Speaking of race and class matters at colleges elite and otherwise

This week in North Philly Notes, Elizabeth Aries, author of Race and Class Matters at an Elite Collge and Speaking of Race and Class, looks at the potential impact of the outcome of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which considers race as a factor in a university’s admissions process.

There is much at stake in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which came before the Supreme Court last week. The Court will determine whether universities can legally continue to consider race as one factor in their admissions process. If they are not allowed to do so, the racial and ethnic diversity of students on our campuses will diminish, as will the educational benefits that ensue from having a diverse student body. 

My books, Race and Class Matters at an Elite College and Speaking of Race and Class have focused on those educational benefits.  I illustrate what, if anything, students actually learn from being with classmates of different races and social class backgrounds inside and outside the classroom. For both books, I followed a group of black and white students, both affluent and lower-income, over their four years at a liberal arts college, interviewing them at three points along the way. The educational benefits of diversity are real and they are important.

Many students come to college from segregated communities and high schools, having acquired widely held racial and class-based stereotypes that persist unchallenged without contact with the people they have stereotyped.  College can provide students with the opportunities to get to know and understand classmates not of their race and/or class, to have their stereotypes and world views challenged, to see the world through a new lens. 

The majority of white students in my study entered college having thought little about race or its consequences for peoples’ lives. Some never thought of themselves as even having a race. Some came to campus believing racial discrimination was a thing of the past, having never personally observed it. But as white students made friends with black classmates, and heard about friends’ encounters with prejudice and discrimination, they recognized that racial discrimination is still a reality. Those who had been taught a color-blind philosophy, taught not to think that race even really exists, found it shocking and upsetting to learn from minority friends about their experiences with prejudice and discrimination, and came to understand that race affects the experiences and opportunities people have. Over their years at college cross-race relationships led many white students to think more about race and racism and to become aware of their white privilege. Racial stereotypes were undermined as white students discovered the diversity within the black student community on campus – the great variability in language, tastes and preferences, in social class, religion, or identification as Caribbean American, African American or African. Given this diversity, it was hard for white students to hold on to the notion that blacks were poor, lived in the inner city, dressed in baggy clothes, spoke Ebonics and listened to rap music. Many students came to realize their racial stereotypes were incorrect and limiting.

Bringing students to campus from widely discrepant economic backgrounds also produced important learning. Students did not fail to notice what classmates had and did not have, not only in terms of material possessions, but in terms of the opportunities they had to go out to eat, take spring break trips, to make connections to pre-professional summer jobs and to good jobs after graduation. Many affluent students who had grown up in the bubble of their affluent communities had been unable to see outside that world. Some considered themselves to be “kind of poor” because their families lacked the extreme wealth of others in their communities. Friendships with lower-income students made them aware of just how privileged their families were, gave them a deeper awareness of class inequalities, of their own unearned privileges, and of the important role social class plays in shaping people’s lives and opportunities. Many lower-income students entered college with extremely negative stereotypes about the wealthy, seeing them as arrogant, spoiled, snobby, entitled, exclusive, as all about showing off their wealth. Through relationships with affluent classmates they, too, recognized that many students did not fit their stereotypes.

Colleges and universities educate students who will become our future leaders. If we, as a society, value equity and social justice for all citizens, we must produce leaders who have had their stereotypes challenged and are able to understand the world from perspectives different from their own. The impending Supreme Court decision may well reduce the opportunity for this kind of learning to occur.

To Read Chapter 1 of Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, click here

To Read Chapter 1 of Speaking of Race and Class, click here

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