Progress At Glacial Speed Equals Tokenism

By: Lee A. Daniels

Director of Publications

National Urban League
[Guest columnist]

It was, as has been famously said, a moment that was like déjà vu all over again.

The story on the front page of a recent New York Times, headlined “Colleges Find Diversity Is Not Just Numbers,” struck me like a blast from the past, and the effect triggered another reflection—this one along the lines of an even older saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The story focused on the Ivy League's Dartmouth College and described the efforts of it and some other of the nation's more prestigious colleges and universities to get more of their undergraduates to, as the report put it, “connect across racial and ethnic lines.”

Well, I'm all for that, I thought, and not just in general terms. I have a very specific personal stake in supporting this kind of progress.

After all, in the late 1960s I myself enrolled in a prestigious private college, Harvard, the beneficiary of not only a superior public-school education but also the powerful winds of change loosed by the Civil Rights Movement.

And I had a very good time at Harvard, even as I joined with other black and white students in several necessary and necessarily tumultuous moments of protest. I've always had an abiding—but not uncritical—affection for it and for all colleges and universities that try to push students to do their best.

My undergraduate days three decades ago marked the assumption by higher education of the chief responsibility within American society for fostering racial integration, for moving this country away from the vicious, anti-democratic habits it wallowed in during the era of Jim Crow.

Its taking up that responsibility was led by colleges like Harvard and Dartmouth and it immediately provoked concerted attacks from some quarters on them. They were, it was said, “lowering standards”—the newly minted conservative code phrase then—to enroll black students.

This was at a time when the actual numbers of black students in these colleges was miniscule and the numbers being admitted were not that much above tokenism, either.

For example, my Harvard Class, the Class of 1971, totaled 1200 boys. Less than 45 of us were African-American. The Class of 1971 at Radcliffe College, Harvard's sister college, which then admitted female students separately, numbered 400; 15 of those girls were African-American. Those small numbers constituted the largest number of blacks ever admitted to any Harvard and Radcliffe Class.

And in those days, that's pretty much all the “color” there was at Harvard and Radcliffe: Asian-American, Latino-American and American Indian students (and students from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, too) were all so few as to be virtually invisible.

That invisibility and “aloneness” for all students of color has moderated as their numbers have grown—to the continued consternation of conservatives and centrists who claim to be for racial integration but speak against every method higher education has adopted to foster it. That hypocritical pose hasn't changed since my undergraduate days thirty some years ago.

Back then, I and many of my fellow black students quickly realized that some whites who claimed to support integration actually wanted tokenism. They wanted these institutions to continue to enroll only a few Negroes.

They saw the presence of a few of us as, literally, tokens of their racial tolerance and goodness. Other than that, we had no human meaning for them; we were symbols without substance, simply figments of their fevered imagination.

When the numbers of black students at prestigious white colleges moved past the lowest thresholds of tokenism in the late 1960s, we black students remained figments of their imaginations. It's just that their imaginations became more darkly fevered.

Before one criticizes college administrators and faculty and students for paying too much attention to race, ethnicity and gender on their campuses, take a look at the rest of American society—where tokenism reigns.

What's the number of black and Latino managers of major league baseball teams—a half-century after Jackie Robinson broke the league's color barrier?

Want to bet that Tyrone Willingham's stunning first-year success as head football coach at Notre Dame will sharply—or even noticeably—increase the tiny number of black head coaches at major football colleges?

How many residential apartment buildings and neighborhoods are still closed to African Americans?

How many jobs are effectively still reserved for whites, the bar against people of color hidden behind glib references to “merit?”

It was at Harvard that I learned that for all the validity of many standardized mechanisms of judgment, much of what is said to be “merit” is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.

Those colleges and universities committed to pushing past the boundaries of tokenism as fast as possible are right. Tokenism is the mirage of integration, not the reality.

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