lot more open, more accepting of people without all the things that we grew up with. So my hope is tied with the next generation. I think the current generation is having a fight over limited resources.

DIVERSE: How do you see this whole thing unfolding for African-Americans, who are obviously very anxious about this diversity model that the country seems to be moving toward?

WALTERS: African-Americans will survive it, essentially because the floodgates for this generation have been opened. So, to me, I’m not all that anxious about the fact that there will not be African-Americans taking advantage of higher education along the lines, without affirmative action; affirmative action is only one of the tools. Many of us in my generation came along when there was no affirmative action, so it never has been the be-all, end-all instrument for African-American progress and ability, even in higher education.

DIVERSE: How to you see historically Black colleges positioning themselves in the context of a diversity push that is forward thinking instead of historically thinking?

BASKERVILLE: HBCUs are history. They were born out of discrimination, but they have, since their beginning, been equal educational opportunity institutions. They have opened the doors to Black and Brown and American Indian students and others who are traditionally under-represented. They are the most diverse higher education institutions that we have, with, on average, 13 percent diversity among faculty and growing diversity among students. We are graduating 30 percent of African-Americans coming out, 40 percent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

So I’ve got disproportionate numbers of well-trained African-Americans in the growth industries. We are establishing relationships, not only with HBCUs that have graduate and professional programs, but with the major research institutions. So if you really want to achieve diversity, you don’t have to go far. You don’t have to have expensive outreach programs. Come to an HBCU. Start a pipeline program; start a transition program so that you get my students in their freshman year.

DIVERSE: There was quite a bit of resistance to changing the mission [of HBCUs], the historic Black mission, by the leadership of these institutions. What makes you think it’s going to be different now if society pushes these institutions to adopt a diversity mission as opposed to a historic Black mission? 

BASKERVILLE: Our institutions were founded to educate the sons and daughters of slaves. They must remain equal educational opportunity institutions and remain institutions that will be mindful of the fact that there are groups of people who have been locked out. So we’re not about locking out. We’re about being inclusive. What we say is that experience, the HBCU experience, is a good one, is a rich one, and for anyone wanting to live and thrive in a diverse community, come to an HBCU. 

DIVERSE: I think about a state like North Carolina, whose demographics are changing rapidly with the influx of Hispanics. What are HBCUs in that state going to do in about five years when the Legislature says 20 percent of your students are going to have to be Hispanic students? 

BASKERVILLE: Many Hispanic-serving institutions are two-year institutions. Many of our students who come to HBCUs are looking for a small, nurturing environment because, as you know, most of the HBCUs are relatively small. [The students] are looking for this diverse experience and they are looking for a lower-cost education. Our institutions are lower-cost. So you go to a two-year institution, whether it’s a Hispanic-serving two-year college, or any other community college, get those two years and then finish your two years at an HBCU, because the reasons that took them to the community colleges will naturally take them to HBCUs: lower cost, located in their community, diversity, those types of things. So we will maintain that unique status in policies, but also work together on resource expansion for all of those institutions that are educating disproportionate numbers of traditionally underserved students.

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