Guest Column

Conaway Haskins


Separate but Equal at UVa

The University of Virginia must work to overcome Virginia's legacy of discrimination -- but supporting the self-segregation of black students is not the way to do it.


In recent weeks, news of racial tension on the hallowed grounds of the University of Virginia has shocked the consciousness of the Commonwealth. Black students and administrators report that campus climate is rife with mistrust after a series of allegedly racially motivated verbal and physical attacks on them.


The incidents coincide with the hiring of a senior administrator in charge of diversity and equity, a move met with consternation in some circles. With Mr. Jefferson's university working toward increasing its multi billion-dollar endowment, pushing toward greater national stature, and attempting to prove that the General Assembly made the right decision to grant it a new "charter" status with less state control, word of such discord comes at an inopportune times.


Unfortunately for UVa, this kind of racial animus is not new. The university has a troubling history when it comes to matter of race starting for its inception. The Jefferson-designed campus was most likely built by the hands of slave labor, and Mr. Jefferson himself was embroiled in a racial scandal with Sally Hemmings that lingers over the Monticello region to this day. The university refused to admit African Americans until the later half of the 20th century, and the black student population was negligible well into the 1970's.


Out of this environment came a push toward affirmative action policies primarily intended to help Blacks overcome the vestiges of ingrained institutionalized and socialized racism at the school. Steps were taken to directly remedy such past bigotry, including special summer programs for prospective black students and existing undergraduates, a separate admission process for Black applicants with lower standards than those for whites, separate on-grounds recruiting events, targeted recruitment of black faculty in certain disciplines, and a student service administration designed to help black students feel more comfortable at UVA.


Given the university's history of bias, such extraordinary measures were necessary and appropriate. To a large extent, such moves unchained the aspirations of Virginia's African-American middle class, as over the next decades their children gained access to the flagship higher educational institution in the Commonwealth, which by then had become a "Public Ivy" of sorts.


At some point, however, the move toward proactive affirmative action policies seems to have veered into a culture of Black self-segregation, as students responded to a perceived climate of racism and bias.


According to alumni, students, former faculty & administrators with whom I have spoken, backed by personal observation over the years, black life at UVa is markedly different from that of the general campus community, and often these distinctions go ignored by the general public and university's administration. Most African-American students live within a de facto black college on grounds in Charlottesville. This black enclave includes traditional organizations like the Black Student Union and black fraternities/sororities, as well as informal institutions such as a particular bus stop frequently mainly by blacks and particular dormitories that black students targeted for residency. From all appearances, white students are mostly oblivious to this or simply ignore it, accepting it as a way of life at the school.


Those African Americans who choose an alternative path are sometimes ostracized or ignored by the larger black community. Social pressure extends to black undergraduates who chose to enter mostly-white fraternities and sororities, work on various intellectual journals, participate in debating societies, and engage with the local multicultural arts scene.


Black athletes, particularly football and basketball players, are given somewhat free rein on campus as long as their on-field performance keeps the boosters satisfied and their off-field actions result in only a few arrests. In sum, life for most black students revolves around the faux "separate but equal" community that flowers there.


This self-imposed separation mixes with a volatile combination of alcohol, sex, youthful indiscretion and freedom from parental oversight. Thus, when a white student pours beer on a black girl at a party, or white frat boys get the bone-headed idea to dress up in blackface, and African-American students are called "nigger" in a drive-by epithet attack, either by townspeople or fellow students, problems are inevitable.


Now, the university has ramped up attempts to root out the perpetrators of racial discord. Though the sentiments behind it are laudable, this course of action may do little to foster a climate of mutual understanding and social change.


The collegiate years should be a time for developing cultural literacy, learning about different worlds, and making journeys of self-discovery. For this current generation of students which, unlike previous generations, lives with no a grand sense of social purpose or civic consciousness, the university should be the place where students, regardless of personal history or background, are shaken out of their comfort zones. UVa has a responsibility to shape and mold impressionable 18-22 year-olds into honest, open-minded citizens and leaders of society. Squelching student expressions of bigotry through censorship and witch-hunting is not the answer. Engaging all students in discussions about the deeper roots of racial difference and its impact would seem to be a wiser course of action.


