Inequality can’t be whitewashed away

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff • April 2, 2014

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Emerson College agrees to admit 26 black students in fall — 2012.
Lewiston Evening Journal
Emerson College agrees to admit 26 black students in fall — 2012.
Lewiston Evening Journal

In 1969, The Associated Press reported Emerson “agreed to admit” 30 African-American students. The same year that astronauts first walked on the moon and gay rights activists rioted at Stonewall, the AP wrote Emerson’s other “concessions” for black students included serving soul food in dorms twice a month, and allowing them to observe the birthdays of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

More incredibly, nearly a half-century later, in fall 2012—from Emerson’s latest public data—of the 863 newly enrolled freshmen, only three percent, or 26, were black.

This lack of progress is striking. But it is merely symptomatic of the larger problem of diversity that faces Emerson and many other institutions across the country. Because although it is easy to think of diversity as simply increasing the shades of skin on campus, it must be about much more. A real commitment to diversity would necessarily reflect a rejection of the centuries-old structures meant to limit access and support to only a privileged few. And for the entrenched world of academia, that’s scary.

Emerson’s mission statement proclaims it helps students bring “innovation, depth, and diversity” to communication and the arts and “foster respect for human diversity.” These are important goals, but they are critically hindered by today’s reality that minorities are vastly underrepresented in the student body. Among undergraduates in fall 2012, 2.9 percent were black or African-American, compared to 13.1 percent of the national population that year, according to census data. 9.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, versus 16.9 percent nationally. And 0 percent—zero—were American Indian or Alaska Native, versus 1.2 percent nationally. It is much more difficult to form a diverse worldview without the meaningful human interactions that only a truly multicultural student body can provide.

Diversity does, of course, refer to more than just differences in ethnicity and race. For its work in supporting a range of gender identities and sexual orientations on campus, Emerson should be congratulated. But we can’t pat ourselves on the back for fostering diversity in one field while floundering in others. And although there are individuals at all levels of Emerson’s community that actively work to create a more inclusive environment, it is our collective responsibility to demand better. We should not settle for paying lip service to the idea when we can interrogate the deep racist and classist structures that underlie higher education in this country.

It must start with coming to a common understanding of the word diversity itself. A study led by the sociologist Tim Pippert, which surveyed 165 colleges in the U.S., found that the more white students an institution has, in proportion to other races, the more black students it tends to portray in marketing materials. Not Hispanic, Latino, Asian, or Native American students—only black students. In these crucial visual representations, they tend to equate “diversity” with “having enough black students.” Emerson disappointingly falls into the same trap. In the photos in its viewbook for prospective students, the college portrays over five times more black students than actually exist on campus, and nine times fewer Hispanic and Latino students. This superficial depiction of “diversity” points either to a strong misunderstanding of the word, or its application as merely a veneer.

Even the way Emerson reports diversity is flawed and misleading. In its annual factbook, the Office of Institutional Research consistently conflates nationality, race, and ethnicity. It apparently considers “nonresident alien,” “white,” and “Hispanic”—its terms—to belong to the same category, even though a student could easily identify as all three. This makes it nearly impossible to gain a precise understanding of the real levels of diversity at the college.

And these small examples barely scratch the surface of the profound institutional barriers for minorities in the U.S. academy. The story of inequality in education is the story of discrimination in American society. It is furthered by persistent conceptual errors: College applicants do not come from a level playing field, but by and large admission policies depend on so-called objective comparisons. The single-minded conception of academic and vocational success often forces students to assimilate, relinquishing the very differences that create diversity. And at Emerson in particular, the meager financial aid dramatically reduces the pool of qualified but less privileged applicants.

Confronting these problems means rewriting the dominant narrative in education that serves to separate us based on, not celebrate us because of, our differences. It means developing what the educator and philosopher Paolo Freire called conscientização, or “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.” It means striving for what the writer Mario Osorio identified as convivencia, or what happens when “different people learn how to live together,” regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. Because we are members of this college, we have the rare opportunity to grow this consciousness—and use it to spur change from within.