Academic Bantustans -- by Choice


Washington -- The educated classes lament the alleged balkanization of campus life. Segregation has returned, it is alleged, only this time the segregationists are not bull-faced Southern governors or pot-bellied sheriffs wielding billy clubs and cattle prods.

No, this time the segregationists are various minorities and women who insist, in the modern etiquette of "empowerment," on walling themselves into enclaves of race, ethnicity and gender, including separate and unequal dormitories, fraternities, sororities, cafeteria tables, student centers, studies programs, enrichment programs and graduation exercises.

Such was the scene CBS's "60 Minutes" telecast last season at Duke University, which, like many institutions, used to turn blacks away but now welcomes them, even actively encourages them with targeted recruitment and scholarships, only to see the blacks, once they get on campus, turn their backs on the white social mainstream.

And woe be to those renegade students of color who wander off the reservation a bit too often. They might find themselves charged in campus gossip with turning their backs on "the community" or even (Gasp!) "trying to be white."

Similarly, many people look at campuses across the nation and see a resemblance to the University of California at Berkeley, which has changed from a majority-white campus into a multicultural theme park of special studies, "theme dorms" and support groups for just about every identifiable victim group.

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" strip stepped into the controversy with two weeks of strips in mid-September that showed a college president struggling with empowerment-hungry students who had "managed to produce a fully segregated campus" -- and now demand separate water fountains.

Are America's campuses resegre- Racism never disappeared from American colleges. It only changed form.

gating? When did they ever desegregate? Racism never disappeared from American colleges. It only changed form, and it has not happened in a vacuum. It is happening against a backdrop of America's tumultuous racial history and within the context of deep racial divisions in off-campus society.

It gives me a sense of what Yogi Berra called "deja vu all over again" to remember how my fellow African-American students in the "black power" days of the late 1960s pioneered the demand for black studies, dorms and activity centers.

I opposed the idea of separate dorms, and I still oppose it. But I supported the rest. Historically, blacks had been left out, and they continued to be severely under-represented in academic studies and in the decision-making processes that determined how student activity funds, to which blacks paid the same as other students, were spent.

From this we have moved to the modern era in which many administrators and faculty members, caught in the double bind of luring minority students to campus even though they may come from socially isolated urban ghettos and substandard high schools, take the easy way out, conceding to student demands for all manner of "comfort zones" instead of encouraging whites and minorities to reach out to each other.

No, don't just blame the blacks or other minorities for campus divisions. Desegregation is a two-way street. Whites need to participate in it, too.

In the "Doonesbury" strips, for example, when the well-intentioned college president takes it upon himself to desegregate campus cafeteria tables, he immediately walks over to a table of blacks. Why not a table of whites? Why is a table (or a school or a neighborhood) only viewed as segregated when it is occupied by blacks?

Segregation, it must be remembered, might be practiced occasionally by blacks, but it was not invented by blacks and it should not be left solely up to blacks to disinvent it.

Besides, students of all colors seek emotional comfort zones with other students of similar cultural inclinations. Athletes, computer nerds, "greasers," heavy-metal kids, punk rockers, artsy-craftsies and other student types naturally gravitate to their own cafeteria tables in high schools and colleges. Why do integrationists only get upset when they see blacks do it?

In an unfamiliar environment, it is only natural for black students to seek emotional sanctuary from the stereotypes, hostility, indifference, ignorance or naivete many whites carry around in their heads.

To fix this mess, we need more than the desegregation liberals want and the decolorized, chameleon-like assimilation some conservatives demand. We need true integration, a true cultural sharing between the races and the genders.

Think about it. Women have much to teach college-age men. Blacks and other minorities have much to teach whites and each other. The white-male culture that has dominated America's power centers offers a wealth of knowledge to women and minorities, even as they try to penetrate it and sensitize it to their cultures and needs.

All students cheat themselves when they pull away from the enriching experience campus diversity offers. Come out. Come out from your enclaves. You have nothing to lose but your misgivings.

Don't shrink from the healthy competition. It's a breeze compared to what's waiting for you off campus.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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