Wednesday, October 23

Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data—book review and author Q&A

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by Shelley Seale

In a Higher Ed Connects issue centered around the theme of diversity, we introduce some provocative questions on the topic:

  • Is diversity counter-productive?
  • Is affirmative action still needed?
  • Do students self-segregate in ways that defeat diversity measures?
  • What about the aspects of class vs. race?

These are legitimate questions that Julie J. Park tackles in her book, Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data. At the end of this book review, we also have an exclusive Q&A with Park.

Park, an associate professor at the University of Maryland College Park, puts a broader conversation on the public discourse about race and diversity on higher education campuses in this book, and challenges pervasive myths on how race works in higher education. A secondary goal of the book is to unpack the origins of race-related myths in higher education, and critique the persistent spread of misinformation.

“Colleges are radically different places than they were just a few decades ago,” Park writes in her introduction. “With growing enrollments of students of color and women, the typical college student is no longer a White male aged eighteen to twenty-two. Universities have also changed how they serve diverse student bodies.”

Race on Campus Debunking Myths with Data, by Julie J. Park. Harvard Education Press, October 2018

Race on Campus Debunking Myths with Data, by Julie J. Park. Harvard Education Press, October 2018

Yet despite all of these strides forward, a comment lament is that universities have really achieved very little. Many people put forth questions such as why some groups “stick together” or stay in their comfort zones, or believe that affirmative action really just helps rich minorities, while lower-income students of color get left behind. Should admissions preferences be based on class, instead of race?

“All these questions can make the public wonder if diversity hurts more than it helps, precisely at a time when our country is grappling with serious concerns about our ability to support a diverse democracy,” Park writes. What concerns her, and was the impetus for this book, is the sense that these questions are based more on anecdotes, projections, and unbased opinions rather than on facts and data. Our brains are susceptible to assumptions and judgments that don’t capture the full extent of what’s going on.

“The tendency to rely on mental shortcuts in processing information is doing the public a deep disservice when we assess the state of race relations on college campuses. While personal experience and observation are important, the public needs to look beyond ‘a single story’ to understand the bigger picture that data shows.”

In Race on Campus, Park set out to debunk six major myths surrounding the topics of diversity and affirmative action in higher education:

Black students and the cafeteria—what’s the big fuss?

“Why do all the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria?” is a question that Park has heard often. “There’s good reason why this recharging time is critically important to their very survival on racially mixed or predominately White campuses,” she writes. She talks about the cafeteria as a mistaken symbol of all that’s wrong with race on college campuses, and puts to rest the myth that students of color pervasively self-segregate. To the contrary — numerous studies show that students of color interact more across race and have more interracial friendships than White students do. Ethnic student organizations also get a look here, where research shows that such organizations actually foster diverse interactions and engagement amongst students.

Who’s really self-segregating? Sororities, fraternities, and religious groups

On the flip side, organizations like fraternities and sororities are linked to limited engagement with diversity for White students, and affluent White students tend to have the most homogenous friendship groups.

Is class-based affirmative action the answer?

Some have argued that class-based affirmative action is preferable to race-conscious admissions for fairly attracting diverse student bodies. Park says that this isn’t an “either-or” mutually exclusive decision between considering class and race in combination with numerous other factors. Institutions need a variety of methods to foster diversity, and Park demonstrates that consideration of race is still a needed factor even today.

Why affirmative action is good for Asian Americans

Some people claim that affirmative action discriminates against Asian Americans, when they are bypassed in spite of stellar grades and test scores in favor of other students. Park (herself Korean American) debunks the myth that Asian Americans are systematically discriminated against in selective college admissions, and in fact they benefit (as do the other groups) from the racially diverse student bodies that result from such measures.

Why the SAT and SAT Prep fall short

While a few colleges have gone SAT-optional, it remains the dominant force in college admissions. However, students have deeply divergent opportunities to master the test that create an uneven playing field, and Park presents research here that questions the equity of the SAT — inequities that are largely linked to race.

The problem of the “problem of mismatch”

The idea that Black, Latinx, and Native American students are out of their league at highly selective institutions and would do better at less advanced, “slower track” institutions is addressed here. Park engages with Mismatch by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, detailing the extensive body of research that refutes the theory. She questions why mismatch is rarely raised as a concern for White and Asian American students who struggle in college.

