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Black and White in the Ivy: The Ethnic cul-de-sac

By Martin L. Kilson jr.

When I entered college some 25 years ago, just about 85 per cent of all blacks attending college were enrolled at Negro colleges. Today this situation is reversed--some 80 per cent of blacks in college attend white colleges.

This shift began slowly in the early 1960s and, owing to the pressure of black students on white campuses during the late 1960s, the liberal administrators made special efforts to expand the number of black students. Thus, by 1970 some 1759 of the 11,716 freshmen (10 per cent) offered admission to 15 elite colleges in the East were black. For example, Yale's freshman class in the 1970-71 college year was 12 per cent black, Harvard's 10 per cent, Princeton's 16 per cent, Barnard's 22 per cent, and Radcliffe's 17 per cent.

On the other hand, the number of blacks at elite white colleges some 30 to 40 years earlier was insignificant by comparison. Seldom were there, for example, more than 20 blacks Harvard in any given year during that era. A more fundamental difference, however, was that the small numbers precluded a pattern of all-black peer relationships and pressures. Each black student was forced, therefore, to navigate the unique achievement norms and success-patterns without the intervention of black solidarity agencies and attitudes.

This resulted in a much more variegated adaptation profile for black students in the earlier period than over the past decade. Furthermore, this multi-faceted and transcultural (that is, trans-ethnic) adaptation pattern of black students at elite colleges during the years 1920-1960s produced a quality of upper middle-class professionals, businessmen, scientists and technicians that has never been surpassed.

These earlier products of elite white colleges had, moreover, an infinitely more vicious and extensive pattern of racism to endure. And though today's blacks at white colleges use an anti-white rhetoric that claims a more onerous or devious confrontation with racism than before, this is a mistaken perception and many who hold it do so dishonestly, or at least as part of a fantasy of rebellion.

It is seldom recognized by today's black students that the small number of blacks at top-rank white schools before the 1960s was extremely skillful at exploiting the unique success-patterns at these institutions.

Above all else, black students in the pre--1960s era grasped the fundamental significance of broad-gauged interaction and success-oriented relationships available at top-rank colleges such as Harvard. They also recognized something that other upwardly mobile students from stigmatized white ethnic groups such as Jews and Catholics grasped equally well--that elite colleges play a disproportionately large role in training those Jews, Catholics, and blacks who compete for leading national or cosmopolitan positions in business, science, scholarship, politics, law and medicine.

The significance of this situation can be seen in statistics for the period 1920s-1940s. For example, although barely 10 per cent of blacks in college during these years attended white institutions, some 227 of the 525 blacks (43 per cent) who received doctoral degrees in these years got their grounding in success orientation at top-rank white schools such as Harvard. This was true, for example, of virtually all the black professional historians and social scientists of this period (for example, Carter Woodson--University of Chicago; Rayford Logan--Williams College; Allison Davis--Williams College; John Aubrey Davis--Williams College; Robert Weaver--Harvard College; Ralph J. Bunche--University of California; and Frank Snowden--Harvard College).

A look at the postgraduate study of black Harvard graduates provides another view of the unique success-pattern among blacks at Harvard in the pre-1960s era. Of some 232 black Harvard graduates for whom data is available for the years from 1920 to the early 1960s, at least 55 per cent entered graduate or professional schools. And if those students who entered government service as bureaucrats are included--for most of them had postgraduate training--then the proportion of black graduates going to advanced study in the pre-1960s era is nearer to 70 per cent. This is comparable, and probably superior, to the figure for white Harvard graduates in the same period. By contrast, seldom in these years did more than 5 per cent of the graduates of black colleges pursue advanced degrees.

The occupational distribution of Negro graduates of Harvard in the era 1920s-1960s was also exceptional. Nearly 20 per cent entered business, 8 per cent science and technology, 13 per cent scholarship, 18 per cent medicine and 15 per cent law. On the other hand, the vast majority of graduates of Negro colleges in this period followed careers in education--overwhelmingly as public school teachers.

Thus a significant number of black graduates of Harvard and similar colleges in the years 1920s to early 1960s entered the national or cosmopolitan elites. It is also apparent that a number of black graduates of elite colleges also joined th local elites in Negro communities around the country. In this latter role, they taught in superior Negro high schools like Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., edited Negro newspapers, were prominent lawyers, doctors, politicians, etc.

In view of this evidence of the contribution of the pre-1960s' black graduates of white colleges to th local elites in black communities, it is extraordinary to find numerous black separatist students at Harvard and elsewhere expressing the uninformed rhetoric about yesterday's black graduates of white colleges ignoring the black community. Indeed, today's black students involved in black solidarity behavior have somehow convinced themselves that such behavior serves, among other things, to ensure that when leaving white college like Harvard they will attend to the needs and interests of blacks much more than black graduates in the pre-1960s era.

