By Brian Amaral & Christine Mehta
Despite diversity on campus, Syracuse students tend to stick to their own racial groups. The question is why.
This isn’t 1950.
Anyone can sit in the Rosa Parks memorial seat on Centro busses. The Carrier Dome does have a student section, but not a black student section. The water fountains at Archbold Gym are for everybody.
But even without these Jim Crow barriers, students complain of segregation on the Syracuse University campus. It’s so bad that, according to Princeton Review, Syracuse University is the eighth worst university in terms of race and class interaction.
“There’s really no solution,” said Lisa Milford, an assistant professor of psychology at SU.
Milford explained the “in-group/out-group” theory of the psychology of prejudice. At SU, white students are the in-group, while different minorities make up different out-groups.
Milford is “fascinated by the theory that you tend to alienate an ‘out-group’ when you are feeling bad about yourself. Stereotyping increases self-esteem.”
She further argues that the tendency of people to separate themselves according to identity is inevitable — and perhaps not something that should be avoided.
“We all have in-groups,” she said. “You can break it up by sorority, major, race, whatever. The key is how the groups feel about each other.”
But anybody who looks on a campus bus, eats in a dining hall, or lives in university housing knows that racial groups in particular seem to keep one another at arm’s length.
High-profile flare-ups—for example, when SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor disbanded a campus television show for racially charged jokes—are rare.
Recently, though, the possibility that the university may be expressly racist was brought to the table when a black professor was denied tenure.
“I’ve come to accept the fact that the university is not appreciative of my work,” Whitman professor Boyce Watkins told The Voice’s Naresh Vissa late last year.
“It’s part of their tradition when it comes to progressive black scholars,” Watkins said. “If I’d learned to sit down and shut up, I might be treated better. Quiet Negroes do quite well in academia.”
But this is a university that prides itself on progressivism. The deans of Arts and Sciences, Newhouse, and Whitman are African-American. By written policy, the university is an “equal-opportunity, affirmative-action institution.” Indeed, it was Cantor who was involved in the 2003 Supreme Court case that upheld affirmative action policies at state schools.
These policies have helped make SU a relatively diverse campus, but still, there’s that vexing eighth place in lack of racial interaction. All the ingredients to a wonderful salad dressing are here. But is anybody shaking it up?
Bernadette White, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, said that while Syracuse University is much more diverse than Texas A&M and Virginia Tech, where she earned her undergraduate and masters degrees, SU holds fewer conversations about diversity.
“Except for Scholarship in Action, which people mention once in awhile, this is the first time I’ve been in an institution that doesn’t have these conversations,” said White. “Or at least no one knows about them.”
It’s probably the latter. The university sponsors “dialogue circles”—safe spaces to talk about race and other pressing issues—through the Office of Residence Life. But it’s mostly resident advisors who sign up.
The university also hosted a “Day of Dialogue,” a place for students to “break down barriers between students in order to foster a more collaborative, community-oriented culture on campus,” according to university’s Web site. Only a handful of students showed up.
So what is it? It could be human nature. But that doesn’t explain why many other colleges and universities manage to mingle. It could be that the university isn’t trying—for whatever reason—but it seems more accurate to say that the university’s efforts have failed, rather than not existed.
One thing is clear: SU and its students need to figure out why the problem occurs before they can even attempt to fix it.