Further Reflections on Racism in the US: (1) Collegiate Experiences and Trends

In response to the protests and discussions about racism triggered by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 25 May 2020, I chose to focus my initial reflections on racism in America on my recollections of growing up in Edina, Minnesota, one of the adjacent suburbs to Minneapolis. This led to a stimulating series of reflections from other family members, friends and colleagues. What follows here is the first of a series of further reflections or musings on racism in the US. I’ve entitled in “collegiate experiences and trends” to include my own collegiate experiences at Oberlin College with subsequent trends on diversity in collegiate education. My original focus on Edina, Minnesota was inspired by the revelation in numerous media reports that Minneapolis was identified as one of the most segregated cities in America. PBS even highlighted the remarkable project exposing Minneapolis as “the Jim Crow of the North”. This revelation came as a surprise to me and led me to acquire a different perspective on my own childhood in that metropolitan area. I may have chosen to break away from my roots there because I had found it too homogeneous, but I had always described it as one of the more progressive cities in the country. It was, to me a homogeneity of progressivism.

The shock of discovering that the homogeneity I knew contained an element of inherent racism has led me to see that homogeneity in a different light. I had assumed that the overwhelmingly white suburb I lived in was attributable to a Scandinavian-American embrace of welcoming everyone to join that Scandinavian-American culture. However, as my sisters have pointed out following my sharing these initial reflections with them, there were other, mostly hidden or unnoticed, parts of the city where African Americans or other migrants were flowing into the region from the South or elsewhere – like, for example, Native Americans.

By virtue of housing and zoning policies, these communities became increasingly segregated and isolated from the white world of the suburbs – and therefore, from the Scandinavian-American culture that we assumed had been open to everyone. Although we have been able to verify that the homes we lived in were not shackled with restrictive covenants, we have come to understand that the more insidiously discriminatory policies associated with red lining and zoning laws were indeed part of the urban/suburban cultural divide in which we grew up.

My family, of course, can comfortably say that we didn’t endorse any of this racially biased stuff. After all, we were a profoundly religious family whose parents were dedicated to humanitarian (and evangelical) service in the “mission field” of India. For a substantial portion of our respective childhood years we lived overseas (in India). Our home was in an isolated but secured rural missionary compound where our parents worked and where we spent our earlier childhood years. At school age, however, we were routinely sent off to a religiously administered boarding school for the children of such well-meaning missionaries as our parents.

Without peeling this particular onion right now of its patronizing approach to saving lost souls in the rural areas of India or of the ethno-cultural segregation of the schools, we did experience an appreciation for diversity in the world and for life outside of the Scandinavian-American cocoon that was Minnesota. Each of the sisters has applied the lessons learned from this bi-cultural upbringing in their different ways. What follows here is my own racial odyssey – or at least a part of it. I am still searching for the ultimate revelation on freeing us all from the ravages of racism, but here are at least three of the segments of my personal journey. In each segment, I reflect on lessons I learned along the way, but I add some observations about how it relates to the issues of racism today.

Step One: Lessons Learned from the Collegiate Experience

Oberlin College is widely known for its academic excellence but also for its political activism on the left and for its music. As a student at Oberlin in the 1960s, I benefited from both its liberal political reputation and its musical reputation, more the former than the latter. I was, to be sure, in awe of the charismatic conductor Robert Fountain and of the rich and emotionally moving voices of the lead singers when I was lucky enough to clear the auditions to be among the altos in the chorus for Handel’s Messiah and other musical performances. But my main interest was in the study – and practice – of politics.

What did I learn? My courses were, to be sure, very stimulating. I remember being deeply impressed by the personal insights of my professors regarding the post-World War II transformation of the United States into a strategic world power. I also took a course in public speaking that led me to participate in some intercollegiate oratorical competitions – my theme was on Mahatma Gandhi, satyagraha and the power of nonviolent protest in the American civil rights movement.  On campus, I was active, too. This was the time when the more courageous of Oberlin students were traveling down to Birmingham, Alabama on their school holidays to rebuild a bombed-out church and join the Freedom Riders. The rest of us cheered them on, raised money and participated in peaceful marches through the town.

Most importantly for me, though, I was a passionate Republican! Years later, I tried to gloss over this aspect of my college days, defending myself much as Hillary Clinton did and many of my other liberal Republican classmates did, as converts to the Democratic Party. For me and for most of my Republican friends in those days, the Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln. Here we were at a college that had spearheaded the abolitionist movement and operated a major stop along the Underground Railroad. This was, to us, a legitimately Republican history, and there were quite a few of us who associated ourselves with that history. Even in the 1960s there were more Republicans like us who voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other civil rights legislation in Congress than Democrats! How could one possibly affiliate with a party that tolerated segregationists?

