Baffled and Bewildered by Race
College freshmen are more liberal than they’ve ever been, according to last fall’s edition of The American Freshman: National Norms for 2001, a study conducted annually by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. However, many still enter institutions of higher education with stereotypical ideas about race, according to an Arizona State University professor.Approximately 404,000 students and 717 schools participate in the annual surveys, now in their 36th year, with the results then statistically adjusted to represent the 1.64 million first-time, full-time freshmen at America’s four-year colleges and universities. In 2001, fully 29.9 percent of the students identified their political views as “liberal” or “far left,” the highest percentage in two decades, compared to the 20.7 percent who identify themselves as “conservative” or “far right.” These liberal leanings are evident in their attitudes about a wide range of social and political issues, including the death penalty, drug testing, gay rights and, especially, race.Interracial interaction reached a record high in 2001, with 70 percent of this year’s entering college freshmen reporting that they had socialized with someone of a different racial or ethnic group in the last year. The figure is a 12 percent increase since the question was first introduced in 1992. And women (71.9 percent) remain more likely to socialize with someone of a different race than men (67.6 percent).Racial sensitivity appears to be on the rise as well. The number of freshmen who agreed that “racial discrimination is no longer a problem in America” fell to 19.5 percent in 2001, compared to the high-water mark of 21.4 percent recorded in 1999. In addition, some 31.5 percent of college freshmen said they were committed to promoting racial understanding — more than the year 2000’s 30.8 percent, though still far below the high of 46.4 percent reached in 1992. Perhaps most interesting, opposition to affirmative action policies declined for the third straight year, to 49 percent. That’s the lowest percentage recorded since that question was introduced in 1995.“What seems to be happening,” says Dr. Alexander W. Astin, a UCLA education professor and founder of the survey, “is that as students of different races have more contact with each other, their concern about racism and their commitment to racial equity grows.”But Dr. Joseph Graves Jr., professor of evolutionary biology at Arizona State University West in Phoenix and author of The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, warns that, current trends notwithstanding, America’s college students are still as baffled and bewildered by race as the rest of us.“Biologists have known for over a century that there are no geographical races,” Graves says, but the scientific community often has spent more time and effort promoting “the sacred cow of race science” — the intellectual superiority of some races over others — than in disseminating the copious studies that disprove those pernicious theories. Graves says he sees the fruit of his discipline’s failures every semester in “Genes, Race and Society”— the popular course he has been teaching for the past five years at ASU. Each semester, Graves starts the course with a questionnaire designed to examine the students’ underlying assumptions about race. And when he calculates the results, Graves says, he’s not sure whether to laugh or to cry.For example, 40 students took “Genes, Race and Society” in the fall. Only six could correctly name their race or correctly respond to the question “how many races can you name?” In Graves’ class, the correct answer is that there is only one race, the human race. But Graves notes, “three people named three races, the classical ones: Negroid, Mongoloid, Caucasian. Nineteen people listed five to nine races — the census categories of Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian. Six people said greater than 10. One person said greater than 30. And three people said greater than 50 — in other words, they felt every country constituted a race. Again, these are junior students at a Research I university.”And the six correct answers? “They were students who knew me,” Graves laughs.Asked “where did human racial variation begin,” five people responded, “at the beginning of time.” “I said to them, ‘Do you mean 1980 when you were born or 19 billion years ago at the beginning of the universe?’ ” Graves says. One person said Pangaea: “the supercontinent that existed 300 million years ago — before there was even a mammal,” Graves notes. Twenty students correctly responded “in human prehistory,” while the rest cited the Tower of Babel story in Genesis or said they didn’t know.But the real eye-openers were the questions about racial differences. Asked if there were racial differences in intelligence, six people said yes, citing the superior performance of their Asian classmates. Asked about race-based differences in athletics, 14 said yes, citing the superior performance of Black athletes in basketball and football.Regarding reproductive differences, five people cited the larger genital size of African Americans. Eleven students cited sickle cell anemia as a “Black disease”— rather than a widely dispersed disease geographically associated with malaria. Eleven people said there were anatomical differences between races, citing the “extra tendon” that only Blacks have, said to be the reason “White men can’t jump.” And three people said there was a race-based predisposition to criminality.The questionnaire, Graves stresses, is only “an indication of where they start. By the end of the class, they’re transformed. The world is completely turned around for them. I have students complaining that the university should give them their money back because they’ve been misled and lied to for their entire academic careers.”But that transformation requires active intervention — and not just from the humanities fields traditionally associated with race studies.“Scientists have produced the data that show the socially constructed racial categories of our society do not mirror the genetic variability within our species,” Graves says. “We have an obligation to tell people that. This is a powerful revelation and, with it, biological racism cannot stand.” — By Kendra Hamilton
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Could training in implicit bias be helpful at your institution?