UVa's racial problem is larger than simply a few isolated incidents of bigotry. The university is a microcosm of the modern-day Commonwealth, and its students bring to college all of the baggage they have accumulated from birth until the end of grade school. This includes prejudices and biases fostered by their families, communities, and the pop culture that pervades their lives.


The university is part of the context of the new Old Dominion - and the larger "New" South - where overt racism and institutional discrimination are frowned upon, but racial inequality still persists in other, often invisible, forms. There is still a discernable "Good Ol' Boy" network that heavily influences the Commonwealth's social, economic and political life and holds UVA up as a crown jewel. The university's social fabric reflects the society around it -- one that, admittedly, is changing for the better as time goes by. As the Commonwealth becomes more open to all of its citizens, so will the university.


One hopes that the university can leverage its ability to mold young minds in a way that will impact Virginia positively. Some of those who oppose the new steps taken by the university have issued a call for greater colorblindness as official university policy. While current white students played no part in the UVA's past racial problems, they are not absolved of their obligation to be mindful of that history so that they do not perpetuate inequality. By the same token, allowing black students to practice self-segregation from the larger community merely facilitates a sense of victimization and undermines their ability to enhance their American cultural literacy through interactions with others.


Though laudatory as a long-term societal goal, colorblindness is a quaint notion that often ignores real-world inequities and the persistence of historical memory that is alive now. For true colorblindness to prevail, blacks would essentially have to abandon the ethnic heritage that they created over the past 300 years, a culture that buttressed a people against the evils of racism and color discrimination. Otherwise, the larger society would have to fully co-opt black culture as part of its fabric so that colorblindness would cease to be a code for assimilation inherently built on the assumption of the natural superiority of Anglo-American culture.


Given the pluralistic history of America and the Commonwealth, where the dominant culture is continuously shaped by the melding together of many other elements, African Americans should have every right to engage with their own heritage insofar as it does not undermine the values of the larger system. The university has an obligation to make certain that all students can take advantage of the plethora of resources that the institution can offer, as well as, human resources in the form of interpersonal interactions of students of divergent life experiences.


Truly celebrating diversity requires addressing not just conventional notions of race, gender, and sexual orientation to make non-whites more comfortable in a campus setting. It also includes a broader examination of economic stratification, religious pluralism and geographic influences on the lives and worldviews of all students. All too often, diversity and equity are cast in a manner that assigns all whites to a homogeneous category and expects a degree of guilt from them for the suffering visited on non-whites.


If UVA is to make strides in alleviating the tension on grounds, the new diversity and equity regime must respect the heritage of the black slave descendant from Farmville, the great-great-grandchild of a Scotch-Irish Confederate officer from Abingdon, the Fairfax-born son of an IT entrepreneur from New Delhi, and the Italian-American girl from the Bronx. Highlighting legitimate ethnic differences should not threaten either the larger social fabric of a university if it is done in a thoughtful manner that respects people's cultural attachments.


As a university with the ability to enable greater personal and social exploration, UVA should provide its students the psychic space to delve into all avenues of race, class and culture in open formats so that the marketplace of ideas can rule. Pacifying particular groups is not called for, just as ignoring the problem will not make it go away.


If the University of Virginia can make strides toward an improved racial climate for all Cavaliers, then it will have truly earned its status as the Commonwealth's flagship institution and there just may be hope for a brighter racial future at dear old UVa.     


-- October 3, 2005















About Conaway Haskins (from his blog, South of the James):


Conaway Haskins is a nonprofit executive & freelance writer in Chesterfield. Formerly a researcher at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., he gained valuable insights into the worlds of politics and public policy in Virginia, Washington, D.C. and North Carolina through various professional, academic and volunteer experiences. A native of Lunenburg County, he received his BA in Government & Politics from George Mason University and his Masters of Regional Planning degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.