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The New Segregation By: Michael Fletcher
Washington Post | Monday, May 19, 2003


PHILADELPHIA -- As the master of ceremonies called their names, the black seniors proudly strode to the front of the room to receive colorful pieces of kente cloth marking their impending graduation from the University of Pennsylvania.

The students solemnly called out the names of their elders as poet and social worker Kamau McRae poured water on a plant in an African libation ritual. Afterward, the students laughed and cried as they leafed through their black student yearbooks and offered heartfelt tributes to their favorite professors, to staff members and to one another.

The presentation of the class of 2003 was the central event at this year's Black Senior Celebration. The ceremony here, attended by almost half of the university's 140 black graduating seniors, followed separate celebrations that honored Asian American and Latino seniors in the weeks leading up to Penn's general graduation ceremony today. University officials say these racially and ethnically themed ceremonies are a way for minority students to celebrate their cultural connections as well as their ability to overcome the special challenges they face at predominantly white universities.

"Our students need the support they get from one another," said Patricia Williams, dean of the W.E.B. DuBois College House, a Penn dormitory geared toward the exploration of African American culture. "Often, they don't receive the same recognition and psychological support as other students at the university."

But opponents of these separate ceremonies see them as a manifestation of self-segregation, which they say is too common at colleges and universities that proudly cite their racial diversity. It is a debate that has swirled at the nation's colleges since black, Latino and Asian American students became a substantial presence on campus a generation ago. But it is taking on new significance as the higher education community braces for the Supreme Court's decision in coming weeks on two cases that challenge the legality of race-conscious college admissions.

This year, various schools are hosting racially separate graduation events, in addition to their regular ceremonies. Vanderbilt University had a separate recognition ceremony for black graduates. Washington University in St. Louis hosted a black senior alliance ceremony. The University of Michigan and Michigan State University held black celebratory ceremonies. Stanford University will host a black graduation ceremony next month, and the University of California at Berkeley hosted its Black Graduation on Saturday. Many other schools also have special ceremonies honoring Latino and Asian students.

"The fact that these ceremonies are so prevalent nicely shows that the common defense of racial preferences -- that it puts whites and blacks on the same campus to learn about and become comfortable with each other -- is senseless," said John H. McWhorter, a UC-Berkeley professor who is an outspoken critic of race-conscious college admissions. "On the contrary, campuses are precisely where many black students learn a new separatist conception of being 'black' that they didn't have before."

College officials say the ceremonies offer a way for minority students to support and recognize one another in an environment that they often find isolating. Black and Latino students, particularly, are far more likely not to finish college than whites or Asian Americans. While educators blame that on flaws in the academic preparation of some black and Latino students, they also say students are more likely to founder if they feel adrift at predominantly white schools.

"When black students come together, the assumption is often that they are being separatist," said Karlene Burrell-McRae, director of the Makuu Black Cultural Resource Center, which organized the black graduation celebration at Penn. "But the reality is that they are full members of the university community who take on responsibility for contributing to their community while also contributing to the larger community."

Ajay T. Nair, director of the Pan-Asian American Community House and director of Asian American studies at Penn, called the separate celebrations a way to honor students who might otherwise be overlooked. Earlier this month, the house hosted a 150-guest celebration for the Asian graduates.

"We are celebrating the graduation of students who have a specific interest," he said. "It probably is not realistic to expect these students to be recognized in the larger context of the university."

But some opponents of affirmative action argue that although many of the nation's colleges now have substantial minority populations, those students often operate in parallel worlds that are frequently defined by race or ethnicity. They attend the same classes, these opponents say, but they often are members of separate fraternities, sororities and cultural centers, they study in separate groups, they eat at segregated dining tables and they unwind at separate parties.

Ward Connerly, a member of the University of California Board of Regents and a leading opponent of affirmative action, called separate graduation ceremonies part of a well-intentioned but counterproductive approach to diversity.

"These celebrations are part of a larger context of cultural centers, black orientations, black studies, black housing," he said. "They are part of an infrastructure of programs aimed at making students feel welcome. The problem is that this whole entourage of efforts has formed to isolate students in cultural ghettos."

Surveys have found that students are no more likely to closely engage one another across racial lines when they finish college than when they arrive. The National Survey of Black Student Engagement released last fall found that 50 percent of college freshmen reported "often" having serious conversations with a student of another race or ethnicity. The same survey found that 49 percent of seniors reported the same level of interracial dialogue.

With a freshman class last year that was 43 percent minority, the University of Pennsylvania has a long history of supporting racial diversity and allowing students to gather in culturally and racially separate support centers. There is the Hillel House, a cultural center for Jewish students, the Newman Center, which promotes Catholic traditions, and the W.E.B. DuBois College House, which holds black cultural forums and houses about a quarter of the university's black students, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Penn officials say that type of diversity is indispensable to the learning environment at any world-class academic institution.

"Our mission, at its core, is to educate. And we believe that homogeneity stifles learning," said a statement on affirmative action issued by Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and James S. Riepe, chairman of the university's board of trustees.

Makuu, the black student center at Penn, teaches study skills and publishes a directory of black faculty members and a black resource guide to the university.

"The students describe Makuu as a safe space," said director Burrell-McRae. "It is a place where they don't have to explain who they are."

And for the past two years, it has hosted black graduation celebrations. The cost of the celebration is negligible: about $2,000, mainly for kente cloths and a sumptuous buffet. Penn is paying for the celebration, as many schools do. For the students, it is one of the high points of their senior year.

"Being at Penn has not been easy for me," said Nicole Andrewin, 21, an accounting major who helped plan the celebration. "Penn can be a place where you can more easily get lost if you're not in the majority. This celebration is a way for us to say to each other, 'Congratulations, we made it.' "


Michael A. Fletcher is a staff writer for the Washington Post


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