Segregation and the intraracial divide

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Kimberly Torres

Ph.D. Dissertation

Department of Sociology

University of Pennsylvania

As black enrollment has increased over the last several decades, much attention has also been paid to the pervasiveness of racism on campus and how it potentially impedes blacks’ scholastic performance and social integration. We know that black-white campus relations are tentative at best (e.g. Feagin et al. 1996). But despite the increasing numbers of blacks attending selective colleges and universities, and the desire of institutions to cast a wider net in terms of minority recruitment, to date there is relatively little attention paid to how intraracial diversity influences the college experience of black students. Two exceptions are Massey et al. (2003) and Smith and Moore (2000). Using the National Longitudinal Study of Freshmen (NLSF) at 28 selective colleges and universities across the country, Massey et al. document the salience of black student heterogeneity (as well as apparent white student homogeneity) and how intraracial differences affect academic and social outcomes within their sample. Unlike whites or Asians, black students in the NLSF were extremely diverse with respect to socioeconomic status (education of parents and income), neighborhood and school background (segregated versus integrated), family background (intact versus single parent), and nativity (native versus foreign-born). Blacks were also characterized by an extremely skewed sex ratio in favor of females.

Consistent with capital deficiency theory, black students with higher socioeconomic status (parents were college educated and financially stable), achieved better grades than those from less privileged backgrounds. Academic preparation directly correlated with both socioeconomic status and school background. Black students from integrated high schools came to college with higher grades, took more honors and advanced placement classes, and had more educational and extracurricular opportunities than those who attended segregated high schools. Students from segregated schools felt less prepared for college and revealed that the average quality of their high school educational resources were lower; their schools were often plagued with poverty and violence that impeded learning and they did not have as many opportunities to take accelerated classes or prepare for the SATs.

Although Massey et al. (2003) cite the importance of capital deficiencies and cultural differences in determining in black college achievement, they also investigate how black students’ racial attitudes are affected by residential and school segregation. Black students from segregated areas had the strongest common fate identity—that what affects other blacks with affect them—compared to their peers from mixed and predominately white areas. Conversely, blacks from predominately white neighborhoods felt less tuned into the life experiences of poor blacks and Latinos than did their same-race peers who had grown up in minority areas. Massey et al. (2003) find that black students with the strongest in-group and common fate identities are most vulnerable to stereotype threat because, at some level, they subscribe to the widespread belief that blacks are intellectually inferior. About 9% of the NSLF sample of black freshmen succumbed to stereotype threat, earning lower grades and had a much higher likelihood of failing courses than did the rest of the black students.

Given that approximately half of the black freshmen in the NLSF grew up in segregated areas and about one-third attended segregated schools (Massey et al. 2003: 203), segregation continues to be a crucial variable in determining elite black students’ college preparation. Because Massey et al.’s sample is survey-based, however, the authors are unable to report directly on how black students from integrated versus segregated backgrounds anticipate college and how differing perceptions of race affect academic performance and social acclimation.

In order to better understand black students’ social experiences and scholastic achievement at selective colleges and universities it is necessary to understand more fully how different types of black students navigate the collegiate context. The elite cachet of the University of Pennsylvania transcends various social circles, economic classes, and nationalities. Moreover, the institution’s publicized “commitment to diversity” and wide array of campus organizations and resources tailored to various ethnic, racial, and religious groups, including the Du Bois College house, where a large number of black students reside, attracts a very heterogeneous applicant pool.

In this chapter, I draw on in-depth interviews with 24 black students at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss how variations in high school and neighborhood segregation influence college expectations. I find that segregation is a key factor in conditioning not only black students’ academic preparation, but, also, in part, reveals how they made the decision to attend the University of Pennsylvania and their desire to immerse themselves in black social life on campus.

In their commentaries, students talked at length about their high school experiences. Despite the fact that the majority of the respondents grew up in residentially mixed or segregated areas, over 2/3rds attended predominately white high schools. High school had often been a fatiguing experience for them, where they had consistently been one of the few (or only) black students in their honor classes and where race took centerstage as they strove to prove themselves intellectually to their white peers and teachers. Without black peers there was even greater isolation and many reported feeling that that they had no one to relate to.

For students coming from majority white settings, the University of Pennsylvania was a big draw because of its urban location in a largely black city, the wealth of opportunities to participate in black cultural and social activities, and its widely circulated reputation as being “black friendly.” At the University of Pennsylvania many saw great potential to live and be around like-minded, upwardly mobile black students. For black students coming from segregated schools, there was an expectation that Penn would be a good place to find comfort living and socializing with a critical mass of same-race peers. Most felt that they would readily make black friends who shared their ideology and outlook on life while getting a great education.

The contrasting expectations of students from integrated versus segregated circumstances, however, set both groups up for social and psychological shock after they matriculated and began to interact. Those from integrated backgrounds found that race is still problematic, even when they have ready access to a black peer group. In fact, because of the extreme heterogeneity of the black student body on campus, race proved even more subject to contention than in high school and many students from an integrated background quickly realized that they could not get along with every black person they met. Meanwhile, those from segregated backgrounds also found that they had little in common (as they thought they would) with blacks from predominately white areas because they perceived them as lacking racial awareness and loyalty to the black peer group.

In terms of academics, students from segregated and mixed high schools felt less prepared for college. Analysis of my in-depth interviews as well as NLSF data, show that black University of Pennsylvania students who attended segregated high schools earned lower grades, came largely from segregated neighborhoods, and were often the first in their families to attend college. They received greater financial aid and were more likely to be native-born, multigenerational African Americans than their same-race peers from integrated circumstances, who were largely second generation immigrants of Caribbean or African parentage.

In this chapter, I examine how school and neighborhood segregation impact black students’ initial expectations of the University of Pennsylvania. I describe the family, neighborhood and school environments of black and white University of Pennsylvania students. White students unequivocally came from wealthy, predominately white suburban areas, whereas the black sample was more divided. Black students who went to integrated high schools were much more likely to come from college educated families, with higher incomes and stable white collar jobs than those students from segregated schools. They were also enrolled in smaller high school classes where they were one of a handful of blacks. Moreover, blacks from segregated areas moved fewer times over their childhood than integrated families who generally relocated from minority areas to predominately white neighborhoods by the time they were teenagers.

I then draw from discussions of interview respondents’ high school experiences to provide context for how black University of Pennsylvania students anticipated college. I compare the NLSF findings for the University of Pennsylvania sample with my interview data to analyze how segregation influences variations in black students’ academic preparation and performance at the University compared to their white counterparts. Segregation and socioeconomic status go hand and hand with few exceptions; black students from more integrated neighborhoods and schools come to the University of Pennsylvania with more economic and cultural capital than those from minority areas.

Next, I examine the various factors affecting black students’ college choice—why they chose to come to the University of Pennsylvania over other schools. The lure of attending an Ivy League school that is “black friendly” was a big draw for black students from segregated and integrated upbringings alike, as were specific minority recruitment efforts such as the Minority Scholar’s Weekend (an event for all accepted minority students to visit the University in the spring before freshman year) and the Africana Summer Institute (a week-long summer session of classes tailored for black freshmen to learn about African American history and culture while getting to know other black classmates) were important factors in shaping black students’ expectations and initial impressions of the University.

In the concluding section, I discuss how students’ expectations and initial impressions of college did not often match up with the reality of their lived experiences. Once they moved in and settled into campus life, students from segregated and integrated backgrounds become shocked and dismayed by the fact that their skin color was not always a unifying factor and that the divisions within the black student population were often more than skin deep.

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