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Mirror, mirror: reflections on race and the visage of higher education in America

Do we see the diversity? graduation day via

What’s going on?

Marvin Gaye’s plaintive question from decades ago echoes hauntingly today. With each new incidence of brown-skinned people being brutalized, it returns more bitterly to our lips, triggered by images from Ferguson to Tempe, Baltimore to Cleveland, Staten Island to Charleston…and the list goes painfully on.

The geography and frequency of these horrors is bewildering. We do not recognize ourselves as we search the mirror for the America we think we know: of e pluribus unum (out of many, one), equal rights, equal opportunity and the pursuit of happiness.

But we cannot bring ourselves to truly search our reflection.

If we could, we would see through our self-distortions, including the exceptionalism that masks our eerie resemblance to our many global homelands and infamous conflicts, from South Africa to Northern Ireland, across Europe to the Middle East, Asian Pacific, and South America.

You don’t have to be a social psychologist (as I am) to see that we continue to shrink from the ghosts of what North Carolina State University’s Rupert Nacoste describes poetically in his new book, Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety to Respect, as the “hibernating bigotry” of our times.

Hiding behind diversity

We desperately want to be post-racial, post-gender, indeed, post-difference.

Yet we fail to teach the next generation to exorcise the ghosts of what we tell ourselves is our past. So, we are shocked when a bus full of collegians ardently shouts a racist chant, even as Confederate flags continue to fly.

The paradox is stunning.

We quite literally hide behind the explosion of diversity, a quick-changing demographic map documented by the Brookings Institution’s William Frey. As Frey wrote in a recent article,

“America reached an important milestone in 2011. That occurred when, for the first time in the history of the country, more minority babies than white babies were born in a year. Soon, most children will be racial minorities: Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and other nonwhite races. And, in about three decades, whites will constitute a minority of all Americans.”

We soothe ourselves with the hope that so much fluid demographic and social change will settle the waters of racism, even as the ghosts of black and white come out from hibernation.

Why, you might ask, is a college president lecturing us on this?

As campus after campus chases the mantle of selectivity (highly valued by popular rankings systems) over inclusivity, we knowingly turn our backs on the fastest-growing, first-generation, low income, largely black and brown talent pool in the communities right at our gates.

We continue to favor a “better prepared,” select, if not necessarily more resilient, student body deemed meritorious by narrow metrics of tests they prep for all of their lives.

How will we face down our ghosts if we can’t even commit to cultivating the talent in our midst? Aren’t we entrepreneurs and innovators who succeed by taking risks?

Newark’s story

In a city like Newark, New Jersey, where I live, educate and innovate as the Chancellor of Rutgers University - Newark, the choice to succumb to ghosts or engage the talent is clearly written in the statistics: 4,000 “disconnected youth” are out of school, racing toward prison.

What’s going on? They could become “opportunity youth” if the Newark City of Learning Collaborative succeeds in its efforts to increase college attainment in Newark to 25% by 2025.

Unbeknownst to most, Newark is a “college town” — 60,000 students, faculty and staff at Rutgers University — Newark, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Essex County College alone.

Newark, college town. Arthur Paxton, Office of Communications, Rutgers, Newark., CC BY-SA

Many, perhaps most, represent the largely untapped talent pool of metropolitan America, with stories and struggles and dreams worthy of our city’s 350-year history as a place that welcomes those who left a homeland, whether in the Great Migration, South to North, or in the waves of immigration since, to find freedom and make life better for their children.

Yet those stories of hope and perseverance — which have inspired the launch of Newest Americans, a new digital magazine by the Rutgers–Newark community, VII photo agency, and nonprofit production company Talking Eyes that compellingly captures the stories emanating from our global campus and city — cannot exorcise our ghosts if we turn a blind eye to the talent that grows up “stuck in place,” as New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey reminds us, all across America and certainly in Newark.

To do that, we have to change the map of inequality into a map of opportunity, both for those marginalized by decades of systemic prejudice in housing, employment, education, health care and law enforcement, and those dreamers with the very same aspirations for excellence.

We in higher education can start by looking at our own reflections in the mirror, facing down the ghosts of our ivory towers that are aided, abetted, and kept alive by the likes of US News and World Report rankings (despite such rankings coming under increased scrutiny).

Might we instead embrace the impact that we too can have as institutions anchored in communities, collaborating with respect and reciprocity with public and private partners to sustain change in our midst, as the many members of the Anchor Institutions Task Force - chaired by the University of Pennsylvania’s Ira Harkavy and the global consulting firm Marga Inc’s David Maurrasse - are now doing?

Could we reward not just knowledge in the abstract but its grounded applications too, and open the doors to more of our next diverse generation of citizens, professionals and leaders?

Finding the courage to look at ourselves with such honesty and listen to each other’s stories is the only way to understand our differences, acknowledge our faults, heal, and move forward as communities and as a nation.

It all starts with learning to listen as Marvin Gaye urged us:

“Don’t punish me with brutality

C'mon talk to me

So you can see

What’s going on.”

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