Penn Researcher Points to Nine Themes of Racism On Predominantly White College Campuses

PHILADELPHIA –- A researcher at the University of Pennsylvania has identified nine common themes of racism on large, predominantly white college campuses in the U.S.

Shaun Harper, an assistant professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, found the themes from focus groups with students and staff:

• Institutional negligence -- All students, regardless of race, were frustrated with how their colleges promoted diversity but failed to offer students with ways to engage with racially different peers.

• Race as an avoidable topic on campus -- Race, racism and racial injustice were viewed as taboo topics. Study participants noted the irony of expecting students to interact across racial lines while race is purposely not discussed in classrooms or other venues.

• Racial segregation -- Racial segregation is visibly evident. Students said they had few if any friends from different racial backgrounds.

• Gaps in social satisfaction by race -- White and Asian-American students were socially satisfied. Latino and Native American students weren’t as satisfied but were thankful for the opportunity to go to college. African-American students were dissatisfied with the social environment.

• Institutional reputations for racism – African-American students walked onto campuses expecting to experience racism because of the colleges’ reputations in their communities.

• White student overestimation of minority student satisfaction -- While white students were most satisfied with campus social environments, they also incorrectly thought that their black, Latino and Native American peers felt the same.

• Lack of shared cultural ownership in places on campus, in the curricula and student activities -- Outside of campus ethnic/multi-cultural centers, Asian-American, black, Latino and Native American students had a difficult time pointing out other locations on campus where they felt “shared cultural ownership.”

• The consciousness-powerless paradox among minority staff -- Most of the staff members who participated in the study were racial/ethnic minorities and were all aware of dissatisfaction among minority students and of racial segregation on their campuses; however, they felt powerless and usually remained silent.

• Failure to recognize the realities of race in institutional assessment -- In each focus group, all students noted that this was the first time any effort was made on campus to document their race-related experiences. No formal racial-climate assessments had been conducted at these institutions.

The U.S. Department of Education’s 2006 report exploring areas of improvement in higher education calls for more transparency regarding student learning outcomes on college campuses, but, Harper said, “merely reporting outcomes keeps the source of racial inequities undisclosed and does not result in better, more inclusive climates for learning.”

Fifteen years of empirical research, along with the nine themes from this study, he said, “make clear the need for greater transparency regarding racial realities in learning environments at predominantly white institutions.”

According to Harper, the research indicates that, although some institutions promote their commitments to diversity and multiculturalism, they often fail to evaluate their own campus climates.

The study, published in this week’s issue of New Directions for Student Services, represents information from two rural and three urban institutions in three geographic regions.