While diversity is something that people increasingly recognize as a necessity in higher education institutions, we seem to be at odds over how best to foster and support it. Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data demonstrates that this trend toward prioritizing inclusion is important, but falls short without continued attention to diversity and equity. “Any emphasis on diversity needs to take place within a broader commitment to addressing inequality and racism, both past and present,” Park writes. “The work of diversity and racism is never finished, and…recognizing the lack of an endpoint can help us engage with the issues more honestly, authentically, and effectively.”

Julie J. Park

Julie J. Park

The Center for Higher Education Leadership spoke with Julie Park about her book, and the issue of diversity on campus.

CHEL: Your book is about “debunking myths” surrounding the topic of race at higher education institutions. Why did you feel that this was so important?

Park: It’s really important just because there are many widespread misconceptions about how race influences higher education. I hear them often in the media or even just in conversation.

CHEL: Why do you think that so many racial incidents still occur on college campuses today?

Park: People are broken. Racism is not a thing of the past, it’s part of our today too. Unfortunately I think we’ve seen an uptick in recent years, probably linked to the public resurgence of white nationalism.

CHEL: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about diversity, race, and affirmative action in the university system?

Park: One misconception is that diversity is pointless because students of color just self-segregate. We know from research done by many, including professors like Nicholas Bowman of the University of Iowa, myself, and Young Kim of Azusa Pacific University that students of color have the highest rates of cross-racial interaction and interracial friendship.

Another misconception is that affirmative action is a quota system. Not only is this a misperception, but race-based quotas are flat out illegal in higher education and have been for many years. Race-conscious admissions doesn’t work in any sort of “one-size-fits-all” formulaic way. Instead it’s just the ability of admissions officers to know a student’s race/ethnicity and allow the student, if they choose, to reference it in their college applications through essays or activities. How that gets taken into account can look really different from situation to situation.

CHEL: Why do you think so many misconceptions still persist in spite of evidence to the contrary?

Park: I talk about the power of cognitive bias in the book. Basically our brains are pretty irrational and form assumptions or opinions based off of limited information, not necessarily facts and data.

CHEL: You talk about debunking these myths with data. How did you go about that?

Park: I drew on many research studies, some of which I’ve authored and co-authored, and others that I came across while doing research. I also read sources from people whose opinions differ from mine, and engaged with them to look at both sides of the story.

CHEL: What are one or two of the most surprising misconceptions about race on campus that are debunked by the factual data?

Park: Studies that challenge the idea that students of color are only sticking with themselves. Work by Nicholas Bowman and myself found that participation in these types of clubs is linked with higher cross-racial interaction for Black and Latinx students. We suggest it’s because these ethnic student organizations are a refueling stop for underrepresented minority students where they can be refreshed, enabling them to go back out into the broader campus. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton of the University of California Berkeley and Elizabeth Paige-Gold of the University of Toronto also found that being involved in racial/ethnic organizations like a Black Student Union was linked with an increased sense of belonging within the broader university for students of color. It’s a really important study because it indicates that giving students of color some time to congregate with peers of the same race can be something that helps them feel like they belong at college, versus the misconception that these groups are divisive.

CHEL: What do you see colleges and universities doing today to diversify their campuses and improve race relations?

Park: Most selective and highly selective colleges use some form of holistic race and class-conscious admissions, where they’re able to consider race and class among many, many other factors in understanding who a student is and their context for educational opportunity. We also see a growing number of campuses prioritizing socioeconomic diversity, which is a good thing when done in combination with supporting racial/ethnic diversity. To improve race relations, some campuses are continuing to invest in recruiting and retaining racially diverse faculty, supporting leadership and programming related to supporting racial equity, and prioritizing diversity as an element of the curriculum.


About the author

Shelley Seale is an award-winning journalist, author and editor based in Austin, Texas. She is a graduate of St. Edward’s University with dual degrees in Journalism and Cultural Psychology, and is a member of the American Society of Business Publication Editor. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, The Telegraph, The Business Journals, International News Media Association, The Coaching Connector, Texas School Business and numerous university publications.

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