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Why Don’t the Races Mingle More? : Campus: Many students are ill at ease with those of other groups, but their efforts to break down barriers are in earnest.

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On Aug. 28, 1963, exactly 28 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and set forth his dream of equality. Americans thought then that racial harmony was on the horizon and, for those of us in academe, the horizon did not seem far distant.

Yet today, educators are called upon increasingly to explain the causes of racial tension on American campuses. Why, we are asked, cannot minority students and white students get along better? Why do African-Americans and other minority students sometimes seek to remain by themselves, especially in the dining halls?

In thinking about these questions, we need to remind ourselves that minority students are not the only ones who in fact are apt to sit together, in separate groups, at the same dining tables. So do football players, engineering majors and graduates of the same preparatory schools. No one notices when these groups of students sit together--or if they do, no one seems to find such conduct unusual.

But when minority students choose to sit together--doubtless for much the same reasons as other students do--some people do notice and some react negatively. My point is simply that we should use a single standard in judging the complex motivations of friendship and the need for social support that animate student behavior.

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Moreover, the questions I have cited assume, erroneously, that efforts to attract minority students have created these social dilemmas. In fact, relations of equality between persons of different races is a relatively new experience in the history of this country. Many of today’s students come to college without ever having had sustained interaction with students of different races or different economic backgrounds. Many lack a level of social ease with minorities, which in turn inhibits the ready development of personal relationships. We would be naive to expect these relations, at this point, to be free from friction or tension.

Students attending colleges and universities today--white and black, majority and minority--are part of a transitional generation, the members of which are learning to relate to one another in ways not yet entirely familiar and comfortable. But they are doing so with an earnestness and good faith that in the end will create a far better climate for the achievement of true equality than this country has yet known.

A certain degree of tension on the issue of race relations may actually be a sign of good health for an institution. The challenge is an educational one: to foster learning among students of diverse backgrounds by encouraging discourse, tolerance, civility and engagement--what the late Dartmouth President John S. Dickey called “honest-to-God accommodation.”

More than ever before, we all have to live and work with each other. College is the best of those places where we learn to do so. And for all of the occasional points of tension, the success stories still far outnumber the moments of friction.

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Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King described a day when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . . (when) little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

It is on American college campuses, perhaps more than at any other place in our society other than the military, that the dream is closest to being achieved. Every term, I see college students working through significant moral dramas, and I remain encouraged by what I see. If the college years are a dress rehearsal for the life that begins at commencement, then the interaction occurring on American college campuses brings the racial harmony that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a little closer to achievement.


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