Admittedly, we were ignoring a bit of more recent history – as in FDR and the New Deal and workers’ rights as well as the Camelot-like atmosphere and New Frontier of JFK. One of my professors even had the nerve to describe the Democratic Party as the party of the people and the Republican Party as the party of business! I protested his assertion but did have to admit that yes, this progressive Republican Party that had been associated with abolition and anti-corruption and good government was also the party of business deregulation and the free market.  I suppose one could argue that neither party was the party of ALL the people, but it was only gradually becoming apparent in the 1960s that the Republican Party was transmogrifying into a haven for the very segregationists that held the Democratic Party back from a full-blown attack against racism and Jim Crow.

It probably should have been obvious even then. After all, I was elected President of Oberlin College Young Republicans in 1964. We had a wonderful progressive Republican Congressman, Charlie Mosher, in the district that we were all eager to go door-to-door for, and we were mostly Scranton and Rockefeller Republicans. I myself was so convinced that Eisenhower would speak up at the Republican Convention that summer and persuade the delegates to reject Barry Goldwater that I burst into tears when I woke up in the middle of the night to the TV blaring out the cheering sounds of the convention confirming his nomination. It was horrible!

Upon returning to campus for my senior year, I convened the members of the Republican club and proposed that the club itself refuse to endorse Goldwater while leaving individual members to campaign for him on their own if they so chose. Our non-support attracted national media attention, and the Ohio party leadership did come to the campus to try to persuade us otherwise, to no avail.  Most significantly, though, the day after Goldwater’s ignominious defeat those very same Goldwaterite members of the club confidently predicted that they would be back in four years with a more “unifying” candidate in the name of Richard Milhous Nixon. And that was the end of my Republican days.

Oberlin and the Issues of Racism Today

My Oberlin class of 1965 had a fiftieth-year reunion a few years ago, in 2015. It was a nostalgic time to remember how transformative our civil rights experiences were for us, including for those of us who had been Republicans in those days. We listened once again to the recording of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as our 1965 commencement speaker. “There is nothing more tragic,” he said, “than to sleep through a revolution.” A famed composer from our class, David Maslanka, staged his musi-drama performance, Letter to Martin, honoring his legacy and the seeds of courage he planted in the people, big and small, then and now, who chose not to sleep through the revolution.

And in 2015, the reunion weekend coincided with yet another commencement, this time featuring Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Michele Obama, the First Lady. Both drew on the theme from 50 years before. Marian urged us to remain awake through yet another revolution, this one actually seeking to turn American backwards. Michele told us to “run to, and not away from, the noise” of polarization and gridlock. How strange that this was 2015, before the disaster of the 2016 US Presidential election, before the global pandemic, before the burgeoning of Black Lives Matter across the globe.

To return for a moment to the 1965 timeframe, I pulled out my Oberlin yearbooks to try to get an idea of how integrated the school itself actually was (or wasn’t) in those days. I had my own memories of some four or five different Black classmates – dating, for example, one of the two African students in the class, someone from Dahomey (now known as Benin); or marveling at the beautiful and powerfully grieving voice of the Black soprano in Handel’s Messiah; or cheering on the Black couple who had met and fallen in love at Oberlin and inspired the rest of the class with their having found each other; and spending Sunday afternoons with several female friends in the dorm room listening to the escapades of our one Black female classmate in the politics program who was dating the radical (white) history professor and revolutionary that we all had a crush on.  Flipping through the yearbook, I found them all there – and maybe two or three others I had forgotten about – in a class of well over 450! Was that all, really?

That was quite another revelation for me! I had truly forgotten how few Black students there actually were in my class.  If one even doubled the number to, say, about 25, that would bring the percentage to about 0.05 per cent! And this was Oberlin, of all places! How could it possibly be?  This is quite disturbing, but somehow one has to put all of this into the historical perspective. This was indeed the midst of the revolution that MLK was talking about. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted in the midst of college experience, and even in a place like Oberlin education was still predominantly segregated.  Even if one were to compare Oberlin’s number to Ohio’s numbers, this would probably be the case. But Oberlin has always claimed to be geographically diverse.

Later in the 1960s, I was associated with another small college, this time in North Carolina. More needs to be said about that North Carolina experience (read ahead), but the point here is that change was only starting to happen in the opening up of predominantly white academic institutions of higher education in the 1960s, whether in the North or in the South.  Oberlin had a long history of openness, including a record of specifically educating Blacks to teach at historically Black institutions in the South, where most higher education opportunities had been established under the segregated USA of Plessy v. Ferguson’s approach to “separate but equal”.  And yet, its own student population was overwhelmingly white, even in the 1960s.

