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Is It Balkanization, or Just Lunch?

By Troy Duster
Director, Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley

Sometimes a disarmingly simple question produces penetrating insights. A California university student asks the instructor: "Why is it that when we see eight white students having lunch together in the commons, we just see students having lunch...but when we see eight African American students having lunch together, we call it a balkanized racial enclave?" The answer has to do with both numbers and social context. On most campuses in the U.S., white students are the overwhelming majority, and as such, they are "unmarked" racially.

To place this into a broader context so that we can better understand how numbers can help us see (or blind us to) "markings,"consider the changing composition of American law students over the last three decades, by gender. In 1965, only 4 percent of all law students in the entire nation were women. To be a male law student in the 1960s was to be "unmarked"--or to put it another way, "normal!" If those few women gathered together to have lunch, they would be noticed as self-segregating or "clannish"--while their male counterparts would "just be having lunch." By 1995, women constituted 44 percent of the law students. So, are they now just having lunch too? Well, not really. Because some men now experience the loss of their previous domination of law school admissions, when women gather, they too may be perceived as balkanized gender enclaves of activists mobilizing to sustain their gains.

To return to the question, when is it "balkanizing" and when is it "just lunch"--in matters of race, a parallel history is required. If we go back to the 1960s, U.S. higher education was de facto almost completely racially segregated: basically either all-white or all-Black. For example, in 1960, Blacks were only 4.3 percent of all college-enrolled students in the United States (Karen 1991) and most of these were in traditionally Black colleges in the South. As late as 1967, the Ivy League Schools had a total enrollment of only 2.3 percent Black students. Black enrollment at "other prestigious institutions" in the country was only 1.7 percent. By 1980, the proportion of Blacks in the Ivy Leagues had more than doubled, but they still constituted only 5.8 percent of the students (Karen 1991).

Three decades ago, then, the overwhelming issue for previously excluded groups in higher education was access. Now, despite assaults on affirmative action which threaten to throw even access into doubt, we are in a new era in which the central issue is engagement. In this era, we face new questions. How do we create truly inclusive campuses and how are students really interacting with one another on campus? Contrary to claims in the media, the research suggests that students of color tend to interact with students in the dominant group far more than the reverse. The claims of balkanization represent white concerns rather than empirical evidence (Appel et al. 1996).

Still, the research also shows that students of color do feel alienated and that their alienation is based frequently on perceived discrimination in the classroom. Students of color also frequently find, in addition to chilly or even hostile climates, that educational programs are incomplete, flawed by curricular exclusions that parallel the earlier systemic discrimination against their physical presence. Confronted with these problems, should students of color just sit down, shut up, and accept whatever they encounter?

Many think the answer is no. So when African American, or Asian American, or Latino students sit together at lunch, they may well have more than food on their minds. Many of them are talking about needed changes and how to make those changes on campus, in the classroom, and in the curriculum.

Morgan Appel, et al., The Impact of Diversity on Students: A Preliminary Review of the Research Literature (Washington, D.C.: AAC&U, 1996)

W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993)

David Karen, "The Politics of Class, Race, and Gender: Access to Higher Education in the United States, 1960-1986," American Journal of Education 99 (2): 208-237.

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