In the 1960s, when leading universities made their first concerted effort to recruit African Americans, a young man attracted particular attention at the college where I was teaching. At a time of building takeovers and firebombings on campus, he seemed to many to embody a threat never before known at this institution, his black leather jacket and black beret reinforcing his angry tirades against the school's white leaders and students.
A quarter of a century later, he was elected by the alumni to the university's board of trustees.
The story is not unique. No image is more evocative of black militancy on campus than the '60s photo of a group of African American students, shotguns in hand, marching from a building they had occupied at Cornell University. One of the group is today the chief operating officer of the largest teacher-retirement fund in the country.
In an academic year that began with no less than "Doonesbury" questioning theme dorms and eating tables, these stories are worth recalling for what they suggest about race in America's universities: All is not what it seems. The claim that "college campuses are growing more segregated than ever," as a cover story in a newsmagazine recently put it, not only displays a stunning lack of historical memory (more segregated than in the 1940s and '50s?) but is based on mere snapshots.
Snapshots do not begin to tell the real story. Take that young man who railed against the white leadership and students of our college. A snapshot of him seated at the black table in the dining room or leading a demonstration would be all about black alienation and anger. The richness of the black tradition represented by his father, a minister in whose footsteps he has followed, would not be visible. Nor would his primary mentor in college, a Jewish professor of philosophy, best known for his book on how Protestant villagers in southern France saved the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II.
A snapshot would have been equally misleading about the Malcolm X House at this same university. Although the house could accommodate only a small fraction of the school's black students, it was rarely filled, and virtually no one lived there more than two years. In the minds of many, dorms like the Malcolm X House merely foster racial separateness; but they are also a setting for the self-testing and experimentation that have always been at the heart of a college education. Moreover, by providing support, they help black students venture across cultural boundaries that they might not otherwise cross.
None of this is to suggest that campus diversity hasn't caused troubling problems or that those problems will not persist, even as schools become more skilled in addressing them. But the problems need to be seen in perspective. Last semester, much ado was made about racial antagonism at a Southern university that 25 years ago had virtually no black students. Seen against that backdrop, racial tension is a healthy development.
Three forces are driving racial diversity on campus today. The first, and oldest, is the drive for social justice in American life. The second is demographic--the awareness that minorities will make up one-third of the nation's school-age population in the year 2000 and will constitute a rising proportion of the work force when retiring baby boomers place unprecedented strains on the Social Security system. The third is educational--the belief that the presence in our midst of different ethnic and racial groups is a powerful stimulus for learning about culture itself and the complex ways it intersects with our lives.
This process is especially intense on college campuses, where young people--many on their own for the first time--are challenged to identify and express who they are and experiment with what they might become, while exploring a rich variety of options. If diversity, with its often strident claims and counterclaims about values and legitimacy, makes the process more painful, what is the alternative? Ask students to leave their cultural baggage at the campus gate, as in "the good old days"? Even if we could get them to do it, why would we want to?
More important than stresses of the moment or the latest hassle about political correctness or campus-speech codes is what the most thorough reports on campus diversity have found--that our universities are doing more than ever to enable young people to appreciate the multicultural riches of life and to equip them to engage new cultures in the future.