When news broke one month ago that an unsanctioned white student union was organizing on the campus of Georgia State University, the story quickly garnered national attention. To some, freshman organizer Patrick Sharp's declaration of white pride resembled the rhetoric of the Old South refashioned for a new age of racial angst. To others, he was merely advocating for his own kind.
Amid the hype surrounding Sharp - and the uncovering of his alleged ties to white supremacist website Stormfront.org - what got lost was the opportunity to have a larger conversation about race on a campus that's practically a Petri dish for urban diversity.
Contrary to the rosy picture that's promoted, there are some thorny issues surrounding diversity at traditionally white institutions like Georgia State University. According to one former administrator, the racial and ethnic mix on the Atlanta campus has reached "a tipping point." That's also what Dr. Dhanfu Elston titled his 2011 Ph. D. dissertation in educational policy studies, which focused on the growing phenomenon of white student disengagement on the campus. It's resulted in a much less radical response than Sharp's from the majority of white students on campus, but one that could potentially have a severe impact.
What Dr. Elston discovered through his research was the existence of a racial threshold in participation he likens to white flight, at which point white students began to disengage from traditional student organizations at the school. He drew his conclusions from qualitative research. But he also looked at the history of the 100-years-old institution, which faced its first big race relations ordeal just 20 years ago. In 1992, students staged a sit-in inside then-president Carl Patton's office in reaction to the lack of response from the university after a white Sigma Nu fraternity member wrote a racial epithet on a trashcan and placed it in front of
an African American Greek-lettered fraternity's the meeting room of another white fraternity, Kappa Sigma, which had recently admitted a black student. (It marked the first time that a traditionally white Greek-letter fraternity on campus admitted an African-American.) The university's African American Studies Department was established as a result of the protesting students' demands.
A protest against the formation of Sharp's white student union is scheduled for 6 p.m. today (Thurs., Sept. 5) on the campus of Georgia State University.
According to GSU's Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Douglas Covey, the ethnic breakdown of the student body in Fall 2012 was 12.6 percent Asian, 35.7 percent black, 41.4 percent white, 3.8 percent multi-racial, and 6 percent not identified. To put those numbers in context, I talked to Dr. Elston, an African-American native of Compton, Calif., about some of the deeper issues gleaned from his research on white student disengagement at GSU and what it may mean for the future of diversity at the school and, potentially, throughout the nation.
What made you curious enough about diversity on the campus to explore it for your dissertation?
Before I even knew I wanted to do research on it, I was working in student affairs, where I was coordinating student leadership programs, Greek life, and student organizations. When we'd have conversations with students white and black and all ethnicities and races, [it] kept coming up over and over again about the lack of white students' participation. So that was really the beginning for me to explore it a little bit more and to learn more about the history of Georgia State University as well as where we're going as an institution. Because we tout ourselves as one of the most promising institutions for minority students, we graduate one of the highest numbers of African American students, yet there's this undertone and underlying social climate that people don't tend to talk about publicly very often.
So what did you discover?
Georgia State is touted as being this 'urban institution.' What I found was that the language was very different for scholars and in some cases people of color versus white students. So we talked about it being urban as in a university within a city [located] in this metropolitan area and having access to all these companies. But when I talked to the white students, "urban" meant lesser than; it meant black.
So when they talked about it, it was almost like the word "urban" was an expletive. I also found that some of the students had a big issue with and discomfort in being a racial minority in certain settings - whereas that's been the life of students of color for as long as they can remember in higher education.
And it didn't even take a ridiculous amount of individuals. The title of my dissertation was "The Tipping Point." And that idea of a tipping point comes from housing patterns. People talk about white flight, so there's a threshold where you start seeing individuals [come to] a neighborhood before you start seeing an outflow of the [other] group. So I wanted to see if there was any connection between those numbers in higher education. And what I found is that it was. Many of the white students started moving out when that racial tipping point hit about 30 percent [of the number of non-white students participating in an organization]. And I think that mirrors the admissions numbers. Once we start seeing 30 percent students of color at Georgia State, then we start seeing more of an outflow of white students.
