Bonilla-Silva speaks on race in higher education

Chair of the Duke University Department of Sociology Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talked to students and faculty on Sept. 11. Photo Courtesy of Brianna Retig.
Chair of the Duke University Department of Sociology Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talked to students and faculty on Sept. 11. Photo Courtesy of Brianna Retig.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, chair of the Duke University Department of Sociology and author, lectured on racism in American colleges and universities on Sept. 11.

Assistant Professor of Political Science Candis Smith, one of Bonilla-Silva’s former students, gave a brief introduction before Bonilla-Silva began by outlining the challenge of diversity that is faced by the nation and colleges and universities alike.

“Diversity has been co-opted into a formalistic, bureaucratic thing with limited substantive value,” Bonilla-Silva said. “In most organizations, diversity has been reduced to recruiting a few people of color and having an equal opportunity statement about not discriminating on the basis of race, religion and so forth.”

The purpose of this talk, he continued, was to urge the audience to move the College’s “diversity goal post” forward to a deeper sense of diversity. According to Bonilla-Silva, racism in the post-Jim Crow Era should not be classified as overt racist events performed by a minority in a series of isolated incidents. By defining racism as the realm of the Ku Klux Klan or Donald Sterling, “we fail to understand that racism forms a social system in which we all participate, some as beneficiaries and some as victims,” Bonilla-Silva said. Participation is neither voluntary, nor is it always obvious, according to Bonilla-Silva.

Bonilla-Silva uses the term “new racism” to refer to the post-civil rights racial regime. He provided an example involving housing markets. In a study at Stanford, researchers found that realtors were five to six times more likely to tell white applicants than minority applicants about available units.

The key feature of this new style of discrimination, Bonilla-Silva described, is that it can be difficult to detect or label as racist.

“We’re fighting the monster of the past, but the new one is more sophisticated,” Bonilla-Silva said.

Bonilla-Silva spoke about “abstract liberalism,” or the practice of framing race-related issues in an abstract and de-contextualized manner in order to oppose affirmative action and other productive methods of combatting racism in an apparently race-neutral way.

After describing his framework of new racism, Bonilla-Silva transitioned to its role in historically white colleges and universities. He pointed out that most Americans signal the racial characteristics of historically black colleges and universities by calling them such but rarely recognize the whiteness of other institutions of higher education, including the College itself.

According to Bonilla-Silva, the apparently isolated incidents that continue to happen all over the nation, such as the Penn. State sorority that wore Mexican costumes in 2012 and the Asian-themed party at Duke in 2010, are a result of the deeply rooted traditions that embody white supremacy at historically white colleges and universities. Many of these traditions predate “so-called” integration, and Bonilla-Silva does not believe many places in America are integrated yet.

This is evident in the lack of institutional symbols that would make most historically white colleges and universities look and feel like multicultural environments. At most schools like the College, there are few statues and buildings honoring minority leaders. As a result, “minority students, faculty and staff exist as guests that have no history in the house they occupy,” Bonilla-Silva said.

Bonilla-Silva concluded by offering a solution to new racism and a plan for deeper commitment to diversity. In order for diversity efforts to be truly effective, historically white colleges and universities must recognize that the problem of racism at the core of the diversity dilemma is systemic and work to transform their multiculturalism and diversity goals from mere slogans into concrete steps rooted in a real commitment to end racism.

Although colleges and universities are a microcosm of the impact of new racism in the nation, Bonilla-Silva believes that they are in a unique position to combat racial disparity. As “potential repositories of what is good in society,” schools like the College have the obligation to enact reforms that counteract their white foundation and push themselves into true inclusivity, according to Bonilla-Silva.

“We can and should struggle to transform ourselves into spaces where racial demography and racial justice flourish … The work will be hard, but HWCUs [historically white colleges and universites] can reimagine and reinvent themselves into pockets of true diversity in America,” Bonilla-Silva said.