They’re Taking Over! – Myths about Multiculturalism

One soldier’s notes from the affirmative action front.

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The University of California at Berkeley has been my permanent academic home since 1969, when I was appointed to the tenured faculty in the Department of Sociology. At the time, I was one of only 6 blacks on a faculty of 1,350, and the most junior. In those early years, it was not uncommon for students, white and black, to come to my office, look dead at me, and ask, “Is Professor Duster here?”

The question, which turned me into a living Invisible Man, reflected the depth of racial problems in U.S. higher education, even at its most progressive university. Years of fury and tumult followed. And for over two decades now, I’ve been thinking about race and higher education — both as my area of professional study, and because of the realities that have shaped my personal life here. A few months ago, I went to the retirement party of one of my original black colleagues, who caught me off guard by saying that I was now the senior African American on the faculty. From this vantage point, I have a story to tell about the remarkable transformation of Berkeley’s undergraduate student population. Because Berkeley, once again, is at the center of a raging national controversy — this time over the issue of “multiculturalism” and what its enemies call “political correctness” — a storm that I believe to be, at bottom, about the shifting sands of racial privilege. It is also about the future of American education: what happens in Berkeley, one of the nation’s largest public universities and the bellwether of social change and innovation in academia, will affect all of us.

In January 1989, Berkeley’s chancellor commissioned me and the Institute for the Study of Social Change to prepare a report on multiculturalism on campus. Our research team intensively interviewed hundreds of students over an eighteen-month period — first in single-ethnic groups with an interviewer of the same background, then in mixed groups. We asked them what kind of environment they’d hoped to find upon arriving on campus, and what they actually encountered. Who were their friends, where and how powerfully were racial tensions felt, what did they think of other ethnic groups, of affirmative action? We asked them about their frustrations and their positive experiences around racial and ethnic issues, and what they would do to change things. We developed a rich and complicated portrait of campus culture at Berkeley, drawn directly from the students who make it up. It isn’t an easy picture to draw, nor to compress into a headline. And it certainly isn’t the side of the story that ideologues like Dinesh D’Souza and his imitators have focused on. What the study, and my own experience, tell me, is that multiculturalism’s critics are selling students short by propagating five key myths.

Myth 1. Terrible “Tribalism”

Multiculturalism is tearing the campus apart.

Self-segregation. Balkanization. School days claustrophobically lived out in ethnic enclaves. That’s how Berkeley’s and other campuses are often portrayed these days, as intellectual and cultural disaster zones cracked by racial conflict.

Very rarely is there any mention of the forces that push students into familiar groups. Long before there were African-American theme houses, even before World War II, on-campus Catholic and Jewish societies helped those “minority” students survive, the Hillel and Newman Foundations supported students navigating through hostile WASP territory. Today, I almost never read that this phenomenon might also benefit African-American or Latino students. As many students told us, those who otherwise would feel alienated on a supercompetitive campus are getting together and finding support, creating a common comfort zone, making it easier to succeed.

In 1968, the Berkeley campus was primarily white. The student body was 2.8 percent black, 1.3 percent Chicano/Latino, and the massive Asian immigration of the 1970s had yet to occur. Only twenty-three years later, half the Berkeley student body is made up of people of color. Inevitably, with such a dramatic social transformation, there is tension and sometimes even open conflict over resources, turf, and “ownership” of the place.

Back in the 1950s, students either turned the campus radio station on or off. In the late 1980s, different ethnic groups fought over what kind of music it should play during prime time: salsa, rap, country, or heavy metal? (This same issue surfaced during the gulf war, when Latino troops demanded more salsa on Armed Forces Radio.)

Conflict is expected, perhaps even healthy, in a social situation where people have different interests and compete for scarce resources. Few of California’s “feeder” high schools are racially integrated, so it’s not surprising that students experience shock and tension when they arrive at their first experience of multiculturalism. But it may be a more realistic preparation for life’s later turns.

Berkeley, of course, is no more a racial utopia than any other place in this divided and racially wounded country. Nonetheless, what strikes this sociologist as remarkable is how well and relatively peaceably it works.

Myth 2. Diversity Means Dumber

Multiculturalism is diluting our standards.

Nowadays we hear that the academy is in deep trouble because multicultural admissions policies let in students who are less capable. Actually, by the measures the critics themselves tend to use, SAT scores and grade point averages, the typical Berkeley student is now far more competent, far more eligible, far more prepared than when this was an all-white university in 1950. Of the more than 21,300 students who applied in 1989, over 5,800 had straight-A averages–and all were competing for only 3,500 spots in the freshman class.

As recently as 1980, only 8,000 students total applied to Berkeley. In 1988, about 7,500 Asians alone applied. Such demographic facts can’t help but heighten racial awareness on campus. Many more thousands of students wanting the relatively scarce Berkeley diploma create increasingly ferocious competition at the same-sized admissions gate.