I would ask them questions like, 'If you wanted to feel comfortable in an organization, what would it have to look like?' And they'd say, 'It'd have to be at least half-white.' So what that showed me was that - first of all, we're never going back in that direction - as a society we're becoming progressively more brown. And if they're telling me that the only way they're going to feel comfortable is if everything is at least majority white, then there are going to be some issues.
And I think that the stuff going on right now is an indicator of that racial tipping point moving.
What was your initial reaction when you heard about the White Student Union forming at GSU?
In your dissertation you refer to the plaza in front of Pullen Library and how some white students admitted to feeling intimidated or ostracized by the environment and music played out there.
Absolutely, it was one of the primary things that came up consistently in my discussions. A lot of the white students referred to the Plaza because on certain days of the week - Tuesdays and Thursdays - it would be a break in classes between that 12 to 1 p.m. hour. What happens is as more black students start getting involved, they start producing the same types of events that they like to see culturally. So you start to see a little bit more hip-hop. You start seeing different types of [activities] that reflect the culture of the students that are involved. And a number of the white students talked about the environment and feeling nervous about being in that environment or how they would avoid that particular environment.
Which I thought was interesting because one of the authors that I cited in my dissertation talked about how students of color tend to congregate in social spaces. Because in a campus where they have been minorities in the past, they have to find places where they can get with each other. So that might be the student center, it might the black cultural center, or the multicultural center depending on the institution. And what happens is you see those students, and white students tend to overestimate the size of the group. So if you come on campus at noon on Tuesday, you might think Georgia State is 80 percent black. When in actuality, it's only 30 percent, but you just caught them at a peak time when they are congregating with one another. But it has an implication because when I did my study, one of the white students worked [on campus] as a tour guide and he mentioned that they were told to not take individuals during tours through the Plaza because they wanted to kind of steer away from certain areas.
Do you see any of this as a reflection of American society on a larger scale or where we're going in the future?
Yes, I do. Georgia State is what the country is going to look like 20 to 30 years from now as far as higher education. But many of my colleagues at other institutions are still dealing with 5 percent, 10 percent students of color. So they haven't even gotten to a place of seeing how that's going to affect campus life and the social structures. But those institutions that have moved in that direction - and it's not just Georgia State, I had the same conversations with colleagues of mine at Georgia Southern, Old Dominion - schools where it starts hitting that 30 percent number, that's where you start seeing that change because students of color they want to get involved.
Is there something as simple as a solution for this kind of thing?
Somebody told me a long time ago that when you deal with a previously marginalized group and they share a concern, believe them. Just listen, and have conversations. I think that as administrators - the history of Georgia State [is] almost like we've tried to manage diversity versus honoring it. And so, you've got to have people that are trying to figure out how we build bridges instead of just maintaining the ones that already exist.
I know Georgia State has a new assistant vice president of multicultural affairs. Even having somebody who has that kind of skill set is important, as long as they're being allowed to do what they were brought in to do and not just being a figurehead to manage the system.
I think we've gotta truly move into. If we're going to be this global, diverse campus, that has to be incorporated into the curriculum, that has to be incorporated into how student organizations are trained... . I think we've had a lot of situations where upper level administrators are just trying to make sure we don't end up in the news.
There's a complicated reality of diversity. We talk about diversity like 'Oh, it's a good thing.' But when it actually happens, nobody knows what to do with it. Nobody knows how to manage it - and not from the students that we're now providing access and engagement to, but then also from the white students that in some cases start feeling like they're being displaced.
It's kind of that same affirmative action conversation. When you're talking about resources, people have a tendency to say, 'If I'm not there then somebody else is winning.' And we've got to move beyond that win-lose dynamic and start thinking about how we all grow. And you've got to have the right people in place to be able to have those discussions. If you're just trying to manage it, you're just trying to keep kicking the can down the road without really getting to the crux of what's happening.
Dr. Dhanfu Elston currently serves as Director of Student Success and Transition in Perdue University Calumet's Academic Affairs Department. He plans to publish the findings resulting from his dissertation research.
Update: A change has been made to the post to reflect the correct details surrounding the 1992 student sit-in at GSU.
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