In contrast, Guilford College, a white institution in the South where I began teaching political science in 1968, had only the year before officially “integrated” its student body, by affirmatively recruiting just one Black student that year. As a Quaker institution, it should have done this earlier, but it was in the South.  During the time that I was there, however, the administration did step up with a more proactive outreach program recruiting about 20 black students (out of a student body of 1000). Unlike Oberlin with a tradition of openness, however, this proved to require a bumpy phase to learn how to accommodate the culture clash.  It even led to a sit-down strike with the black students requesting preparatory and sensitivity programs.  I was called upon to help them out, and I will never forget the crisis meeting in the board room next to the president’s office, when the president walked in announcing that he thought the student’s demands were unreasonable, just as the dean of the school was saying that he thought some of the demands were quite reasonable!

Historically, it seems that the real push for integration among the predominantly white institutions of higher education. Whether in the North or the South, began in the 1970s. That is when the records show that even Oberlin’s president decided to make a deliberate effort to triple the number of Black students. Jumping forward to today, one can find a diversity ranking of American colleges and universities that is especially revealing in a couple of ways. For Oberlin, for example, the diversity score is 87 out of 100, placing it below some 90 other institutions – well below its academic rival Swarthmore, ranked third most diverse in the country, and even below Guilford which has a score of 90 out of 100.  (Yale, by the way, is number one, followed by Stanford, Swarthmore, Johns Hopkins and Harvard in the top five.)

The diversity ratings are inclusive of several categories – Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Native American, white and “non-resident alien” (the foreign students like the two from Africa at Oberlin in 1965). I find it interesting to compare the most recent numbers for Oberlin and Guilford:

                                                Oberlin                                                Guilford

White                                                   61.9%                                                   56.9%

Black/African American                  5.1%                                                   24.3%

Hispanic/Latino                                  8.4%                                                   9.1%

Asian                                                      3.8%                                                   5.2%

Non-Resident alien                        11.3%                                                   1.3%

Unknown                                             9.4%                                                     3.2%

(Neither of them has a high enough Native American ranking to be included here.) What is especially significant, furthermore, is that Guilford has a higher score for all minorities except non-resident aliens and a markedly higher score on the proportion of Blacks/African Americans. One could dwell some more on how these different institutions are also addressing income inequalities among minority populations, but I believe that the changes towards more diversity are indicative of progress toward a more integrated society at the level of America’s higher education institutions than existed at either of these institutions in the 1960s.

In Conclusion

To summarize the lessons learned on racism in America from my experiences at Oberlin College, I was actively advancing racial equality in my public speaking competitions, my participation in campus protest movements and in expressing bold political statements. I have to say that I went through an important transformation in my political affiliations that redirected the future path that I took in politics. And I was inspired to do more by virtue of the impact of the historical record of Oberlin and the bravery of my classmates challenging segregation in the South.

I can also appreciate, in retrospect, the limited extent to which racial integration existed even at a place like Oberlin.  It was a predominantly white environment to which blacks and other minorities were welcomed, but they were clearly minorities in a white environment.  This has changed to some extent, as reflected in the diversity numbers. But oddly enough, one could surmise that Guilford has done better than Oberlin, perhaps because Guilford now reflects the proportions in the North Carolina population, especially for African-Americans (24.3% for Guilford and 21.6% for the state). For Oberlin, this is 5.1% for the college versus 12% for Ohio or 13.4% nationally. Perhaps, the numbers would be different if all those who are listed as “unknown” were racially identified, but we’ll leave it at that.

Well, one final thought. I have not delved into the details of recent controversies at Oberlin -charges regarding abuses of workers’ rights during the pandemic last spring or of overzealous political correctness – that was a few years ago but seems to flare up from time to time. Social activism among the students, however, seems to be an ongoing characteristic of the College, and this has recently been directed to racial and economic inequalities in the community itself. In fact, Michele Obama decided to deliver a commencement speech there in 2015 because of a student-run initiative to reach out to and recruit disadvantaged high school students in the local community.

And finally, as a conclusion to this final thought, one should also note that Oberlin College has its first African-American president – and a woman, too – Carmen Twillie Ambar, who started her tenure in May 2017.  In one of her early challenges in 2018, she backed up the students and the college after a lawsuit had awarded damages to a local grocery store for racial defamation. And in response to the murder of George Floyd, President Ambar herself announced a presidential initiative this fall to address violence, racial injustice and the relationships between the police and community members.

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