Back in the 1960s, when the campus was mainly white, almost every eligible student who applied to Berkeley was admitted. So in a framework of plenty, people could afford to be gracious, and say that civil rights, even affirmative action, were good ideas. When the United States changed its immigration laws in the 1970s, well-qualified candidates with families from China, Hong Kong, and Korea swelled the pool of applicants. Suddenly, not everyone who was eligible could get in. Today, Berkeley is 30 percent Asian, and that means that white students who are not getting in are feeling the crunch from the “top” (students with higher GPAs and SATs) and from the “bottom” (students admitted through music, athletic ability, affirmative action, and other eligibility allowances). The media, so far, has chosen to emphasize the beleaguered white student who has to adjust to affirmative action. Isn’t it a shame, stories imply, that these student are feeling uncomfortable in an environment that used to be their university.

It isn’t theirs anymore. Since the demographics of the state are changing at a rapidly accelerating rate– by 2000, whites will account for only 52 percent of California’s population—shouldn’t the university population and curriculum reflect more of this new reality? Meanwhile, the quality of student at Berkeley is only getting better.

Myth 3. Affirmative Is Negative

Getting rid of affirmative action and other special admissions programs would improve the university.

In the 1960s, there was so little diversity on campus that white students experienced other cultures voluntarily, on their own terms, like choosing ethnic cuisine on the night you’re in the mood for it. Now there’s no way to avoid it, and that leads to the big question on campus: Why are you here? Some white students have told us in their interviews how unfair they think a policy is that permits students with lower GPAs and SATs to be here.

Black and Chicano students know the rap. What they never hear, even from university officials, is strong morally, historically, and politically informed language that justifies affirmative action. Most of the black and Chicano students we interviewed were themselves unclear on why affirmative action exists.

It exists because, over the past two hundred years, blacks and Latinos have had a difficult time entering higher education, and that legacy hasn’t gone away. The median family income of white Berkeley students is approximately $70,000 a year, and for blacks it is $38,000 a year. The gap isn’t closing; the economic barriers that restrict minority access to college aren’t disappearing.

But Americans’ cultural memory lasts about five years, so the idea that affirmative action exists to redress past grievances doesn’t resonate with today’s students–of all colors. The notion that black people have a past of slavery and discrimination, that this is a fact of American history, is buried so deep in the consciousness of most students that it doesn’t surface. The right wing says that if you bring that fact to the fore and teach it, that’s called Oppression Studies, or “political correctness,” and by telling people of color they should feel good about themselves, you’re making white people feel bad about themselves.

There is a different way to argue for affirmative action, which hits home with even historical amnesiacs. That is to remind students that the future will reward those who master the art of coming together across ethnic, cultural, and racial lines. Suddenly, affirmative-action admissions are not a debt payment that lets in students who “don’t deserve to be here,” but rather a way of enriching the student culture–and career hopes. Just ask Xerox or other corporations that promote executives who have proven their ability to “manage diversity.”

A lot of white students are already intuitively on board. When we asked graduating students what they regretted about their time on campus, many told us, in effect, “I wish I had spent more time availing myself of the potential of Berkeley’s diversity.” The smartest among them also see that in a globalized economy, Berkeley’s multiculturalism can make them better leaders.

Myth 4. Good Old “Meritocracy”


I’ve already said that using critics’ own yardsticks, GPAs and SATs, Berkeley’s student body is more qualified than ever. To those who, in the interest of “preserving meritocracy,” would admit every student solely on GPA and SAT, I say: Get real. There are over 1,200 high schools in California. To assume a 3.7 means the same in each one is nonsensical. Even within the same school, one 3.7 student may have taken advanced elective physics and chemistry while another 3.7 piled up via Mickey Mouse courses. And yet by laying such emphasis on GPA we’ve encouraged students to convert a bureaucratic convenience into a moral right.

What we know about SAT scores is that they correlate almost perfectly with zip-code and economic status. It’s no secret that expensive cram courses can boost your score hundreds of points. Obviously there should be other routes into the university. And in allowing them, Berkeley reflects the historical norm, not some new “politically correct” departure.

Before 1955, GPA and SAT were not used as the sole basis for admissions. Elite universities like Yale and Princeton have regularly tinkered with their entrance criteria in order to bring in students from different parts of the country. And such institutions have a different kind of affirmative action for one group: children of alumni who, in 1988, entered Harvard in greater numbers than did those admitted via affirmative action.

Yet the only time we scream “Unfair!” as a nation is when the beneficiaries are people of color. We never screamed when it came to privilege for people of privilege. Arguments for “meritocracy” are usually on behalf of privilege, one more time.

Myth 5. Fire-Breathing Faculty

Radical professors are setting the campus political agenda.

Late in the 1950s, U.S. universities exploded in size, and new faculty arrived in droves. Thirty years later, they are in their sixties and still around. They haven’t changed, but their students sure have. And that inevitably creates another source of tension on campus.

