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Let Us Break Bread Together

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Professors and students at Southwestern University in Texas, where I taught for 3 years, have developed an interesting study that was recently presented at the American Sociological Association and covered by the Chronicle of Higher Education. They sought factors on college campuses that help lead to racial mixing. They discovered the classes are virtually meaningless, largely because everyone is afraid to talk about race in the classroom (and I can say that this is usually true, though I still beat them over the head with it). The dormitories don’t have a meaningful impact, though the reason is less clear from the article.

Where racial understanding is achieved is the cafeteria. It turns out that, at least at Southwestern, if you can get students to eat with those other other races, you can make some progress:

When the researchers asked students about their experiences in the dining hall (the unnamed college has but one, so everyone eats in the same place), they found that a majority of students — both white and minority — reported regularly sharing meals with those of different races. But a minority of students of all races and ethnicities reported doing this seldom or never.

This was where the researchers noted a significant difference beyond eating patterns. Those who didn’t regularly eat with people of a different group were 54 to 60 percent less likely to report a positive racial environment on campus. The gap was similar for all ethnic and racial groups.

This is interesting, though researchers need to upscale this to multiple campuses in order to gauge its larger implications. Although I loved my time at Southwestern (to the point that I would have stayed there forever if a tenure-track opportunity presented itself, despite the fact that it has 2 things I hate: extreme heat and Rick Perry as governor), it’s not exactly an everyperson’s student body. It’s generally pretty well-off. It’s not a particularly diverse campus. In a 20 person class, I’d usually get 1 African-American student and maybe 1 Latino student. I think once I had 2 African-Americans in a class. I know that once I had 2 Asian-Americans. The administration talked about diversity, but class diversity was not what they were so interested in–upper middle-class black kids to go along with upper-middle class white kids is not my idea of diversity. It is an extremely Greek oriented campus, to the point that even the hippie kids were part of the Greek system, which really blew my mind. Its regional diversity is very low, with most of the kids seemingly coming from the Houston or Dallas suburbs, with some other Texans thrown in the mix and the occasional out of state student.

I suppose every campus has some kind of unique demographic profile, which is precisely why we need this study broadened to a variety of college campuses. If it holds to be true, can schools engineer some way for students to eat together or hang out in other public and non-formal settings?

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