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Small liberal arts colleges lack diversity

Our nation's top liberal arts colleges claim to be crafting the next generation of great writers, artists and scientists, but America has a great deal to worry about if those schools are crafting our future politicians, too. How do I know? I go to one of them.

My school, Kenyon College, is located in Ohio's 7th congressional district. The district is 93 percent white and just under 4 percent black. To many Americans, that may sound like the whitest of the white. But shockingly, the percentage of African Americans at Kenyon — 3 percent — is even smaller than in its congressional district. African Americans are underrepresented at my school even by the standards of the Ohio farmland that surrounds us.

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But Kenyon is by no means alone in its lack of diversity. Other top-shelf schools have similar numbers of black students: Middlebury College in Vermont is 2 percent black; Colby College in Maine and Carleton College in Minnesota are each 3 percent black. Among Maryland's small liberal arts schools, Hood College appears to have the most diverse population, with 13 percent of its students African American, while St. John's College is on the other end of the spectrum, with just 2 percent of its student body black.

Schools like mine have become, in a very real sense, gated communities within gated communities. For small liberal arts colleges, it can be tempting to sweep concerns about a lack of diversity under the carpet by boasting about liberal political leanings of student bodies (a close cousin to the "some of my best friends" argument). Progressivism is all well and good, but it cannot make up for the lack of black voices on campus. The sobering reality is that many white students will graduate from these schools without ever having a policy debate — perhaps even a serious conversation — with an African American student.

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We live in a time where the racial progress of decades past is eroding before our very eyes. The passage of voter ID laws across the nation deny African Americans the right to vote; John Roberts, upon issuing an opinion demolishing the Voting Rights Act, essentially declared that racism is over despite abundant evidence to the contrary; stand-your-ground legislation has been used to allow armed vigilantes to spill black blood in our streets without repercussions. One could argue in parallel that these developments reflect the lack of an African American voice in policy-making at a national level. If the recent riots in Ferguson prove anything, they prove either that black Americans don't feel they have that voice, or that white Americans aren't listening.

While our country has become more diverse in recent decades, Republican districts have actually become whiter. As a result, neither major political party needs to court black voters in order to win House races and local elections. Ensuring significant African American turnout is not a concern when African Americans make up either a very large or a very small percentage of the electorate.

Here in Ohio, African Americans have been steadily losing their political voice for decades. Because of the way Ohio's legislature draws congressional districts, 12 of Ohio's 16 seats in the House are held by Republicans. Gerrymandering, often along racial lines, allows for a tossup state in presidential races to become dominated by Republicans at other levels. In exchange for creating — and conceding to Democrats — a small number of districts with large minority populations, Republicans benefit from a larger number of overwhelmingly white districts that can more easily be won by the GOP. Forty-two percent of Ohio's black population can be found in just two districts.

If we want our future leaders to be able to understand the political needs of all Americans, we need to make sure those leaders are educated in places where they will encounter and exchange views with the fullest possible spectrum of Americans. Underrepresented Americans need to be given a voice, but just as critically, students from majority groups need to develop the ability to hear those voices. A chronic lack of diversity on college campuses both mutes and deafens.

Matthew Gerson is a freshman at Kenyon College from Washington, DC. He plans to major in Political Science. His email is matthewsgerson@gmail.com.

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