The Silence of Race in the Liberal Arts [review of Prof. Lewis-McCoy’s Together But Unequal]

Last week I had the opportunity to hear Prof. Lewis-McCoy, of Sociology and Black Studies at CUNY, speak to Oxy faculty on the topic of Educational Inequality in Well Resourced Settings. The short title of the talk was “Together but Still Unequal,” a reference to the Separate but Equal laws of the racially segregated US education system and the continuing problems of racial injustice since Brown v. Board of Education. This talk coincided with the topic of Diversity and Access in my course Liberal Arts at the Brink? Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education. Lewis-McCoy’s research and presentation helped me to better understand why, while teaching at one of the most diverse liberal arts schools in the nation, my students did not broach the subject of race and ethnicity in our discussion, but continued to celebrate the liberal arts as a place of progressive equity. And perhaps why I allowed such silence to continue.

K-12 schools are as segregated, if not more segregated today than in the 1950s when Brown v. Board was won. This is due to a number of factors, most notably, white and middle class flight out of urban areas into suburban areas in the latter half of the 20th century. The consequence of this reality is that when students enter college, they may be entering a racially and ethnically heterogeneous environment for the first time in their schooling.

The current college student generation is also living at a time when many affirmative practices for ensuring racial equity have been outlawed and American culture is in deep denial about enduring problems of racial injustice – discussion of race in our so-called “post-racial” society is taboo. Denial of race consciousness and the embrace of the color-blind ideology has been the “solution” – albeit a highly ineffective one — to racism.

Despite this situation, where colleges are more racially and ethnically diverse and the civil rights movement of the mid 20th century produced greater equality, there are stark differences in student experiences and outcomes in higher education. Many colleges focus on obtaining a diverse student body but fewer are attentive to graduating all students with excellence.

While available resources may be “equal,” they are not “just.” Well resourced institutions particularly fall short in supporting the experiences of first generation college students and students of color. Some of the issues Prof. Lewis-McCoy raises:

  • The pipeline problem. Students miss out on opportunities when they don’t have mentors and a support network of people who can help them understand the relevance of special programs to their future mobility and make the most of the resources of the institution. Example: Why apply for an undergraduate research grant or internship when I could work over the summer?
  • Opportunity hoarding. Students who come into college with previous cultural knowledge about how college works from parents, teachers, and friends have a jumpstart on planning their college career. That planning leads to awards and opportunities that build a resume and connections to more rewards and opportunities. Example: A student knows they will major in Chemistry like their older sister did. They propose a project based on a research question that they could discuss with their teachers and family and get a summer research grant. Their chemistry professor thinks the student reminds them of themselves when they were young and provides a great deal of one-on-one mentorship. This grant and faculty connection then opens the doors to internships, research opportunities, and graduate training.
  • Fear of Race. Professors don’t act to correct injustices based on class, educational background or race for fear of being called racist or “reverse racist.” Students do the same.
  • The Megaphone. Students with educational and race privilege are less likely to hesitate to contribute ideas even when they are not certain of the validity of those ideas. Professors engage the students who present their ideas with confidence. Professors are more likely to correct students of color and first generation students whose expressions don’t rest on this privilege-based confidence.

What do Prof. Lewis-McCoy and Oxy Faculty think faculty and students can do about these issues?

Faculty Can:

  • Help students understand the value of available resources and envision their opportunities.
  • Reach out to mentor students who do not replicate their background, personality or color.
  • Be attentive to opportunity hoarding when reviewing applications for internships, research grants and special programs
  • Avoid universal and standardized pedagogy and focus on the individual student
  • Allow opportunities in class for students to write and reflect and speak in smaller groups as well as large
  • Research the factors involved in college success and not just college failure
  • Require office hours for all students not just those who seek them on their own
  • Share the load – the extra time and effort cannot just fall to faculty who were first generation students and faculty of color.

Students Can:

  • Source the problems and make administration and faculty aware of issues
  • Discuss the root of the issues and investigate contradictions between college values and practices
  • Support each other in understanding the process and timelines for various opportunities
  • Find communities that unite one’s own identity and the college experience
  • Share the load – the extra time and effort to improve the college cannot just fall to first generation students and students of color.