Today at multicultural Berkeley, 88.6 percent of the professors are white, and 83.9 percent are men. Given its 1960s reputation, the faculty should be a hotbed of radicalism, but by any sort of criteria, finding a leftist on the Berkeley faculty is like searching for a needle in a haystack. In a sociology department of thirty members, there is only one self-described Marxist. The political science department is profoundly conservative. Berkeley reflects the findings of a recent poll of 35,478 professors at 392 institutions nationwide, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA: only 4.9 percent of all college instructors rate themselves “far left,” while the vast majority, 94.8 percent, call themselves “liberal” (36.8 percent), “moderate” (40.2 percent), or “conservative” (17.8 percent).

Some of my colleagues, left and right, have a knee-jerk ideological position on the topics discussed here, and a few are heavy-handed in their “political correctness.” Also, there have always been many eighteen-to- twenty-year-olds who are strident and angrily simplistic in their rhetoric. But it insults those who are agitating for change on campus simply to say they’ve been programmed with “PC” ideas by a cadre of leftist academics.

Beyond the Myths — A Reality Check

Berkeley students have a chance that students at the far more white University of California at Santa Barbara don’t have — they’re rubbing up against difference all the time. Many of them told us they came here specifically for that reason, though some graduated with stereotypes intact, or disappointed that they weren’t leaving with a better sense of other cultures. How can we make diversity a constructive experience? We asked Berkeley’s students and they told us.

First they gave us the Don’ts. Don’t, they said, try to fix things by putting us through three-hour sensitivity sessions designed to raise our consciousness about gender or racial issues or homophobia. Those are too contrived and short-lived to make much of a difference.

And don’t force matters by asking different cultures to party together. Black students told us whites are too busy drinking to want to dance up a storm. White students said Chicanos and blacks would rather be raucous than sociable. The perfectly integrated, all-university “We Are The World” dance party is a bad idea, all sides told us, mainly because we don’t all like the same music.

What then, did Berkeley’s diversity seekers remember as their most positive experiences when they reflected on their four years here? Again and again, they would describe the time when an instructor had the class break into groups and work on joint projects. Engaged in a collective enterprise, they learned about other student’s ways of thinking and problem solving, and sometimes they found friendships forming across the ethnic divide.

A more cooperative approach to learning, then, would breathe some fresh air into the sometimes tense ethnic atmosphere on Berkeley’s campus. And a clear explanation and endorsement of the merits of affirmative action by the school administration, something on paper that every student would receive, read, and perhaps debate, would counteract the tension that grows in the present silence. These are two concrete recommendations our report makes.

But Berkeley is not a sealed laboratory, and students don’t arrive here as tabulae rasae. They bring their own experiences and expectations; some are angry about injustices they’ve felt firsthand, while some are blithely unaware of their implications.

What our hundreds of interviews showed is that there is a sharp difference between the ways black and white students feel about racial politics; Asians and Chicanos fall somewhere in between. White students tend to arrive with an almost naive good will, as if they are saying, “I think I’ll just go and have some diversity,” while the music from Peter and the Wolf plays in the background. They expect to experience the “other” without conflict, without tension, without anything resembling bitterness or hostility. Meanwhile, many blacks arrive after being told in high school that Berkeley is a tough place, an alien environment, and that in order to survive, they should stick with other black people.

Imagine then what happens in the first few weeks of the first semester. White students looking for diversity run into black students already sure that race is political, so pick your friends carefully. White students seeking easy access to a black group can quickly find their hands slapped. They might say something offensive without knowing it and get called “racist,” a word they use to mean prejudging a person because he or she is black. Why do you call me racist? Hey, I’m willing to talk to you like an ordinary person.

But when black students use the term, they tend to aim it at a person they see participating in a larger institution that works against black people. If you’re not in favor of affirmative action, that means you’re racist.

The white student retorts: I’m willing to have dinner with you, talk with you about ideas. I’m not prejudiced. But the two are talking past each other, the white student describing a style of interaction and friendship, the black student talking about the set of views the white student appears to hold.

It is misunderstandings such as these, arising in an atmosphere of fierce competition, in a setting of remarkable ethnic and racial diversity, that lead some critics to jump gleefully to the conclusion that diversity is not working. But there is another, more hopeful interpretation. Berkeley’s students are grappling with one of the most difficult situations in the world: ethnic and racial turf. They are doing this, however modestly, over relatively safe issues such as what kind of music gets played or who sits where in the lunchroom. Perhaps they will learn how to handle conflict, how to divvy up scarce resources, how to adjust, fight, retreat, compromise, and ultimately get along in a future that will no longer be dominated by a single group spouting its own values as the ideal homogenized reality for everyone else. If our students learn even a small bit of this, they will be far better prepared than students tucked safely away in anachronistic single-culture enclaves. And what they learn may make a difference not just for their personal futures, but for a world struggling with issues of nationalism, race, and ethnicity.


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