Fighting the disease

For years now, the conversation about diversity issues has circled vaguely around a number of buzzwords: “community,” “solidarity,” “dialogue” or – to pick a current favorite – “a culture of silence.” All this vagueness frustrates people who fail to see what more Williams can reasonably be expected to do. Exactly what problem these buzzwords mean to gesture to is unclear, or rather, if that is clear enough – all the nasty ism’s and phobias, no doubt – it’s still far from obvious what sort of action could realistically provide for lasting improvements here.

To be sure, we’ve seen all sorts of action. Over the years there have been dozens of rallies, marches, symbolic displays and open-mic sessions, each of them conducted with the same frightfully earnest sense of shared self-importance. Various “movements” have nobly christened themselves only to retreat into dustiest nooks of our collective memory, at least until another glaring, hateful incident happens – and, come to that, these happen regularly enough that attending events like those on Nov. 14 might as well be a degree requirement.

All this would lead me to quiet despair, were it not for the touching, sometimes disturbing personal stories that came out of the latest incident. We must do better. But what holds us back?

Our vocabulary, for one. We can articulate our individual experiences of ignorance, insensitivity, prejudice, exclusion, discrimination and sometimes even outright aggression and hatred. We can also quibble about fine distinctions between all the ism’s and phobias we’ve been told to “deconstruct.” What we most emphatically lack is a way of speaking about this institution that is neither a noncommittal exchange of subjective narratives nor a self-righteous indulgence in abstractions and platitudes: These, if you like, are the Scylla and Charybdis of our tiresome “postmodern” identity politics.

To avoid them we need a way of speaking objectively and concretely about the structural features of Williams, that is, those specific institutional arrangements that produce and constrain possibilities for social interaction independently of the attitudes and actions of any particular individual or group of individuals. Of course, to learn to speak about these things requires that we stop assuming that everything we say is automatically special and important; it requires that we become familiar with the available facts in their appropriate historical, social and economic contexts. Books by the sociologists Jerome Karabel and Joseph Soares are good places to start.

If we do this, I do not say that there will not be conflict and heated disagreement; these will persist if anything substantial is at stake. But I do say that the conflict and heated disagreement would for once be novel and productive and even fun. It would not dwell on the niceties of “cultures of kindness” or scapegoat wealthy white athletes, but would engage with the roots of our problems insofar as they can actually be collectively addressed – with the disease, not its superficial symptoms.

If we are serious about fighting the disease, here are three sets of questions that seem productive:

For one, our entire housing system is based on the assumption that if people from different backgrounds live together, they will come to positively interact. This is wildly implausible. People will generally do so only if they find they share interests and activities. Why don’t we experiment with theme housing proposals that demonstrate diverse student interest and draw committed faculty/staff sponsors? Why not a house for discussions of serious cinema? Or for learning to cook international cuisines?

Second, studies of Harvard students show that differences in pre-college preparation tend to be academically insignificant after sophomore year, and yet we have more students from the top 1 to 2 percent of households by income than from the bottom 90 percent. What does this say about our “need-blind” admissions process?

Third, the SAT has almost no ability to predict college grades; the subject tests and high school GPA are four times more effective. It notoriously favors wealthier students and disadvantages ethnic minorities; other measures are not nearly so biased. Why is a discriminatory and useless test the decisive factor in applicant pool self-selection?

Fourth, the empirical evidence nationwide suggests that legacy admissions preferences have no effect on donor generosity. Why do we advantage students who already have all the advantages?

Fifth, granting that they are otherwise admirable, does retaining many low-profile athletic teams that do not attract socioeconomically diverse members best serve the College?

And finally, would Williams students learn to deal constructively with College issues if student government were made more directly democratic through randomly-selected, task-specific student committees?

My suggestion is that if we became concerned with questions like these, rather than with blame games and feel-good displays, then the real interests of minority students might actually be addressed. Change will not happen unless we are willing to rethink our assumptions.

Steven Hailey ’14 is from Fayetteville, Ark. He lives in Brooks. 


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