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Talking Past Each Other



Minorities make up about one-third of Harvard's population. But what happens on a campus where the population generally considered the "majority" is in the numerical minority?

In 25 years, the University of California at Berkeley has seen some dramatic changes, according to Troy Duster, a sociology professor there.

The composition of Berkeley's student body went from about 90 percent white in the mid-1960s to about 45 percent white today. At Berkeley, Duster explains, diversity is an extremely loaded term. "It's an actual demographic issue," he says. "It wasn't just a buzzword."

Duster conducted a two-year study, "Project Diversity," in which he studied relations between different minority groups on campus.

Berkeley is a highly selective school that attracts many more qualified applicants than it is able to accept. In addition to academic record, cultural background is considered by the admissions committee, Duster says. The median grade point average (GPA) for white and Asian admittees is 4.0. The median GPA for Black and Hispanic admitees is 3.5.

Duster says that minority applicants are clearly qualified to attend Berkeley. But he says media coverage has portrayed this as a problem--and popular writers like Dinesh D'Souza and George Will don't realize that affirmative action is not affecting the quality of the student body.

"Most of my colleagues don't know it, either," Duster says. "The students believe that what's going on is that they're admitting less qualified students."

That belief, combined with miscommunication between white students and minority students, contributes to campus disunity, Duster says. The two groups arrive on campus, Duster says, with positive attitudes toward diversity. But they approach the subject very differently.

"White students in general...tend to see diversity as attractive, but at an individual level--that's what they mean by diversity," Duster says.

Black and Hispanic students, Duster says, "equate positive attitudes towards diversity with organizational, institutional or structural changes that ratify diversity."

Minority students at Berkeley take offense when their white peers voice complaints about affirmative action, or oppose the creation of an ethnic studies program, Duster says.

And the white students, who expect to make a diverse group of friends but don't see the need for institutional change, don't understand why they are facing hostility, he says.

The end result, Duster says, is not dialogue, but "students who are talking past each other."

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