“African-American History” was the only class I would have at Notre Dame — or any educational institution — with equal numbers of black and white students. Racial tensions ran relatively high at ND in 1991. A group called SUFR (Students United for Respect) had formed, and in a few weeks about 100 of its black and Hispanic members would hold a 12-hour sit-in outside the registrar’s office to demand, among other things, a multicultural center, compulsory black and Latin American studies courses, more minority faculty and an anti-harassment policy.
Against this backdrop, it wasn’t unusual for students in this particular class to veer from the text. One day a white student spoke up. “I’m just curious,” he said, addressing the black students. “If you want to be integrated here, why do you all sit together in the cafeteria?”
It seemed like a fair inquiry. In fact, I didn’t know a single white student — including me — who hadn’t wondered the same thing. But the reaction from some of the black students surprised me. They laughed.
“You all sit together, too!” came the answer.
No we don’t, I thought. We just sit with our friends from the dorm. (Sorin Hall’s third floor always went to dinner early, around 5:15.) And then it hit me. If “self-segregation” was the issue here, we were literally guilty by association. It was easy to look near the center of South Dining Hall and point out “the black table.” But my friends and I also had a group of tables we claimed every night. We segregated ourselves not only by race, but by gender, dorm—even floor.
I thought about this experience during the recent Supreme Court case regarding the University of Michigan’s undergraduate and law school admissions policies. At the heart of the affrimative-action controversy is a single question: Can a university consider having a racially representative student body an “educational benefit”? Although Notre Dame is a private institution, and thus not bound by the same laws as a public university like Michigan, the core concern still applies, and my instinctive answer is a resounding “yes.”
For some, the issue of preferential treatment in admissions is, fittingly, black and white. And indeed, from a cold legal perspective, it’s easy to argue that affirmative action policies are intrinsically discriminatory. The truth, however, is far more complex.
When I look back at my educational experience at Notre Dame, I firmly believe it was top-notch. I was fortunate to spend a year studying and traveling in Europe and the Middle East. My classes were stimulating. The physical environment promoted a spiritual weight that called you to concerns larger than your own.
But 12 years later, I can still say that nothing had more impact than my two semesters of African-American History. I learned plenty from Professor Marcia Sawyer and the materials in the syllabus, but it’s the stories that stick in my memory. Tales of black students being stopped by campus security for no reason. White students drunkenly accusing black students (including one straight-A engineering undergrad) of “lowering the University’s standards.” The white running mate of a black student-government hopeful receiving a tapeful of racist and obscene phone messages.
If Notre Dame hadn’t made the effort to increase its minority student base, would I have known the extent to which people in my age, religious, racial and socioeconomic demographic are capable of such moral failure and intellectual laziness?
Now, when a white person criticizes the entire black community for the actions of one man who makes the evening news — and then writes off people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski as simply “insane” — I see the cafeteria double-standard in the real world: Even among murderers, whites are individuals.
As a Catholic institution in America, Notre Dame will always appeal to a primarily white demographic. To some extent, that’s beyond its control. But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that this group has precious few chances to experience not only diversity but intellectual accountability. That comes only when you sit in a class like African-American History — with African-American students — and listen. It is only then that you can turn the mirror of scrutiny back onto your own collective conscience. And that’s when true learning takes place.
I wish all university admissions would reflect the American population without intervention. But, as my African-American History class taught me, ours is far from a perfect world.