The Magazine

Diversity Dropouts

What we can learn from historically black colleges.

Sep 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 03 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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LAST MARCH, when the University of Georgia decided to revive race in the admissions process, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution hailed the move as sound education policy. "Diversity holds rewards for all students," the editors assured their readers. Set aside talk about remedies for past discrimination and minority role models in high places. By this rationale, an integrated classroom is inherently superior to a monoracial one on intellectual grounds. Different skin colors and the experiences that go with them create a more challenging discussion, a sharper mix of viewpoints, leading students to broader conceptions of self and world. Little evidence exists to support the notion, but a Chronicle of Higher Education survey showed that 90 percent of college faculty believes it.

The "better learning" argument is worth noting because it makes racial difference an essential component of learning. The cognitive development of a student, it declares, is enhanced by encounters with peers of different skin colors. Pseudo-empirical support comes from "diversity research," a well-funded field that contrives experiments to show that kids think more critically when in the presence of other races. This sets diversity on the same level with strong curricula and quality teachers. Any good school must have it. In last year's decision on affirmative action, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor implied a 25-year cutoff for racial preferences. The "better learning" argument would keep them in perpetuity.

And yet, a mile away from the Journal-Constitution offices sit two college campuses that squarely contradict such reasoning. Morehouse College is all-male and Spelman College is all-female, and both are virtually all-black. In 2003, Spelman reported 1 white and 1 Hispanic student in a population of 2,121, while Morehouse tallied 4 Asians, 8 Hispanics, and 3 whites in a student body of 2,770. The culture, too, is all African American. Currently on display at Spelman's Museum of Fine Art is an exhibition that typifies the environment. To commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the curators have mounted a show not on Jefferson, Napoleon, or the frontier, but on the position of white and black women in 18th-century New Orleans.

Presidents Walter E. Massey of Morehouse and Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman realize the unusual position of historically black colleges in the diversity debate. Both have enjoyed successful careers in predominately white worlds. A Morehouse graduate (1958), Massey has been a professor of physics at Brown University, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and director of the National Science Foundation. When he came to Morehouse, many considered his move a withdrawal from the center of scientific inquiry. Tatum is a psychologist and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations about Race. Before joining Spelman in 2002, she was the acting president of Mt. Holyoke College. In July, she told me that colleagues wondered why she chose to leave the white campuses she'd lived in her whole life.

It's true--historically black colleges lie below the radar of most educators. Discussions of affirmative action focus on Ivy League institutions and major state universities, and advocates see race preferences as a tool for social progress. Historically black colleges recall the days of segregation, when they were the only option for students of color. Now, they compete with race-based admissions at other schools, whose officers regard the pursuit of African-American students as a quest. Moreover, the "better learning" argument makes any monoracial campus intellectually suspect. In the affirmative action case, when Justice Clarence Thomas asked if diversity arguments apply to historically black colleges, Michigan's counsel John Payton replied, "I believe most every single one of them do have diverse student bodies," and the subject was dropped.