This, of course, is simply self-serving mythmaking on the part of today's blacks at white colleges, many of whom do not display the discipline and seriousness toward achievement and toward exploiting success-patterns at Harvard and elsewhere on a scale comparabale to the pre-1960s blacks at white schools. Such myth-makiing (based upon no hard evidence about the occupational and mobility patterns of yesterday's graduates of Harvard) serves the unfortunate function of shielding black students from the no-win implications of their black solidarity isolation--especially their isolation from broad-guaged interactions with their white peers and from the success-patterns associated with such interactions.

Though the past several years have seen some dissolution of the no-win ethnic solidarity patterns among Harvard blacks, the attenuation of this behavior has still not gone far enough. Nor will this occur until we have more of those black students who exploit and make use of the vast variety of superior success-patterns that prevail at top-rank white colleges.

There is, I think no single blueprint by which to overcome black students' isolation from success-oriented relationships at white colleges. Any such blueprint, moreover, would be unacceptable, because it would involve a herd-like strategy of response to the problem, lacking imagination and spontaneity. The best way out of the thumb-sucking ethnic cul-desac tht characterizes a major sector of black students here and elsewhere should involve each student defining his or her own cosmopolitan or transcultural strategy on white campuses. Innovation and uniqueness of response should be the hallmark of a new era of transcrultural behavior by blacks at white institutions.

Thus in the first instance, ending the ethnic dead-end that plagues blacks at white colleges should entail as many different choices and modes and styles there are black students:

Walking around the Physics lab table to a non-black peer to strike up discourse about an experimental method or to give advice or seek advice about a troublesome theorem;

Leaning across the listening booth in the language lab to compare a French pronounciation;

Testing one's concept of a film's symbolism on the student in the neighboring seat in a Visual Arts course.

In short, there is simply a plethora of contexts and circumstances in which each black student at Harvard can end the black isolation that chokes off the full range of benefits that are available at white colleges. There is no sense in waiting for all black students to move to embrace these variegated success-patterns as a precondition for any particular black doing so. There is, after all, a massive weight of habit surrounding the past decade of black solidariy behavior, and nowhere has it been overcome tout de suite.

Each black student must, therefore, act on his or her own. Each must, in the words of Booker T. Washington, "drop you bucket where you are," which means that each student must act within his or her immediate context, and wait not upon the weight of the herd to propel change.

Finally, it must be recognized that, given the massive economic and mobility needs of half of the Negro population (the marginal working class and lower class), it makes no sense whatever for black students to enter the nationl job market without first having maximized widespread peer linkages--both friendship and strategic in nature--with as many white and non-black students as possible. In time, these transcultural peer ties can be more than merely individual benefits; as some of one's white peer becom governors, financiers, managers, legislators, etc., the peer linkages forged at Harvard become potential agencies of actions that might have great benefit to, for example, skill-training policies for unskilled and semiskilled black ghetto youths. Both public policy and private deavors related to such issues concerning average black can be influenced be personal ties--its that begin right here at Harvard College.

Yet there are still today too many black students at white colleges who cling to black separatist fantasy of black self-sufficiency in regard to overcoming such massive problems as the viable employment of black youths--or so they pretend. This pretense of anti-white radicalism has been carried much too far. Issue-connected radicalism is one thing--I support some of it--but the back separatist fantasy of self sufficiency has outlived even its cathartic utility. The sooner black students at white colleges end this game of "putt'n on the man"--with the twisted result of also putting on themselves--the sooner blacks as a whole can move toward fuller mobility in American life.

Martin L. kilson Jr. is professor of Government. Occupations  Number  Percent Medicine  42  18.1 Law  37  15.9 Bureaucrats (Civil Servants)  36  15.5 Business  (44)  19.0 Commerce-Manufacturing  19 Publishing  13 Finance-Insurance  6 Communications  3 Agriculture  1 Real Estate  1 Transportation  1 Education (Scholars)  31  13.4 Science  11  4.7 Writing  7  3.0 Music  6  2.6 Engineering  5  2.2 Military Officer Corps  4  1.7 Architecture  3  1.3 Divinity  3  1.3 Theater  3  1.3   ---  ---- Total  232  100%

Data provided by Caldwell Titcomb '47, professor of music at Brandeis Universiy, who is preparing the first major history of blacks at Harvard.

Data provided by Caldwell Titcomb '47, professor of music at Brandeis Universiy, who is preparing the first major history of blacks at Harvard.

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