Race on Campus: Beyond Obama, The Unity Stops
After Campaign Rallies, Black, White Students Go Their Separate Ways
By JONATHAN KAUFMAN
May 3, 2008; Page A1
DURHAM, N.C. -- 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. Nationally, 70% of Democrats ages 18 to 24 favor Sen.
Obama compared with 30% for Hillary Clinton, according to a recent
poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics. Many black and many white
students wear their Obama buttons and "Got Hope?" T-shirts proudly as
a sign that they are part of a post-Civil-Rights generation more
welcoming of change and diversity than their parents.
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.
"It's much harder to be a white person and go to an all black party at
Duke than vote for Obama, says Jessie Weingartner, a Duke junior. "On
a personal level it is harder to break those barriers down."
Jazmyn Singleton, a black Duke senior agrees, After living in a
pre***ly 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.
About 10% of Duke students are African-American, compared to 4.5% two
decades ago; they include many popular athletes as well as student
leaders. The newly elected head of the graduate and professional
student association is an African-American woman. Black and white
students live together in the same group of dorms during freshman
year, though they can join fraternities and sororities and select
their roommates starting in sophomore year.
Like many colleges, Duke sponsors initiatives to address race
relations on campus, an effort that gained added impetus following the
widely publicized incident two years ago when white lacrosse players
hired a black *** to perform at a party and the woman then
falsely accused several of the students of raping her.
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."
"When I am working on the Obama campaign I really don't see a person's
race," says Kandis Wood, an African American senior at Duke.
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
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.
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.
Ben Bergmann, a white freshman and head of the Duke Democrats who has
been volunteering for the Obama campaign and traveled to South
Carolina to canvass voters, says he enjoys the campaign "because a lot
of different people come together and there is a real sense of
togetherness. There is no awkwardness between blacks and whites."
On campus, however, social barriers remain, Mr. Bergmann says. "There
is a black guy in my dorm and we hang out -- there is a core group of
like 30 people and we will all hang out on a Friday night. But I don't
think we would hang out one-on-one. I don't think he would call me up
or I would call him up."
Some white students at Duke and other schools blame racial division on
the fraternity and sorority system, which breaks down along racial
lines, and the presence of "themed" housing which allows black
students to live together.
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 pre***ly white institution.
"When I was at Williams [in Williamstown, Mass.] I thought I had a lot
of white friends," says Ashley Brown, a black graduate student at
Duke. "But I look on Facebook and I see that they all go to visit each
other. But none of them come down here to visit me." She pauses. "Of
course, I haven't gone to see them either."
This semester, Max Entman, a white Duke senior who is voting for Sen.
Obama, took a class called "Cultural Politics and Soul Music" taught
by one of Duke's most-popular African-American professors. Unlike most
Duke classes, this class was pre***ly African-American. "It was
the most racially evocative experience I have had at Duke," he says.
"It's the one place where I had the most interaction with black
students, talking about racial issues, racism, black identity, black
Looking back, Mr. Entman says he regrets one thing. As part of the
class, students had to attend five concerts of soul music outside of
He went to the concerts with his white roommate.