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Reclaiming the Language of Public Debate
Parker Johnson, Senior Research Fellow, Association of American Colleges & Universities

Many commentators allege, sometimes using alarmist language, that students, and especially students of color, are "self-segregating" themselves on college campuses. As Beverly Daniel Tatum's work reveals, there are complex and subtle psychological and sociological explanations for various patterns of student groupings (see The Benefits of Racial/Ethnic Student Groups).

In addition to understanding the complexity of these patterns, we also need to challenge the assumptions underlying these claims and the language used to describe them. The phrase "self-segregation" is, in fact, an inappropriate description of the voluntary association of students of color on today's campuses. Such language builds walls rather than bridges to racial justice, mutual understanding and respect. Using the word "segregation" falsely suggests a parallel with our nation's legacy of legally institutionalized, socially sanctioned, and violently maintained separate and unequal access to political, social, educational and economic opportunities for people of color. The civil rights movement challenged American apartheid, not communities of interest.

Communities of interest, a term that I think more accurately describes racial/ethnic or religious student groups, are not inherently separatist or exclusionary. They can be a resource to foster racial understanding and inclusion. In addition to providing opportunities for students to renew and engage their cultural and social identities, they can also help students challenge asymmetrical and unfair power relations such as institutional racism.

Why not let students of color, like other communities of interest such as religious groups, choose to gather for mutual support and fellowship?

I believe that one issue behind many people's discomfort regarding racial/ethnic communities of interest is who defines the terms of integration and equality. For some people, integration automatically presumes that people of color want to assimilate to white, middle-class norms in order to gain access to power and privilege. It can be shocking and threatening to some to learn that, while people of color desire better opportunities, not all want to attain them by abandoning their racial or cultural identities.

Why not let students of color, like other communities of interest such as religious groups, choose to gather for mutual support and fellowship? Gathering with a particular group does not preclude interacting with other groups. We should, in fact, develop and nurture intercultural knowledge and communication skills to deepen intergroup and intragroup understanding and appreciation. Finally, we must strive to create more caring, just, and inclusive campuses for all of us.

The Facts on Intergroup
Relations on Campus

A 1991 study on intergroup contact and social integration found that students of color were less likely than white students to segregate socially. Findings showed that students of color study with, dine with, and date individuals from different racial and ethnic groups more often than white students. The study surveyed 6,000 African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and white students at 390 institutions in 1987 and in 1991.

    Other findings from the survey indicate that:
  • 69 percent of Asian American and 78 percent of Latino/a students frequently dined with someone of a different ethnic or racial background compared with 55 percent of African American students and 21 percent of white students.
  • Nearly 42 percent of Asian American students reported interracial or ethnic dating compared with 24 percent of Latino/as, 13 percent of African Americans, and four percent of white students.
    On the other hand,
  • 53 percent of African American students interviewed said they felt excluded from social activities because of their race, compared with 24 percent of Asian American respondents, 16 percent of Latino/a students, and 6 percent of white students.
  • 30 percent of Asian Americans and 32 percent of African American students also reported being threatened or insulted by other students compared to 10 percent of Latino/as and 9 percent of white students.

For more information about the study contact: The Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, 610 East University Avenue, 2117 SEB, Ann Arbor, MI 48103-1259.

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