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Diversity at its Whitest

A report on U.S. colleges raises the question: How do we talk about diversity when whites are the minority?
 
 
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The methodology U.S. News & World Report uses for its annual "Campus Diversity" rankings may be race neutral, but the language accompanying it is not. In the widely read "America's Best Colleges," whites can never be a "minority" -- even on campuses where whites are in the minority.

In 130 "Campus Diversity" listings on Pages 55-56 of "America's Best Colleges" -- and hundreds more listings on the U.S. News website -- whites are never listed under the category "Largest minority and its percentage." Even if whites are the largest minority on campus, which is true for more than 60 schools, they remain the unspoken majority.

To how great an extreme is this carried?

Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a 20 percent white campus population, lists its "largest minority" as African American, with percent. Florida International University, with a 19 percent white campus population, lists its "largest minority" as Hispanic, at 60 percent. University of Hawaii, Manoa, with a 21 percent white campus population, lists its "largest minority" as Asian American, at 74 percent.

The list goes on, all the way up to 98 percent "minority" in some of the 60-plus cases. So the "majority race" rules, even on campuses where whites are in the minority.

"You're right about that," said Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News. "Your point is right, but you can debate your point." Morse said U.S. News' diversity rankings are done "from the context of the majority race. It's done from the context of what society, broadly speaking, generally considers a 'minority,' and what higher education calls a 'minority.'"

But what message does that send, when U.S. News -- arguably the bible of college rankings -- tacitly assumes white majority status on every campus? The solution seems simple: Why not list "white" as a minority on campuses where whites are, indeed, the largest minority? Morse, though, returns to his "societal" definition of minority.

That rankles Eddie Moore Jr., director of intercultural life at Central College in Pella, Iowa. "Caucasians are not always the majority," Moore said. "To know that and continue to use the power (of majority) to exclude others is supremacy. This is a blatant misuse of power to continue to benefit the most privileged minority on this planet."

For its so-called "diversity index," the U.S. News formula answers the straightforward question, "How likely is it for a student of any race or ethnicity to encounter a student of a different race or ethnicity on a given campus?"

Under the formula, a campus with equal populations of all categorized races and ethnicities would score a perfect "1" on the diversity index. A campus with a 100 percent population of any one race or ethnicity would score a zero. U.S. News' most diverse campuses score in the .60-.75 range.

Morse calls the formula "race-neutral," which it is. But the mindset that created the terminology surrounding the presentation of this data certainly is not. The issue is not the math or methodology; the issue is the tacit acceptance that whites should always be considered a majority.

In print and online, only African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and American Indians -- never whites -- are listed under the heading "Largest minority and its percentage" for each campus.

This affects any school where a racial or ethnic group other than white is the majority. In all, more than 60 schools nationally are affected by this shortsighted terminology; each of them lists a "minority" that actually holds majority status on campus.

Even more schools would be affected, but dozens of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have a historical pattern of not providing racial and ethnic data to U.S. News. (Ironically, the only HBCU to make the shorter, print-edition "Campus Diversity" list is Lincoln University in Missouri -- which has become a majority white school.)

"Certainly in most places in the country outside the historically black college world, African Americans are considered a minority group," Morse said. "Only in a small world -- and maybe neighborhoods, school systems that aren't integrated ... yes, churches." Morse trailed off, paused, then added, "Blacks in the world of higher education are considered minorities. We're on firm ground (with this terminology)."

Paul Kivel, author of Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, disagrees. "White people often refer to the common usages and practices of other white people to justify racism, not realizing that this just proves the point that they are using a white-centered frame of reference," Kivel said.

He added, "The 'firm ground' [U.S. News] claims to stand on is shifting dramatically."