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Racial Issues Lose Urgency, Study Finds

Times Staff Writer

UCLA freshman Karina Hernandez doesn’t recall ever encountering discrimination as a Latina, and says she isn’t especially concerned with the issue of race and ethnic relations.

“For me, the racial boundaries are not there,” said Hernandez, an 18-year-old from Ontario planning to major in aerospace engineering.

Hernandez provides one explanation for a key conclusion drawn from a new survey of the nation’s college freshmen: They are less preoccupied with race and ethnicity.

The survey, being released today by UCLA researchers, found that a record high 22.7% of freshmen said racial discrimination was no longer a major problem in America.

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In addition, just 29.7% of the nation’s college freshmen characterized “helping to promote racial understanding” as an essential or very important personal goal. That was the lowest level ever in the 28 years that the poll has raised the question.

UCLA researchers said freshmen who have had encouraging experiences such as Hernandez’s -- growing up with friends of different racial and ethnic backgrounds -- partly explain the diminished concern about racial issues.

“Their comfort level has developed with people who are different from them, and they carry those relationships into college,” said Sylvia Hurtado, director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute and a coauthor of the survey report.

Hurtado said many freshmen who attended largely segregated high schools, particularly whites, haven’t been exposed to racial inequities that could generate greater concern about race relations.

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On balance, Hurtado said, the freshman views on race were troubling.

“There are different groups in society experiencing life differently in the United States, and that’s always historically been the case,” she said. “If they don’t see these issues as important, we won’t be able to change that.”

Student leaders and other undergraduates offered varying reactions to the results.

Diana Flynn, editor in chief of the student newspaper at the flagship campus of the University of Connecticut, said undergraduates feel less apprehensive than their parents did about dealing with people of other races and ethnicities. “Our comfort level has increased, so race is something we’re not as conscious of anymore,” said Flynn, who is white.

However, the UCLA survey also found that the percentage of entering freshmen who indicated that chances were “very good” that they would socialize with someone of a different racial or ethnic background during college had declined to 63.1%. That was down from 66.2% a year earlier, and was the lowest level since UCLA’s poll started including the question in 2000.

In addition, opinions differed significantly between whites and minorities on race-related questions. For instance, though 23.5% of white freshmen characterized helping to promote racial understanding as essential or very important, 54.8% of blacks and 43.6% of Latinos felt that way.

Amber White-Davidson, an African American junior at Emory University in Atlanta who is vice president of the campus’ Black Student Alliance, said she was shocked at the rising percentage of students who believe that racial discrimination is no longer a problem.

At the same time, White-Davidson said, the emergence of black leaders such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others at the highest levels of government and business might have justifiably convinced some students that racial problems have eased.

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White-Davidson said she has noticed an increased tendency of students to socialize within their own racial or ethnic groups. She speculated that the sense of uncertainty raised by the war in Iraq, concerns about terrorism and the recent tsunami have fueled a desire “to bond with your people.”

Anthony Lising Antonio, a Stanford University education expert who studies the effect of college on students and who reviewed some of the UCLA survey results, said the poll suggests that young people may be losing sight of the serious issues of race that persist. “I worry about these trends, because they may indicate that our youth are beginning to take on an attitude of color unconsciousness, a kind of colorblindness that allows them to ignore racial diversity,” he said.

Hernandez, however, brushed aside those worries. “You don’t need any extra, hard-core official concentration on learning about other cultures. It’ll just happen” as part of a student’s experience, she said.

The UCLA survey finding that a record 22.7% of freshmen believe that racial discrimination no longer is a major problem reflected a slight increase from 22.4% a year earlier and is up from an all-time low of 12.5% in 1993. UCLA researchers have asked that question every year since 1990.

As for the record low 29.7% of the nation’s college freshmen who placed a high personal priority on “helping to promote racial understanding,” that compared with a level of 30.5% a year earlier. It was down from a record high of 46.4% in 1992.

Among freshmen at California colleges, the poll found greater awareness or concern about racial issues than it did nationally. For example, 34.5% of the state’s freshmen placed a high priority on helping to promote racial understanding.

In other national results, the survey found that:

* Freshmen were more polarized politically. Students describing themselves as “middle of the road” remained the biggest group, at 46.4%, but that percentage was the smallest in more than 30 years and was down from 50.3% in 2003. Liberals accounted for 26.1% and conservatives 21.9%. Students describing themselves as “far left” climbed to 3.4%, and those as “far right” rose to 2.2% -- both record highs.

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* A record high 47.2% of freshmen said there was a very good chance that they would have to get a job during the year to pay for college expenses, versus a low of 35.3% in 1989.

* Students who reported frequently being bored in class during their last year of high school climbed to a record 42.8%, up from 40.1% a year earlier and from a low of 29.3% in 1985.

The survey -- titled “The American Freshman: National Forms for Fall 2004" -- was conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a unit of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

The findings were based on responses to a four-page questionnaire filled out last summer and fall by 289,452 entering freshmen at 440 four-year colleges around the country. The margin for error is 0.1% for the national results and 0.3% for the California results.


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