Posted on May 5, 2008

Race on Campus: Beyond Obama, The Unity Stops After Campaign Rallies,

Jonathan Kaufman, Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2008

Walking into his “Race and Politics” class recently, David Sparks, a white Duke University political-science graduate student, considered whether to move from his usual seat in the group of white students who always clustered at one end of the seminar table to sit with the black students who typically sat at the other end.

Mr. Sparks didn’t do it. “It would have felt too conspicuous,” he says. Still, on Tuesday’s primary here, Mr. Sparks plans to vote for Sen. Barack Obama for president. That’s an easier choice, he says.

“When you’re actually trying to change your behavior, you are putting more on the line compared to voting in the privacy of the booth,” he says. “There are millions and millions of people voting for Obama. In no way are you sticking your neck out.”

Across the country, college campuses have become hotbeds of support for Sen. Obama. {snip}

But after classes—and after the occasional Obama rally—most black and white students on college campuses go their separate ways, living in separate dormitories, joining separate fraternities and sororities and attending separate parties.


Jazmyn Singleton, a black Duke senior agrees, After living in a predominantly white dorm freshman year, she lives with five African-American women in an all-black dormitory. “Both communities tend to be very judgmental,” says Ms. Singleton, ruefully. “There is pressure to be black. The black community can be harsh. People will say there are 600 blacks on campus but only two-thirds are ‘black’ because you can’t count blacks who hang out with white people.”

The racial divisions among college students are striking both because of the fervor for Obama and the increasing diversity on campus. Colleges offer a unique opportunity for students to get to know each other in a relaxed atmosphere where many of the issues that often divide blacks and whites, like income and educational levels, are minimized amid the common goals of going to class, playing sports and going to parties.


The Obama campaign has created another opportunity for blacks and whites on campuses to interact. At the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill, “seeing someone wearing an Obama pin is a reason for a connection,” says Tessa Bialek, a white junior. “It’s a reason to wave to someone on the way to class.”


But working or voting for an African-American running for president doesn’t necessarily bridge differences—on campus or, later, in the workplace. Following a recent discussion in one of his classes about the campaign, in which most students expressed support for Sen. Obama, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke sociologist, asked his white students how many had a black friend on campus. All the white students raised their hands.

He then asked the black students how many of them had a white friend on campus. None of them raised their hands.

The more he probed, Mr. Bonilla-Silva says, the more he realized that the definition of friendship was different. The white students considered a black a “friend” if they played basketball with him or shared a class. “It was more of an acquaintance,” recalls Mr. Bonilla-Silva.

Black students, by contrast, defined a friend as someone they would invite to their home for dinner. By that measure, none of the students had friends from the opposite race. Mr. Bonilla-Silva says when white college students were asked in series of 1998 surveys about the five people with whom they interacted most on a daily basis, about 68% said none of them were black. When asked if they had invited a black person to lunch or dinner recently, about 68% said “no.” He says his own research and more recent studies show similar results.


Some blacks respond that black students—like all students—room with people they are comfortable with. What’s more, they say living among backs eases some of the pressure and isolation of being a minority at a predominantly white institution.