Self-Segregation and Racial Identity at Brandeis

Tonight is the first night of Passover, and I’m with the Hirschhorn family in Philadelphia. My mother’s brother, Larry, is an alumnus of Brandeis University; he now works as a high-priced business consultant here in Philly. I’m spending a few nights here before moving onto New York with Liza. My cousin Dan Hirschhorn, Larry’s son, is also an alumnus of this fine institution.

Unlike Larry, who went here in the 1960s, Dan graduated just last year. In his junior year, he was the editor-in-chief of the Newspaper of Record at Brandeis University, The Justice.

At dinner tonight, we discussed, at length, Brandeis politics and future careers. He mentioned in passing that while at The Justice he did a story on race relations at Brandeis that had gotten him fascinated in the issue of discrimination. I decided to snoop through The Justice‘s records to see what I could find.

Here is the the main story he wrote, and the two sidebars (equally fascinating) can be found here and here.

The thesis of the set of articles is that Brandeis’ institutions designed to promote diversity and inclusivity are partly responsible – along with racism – for the segregation and racial tensions at the University.

Dan argues that as minority students feel unwelcome by the majority white community at Brandeis, they turn to people who have similar experiences in institutions like the Intercultural Center, the Posse program and TYP. It creates an environment of self-segregation.

“‘The way our campus is, people that are not of the majority feel like they need to find their own community because they don’t fit in,’ said Christina Khemraj ’09, the Student Union’s senator for racial-minority students.”“Like many racial minorities, David largely sticks with other minorities. Not that he wanted it that way, he said. As a former president of the Brandeis Black Students Organization, he tried reaching out to other student groups made up of his white peers. But those attempts, he said, were largely spurned.”

“Adriani Leon ’08 considered herself very talkative growing up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. But she felt the subtle looks from white students that many minorities describe-“What are you doing here?” is how she interpreted them-and being the only student of color in a classroom full of “private school kids” made raising her hand out of the question.”

Despite the feelings of many of my white friends, self-segregation is a two-fold problem. It’s not just that minorities aren’t hanging out with white kids; it’s also that white kids, for the most part, aren’t making a strong attempt to reach out. The article mentions this in a discussion over why events hosted by the Intercultural Center tend to be attended almost entirely by students of color.

Though the reasons that white students give for not attending such events vary-busy scheduling is the most common-some white students avoid the events for the very same reasons that minority students avoid clubs that are predominantly white: Just like no one wants to be the only black person at a club meeting, no one wants to be the only white student at an ICC event.

“I don’t really know anyone” in those groups, said one white student who did not want to be identified, explaining why she never goes to ICC events.

But on deeper probing, these complaints seem to be a symptom of a greater fear on the part of minority students that their community is going largely unacknowledged.

And hearing that white students don’t attend events because they feel uncomfortable doesn’t leave everyone satisfied.

“That you have a choice is evidence of your privilege,” Martinez said of white students. “I walked around this campus being uncomfortable for three years, and I never had a choice. Because you have that choice, that choice reflects privilege, and I think privilege is another word for responsibility.”

The point made by Claudia Martinez ‘07 in this last paragraph is really excellent. Being a racial minority in America means you have to be ingrained in white culture. You might live in an all black community, or everyone you know might speak Spanish, but you’re still going to be exposed to idea of ‘whiteness’ as ‘the norm’ (for more information, see Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack). However, white people who grow in all-white communities might never be exposed to other cultures in a way that will truly give them an appreciation of ‘the other.’ To these white people, being black, or being Latino, will always be considered ‘not normal.’ Martinez sees this, and argues that it is the responsibility of white students to reach out and expand their world-view, because minorities are already forced to do that by society.

Of course the situation at Brandeis is radically different than any other college. The reality is that Brandeis is a school where the majority of the student body is Jewish. In the article, Rabbi Allan Lehmann, the former Jewish chaplain at Brandeis, addressed this issue:

“For many people, Brandeis University is the most Jewish place they’ve ever been. People who are used to living as a minority, who find themselves in a majority, it may not be easy or obvious to figure out what kind of adjustments to make.”

For years Jews never fully integrated in with the white power structure in America. Like the Irish, the Polish and the Italians, Jews faced extreme discrimination in America; in fact, that’s why Brandeis was created. While I’m not suggesting that anti-Semitism no longer a problem in America, the reality is that since World War II, white Jews have been treated as ‘white’ by the media and by government policy. (ed. – see Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. ~Loki) When suburbs were constructed across America in the post-war era, Jews were allowed to move in, blacks were not. Here at Brandeis we see the grandchildren of the generation that moved into suburbia. They come from suburbs where Jews really do identify themselves as a minority, because they are the most visible group around that is not in the majority. These kids come to Brandeis because they want to experience being around people like them, and have the privilege of being in the majority. Dan talks about this a bit in the article:

Many Jewish students come to Brandeis, at least in part, precisely because they want to be around others like them who share their religious and cultural experiences. That, some say, sets the se for a campus more segregated than one with a heterogeneous population of white students.

And, it seems, any attempt to make white Jewish students more cognizant of the minority population on campus is complicated by the fact that they rarely think of themselves as a majority.

Essentially, many of the students coming here to Brandeis come because they want to be with people like them, and not with people who are different. That’s not to say that its necessarily a bad thing, certainly that was one of the reasons why I chose Brandeis. I think many Jewish kids experience anti-Semitism and like the idea of coming to a place like Brandeis so they can avoid it (mostly). Much in the same way that people who experience racism at Brandeis go to the Intercultural Center to avoid it.

The [Intercultural] Center lies in East residence quad, which is something of a deep basin on Brandeis’ hilly campus. The building’s physical isolation underscores its potential to further separate students of color from the greater campus.

But that isolation also can hide how the ICC and other resources serve as invaluable beacons of peer support for minorities.

The ICC is essentially a meeting place for the many cultural clubs under its umbrella. With the support of each other and an administrative director, the clubs provide programming to educate one another and the greater campus about the different cultures at Brandeis. But psychologically, it can be much more than that: As one Indian student described it, it is “a safe haven.”

Interestingly enough, Hirschhorn notes that Brandeis is actually one of the most successful schools at bridging the academic gap between students of color and white students:

…84 percent of [racial minorities at Brandeis] graduate within six years… The University’s overall six-year graduation rate is just over 88 percent, making for less than a 5-percent gap between minorities and the greater campus. In contrast, the graduation rate for minority students at Tufts University is almost 10 percent lower than that of its general student population…

He suggests that one of the main reasons for Brandeis’ success comes from the large variety of programs it has to promote success among minorities; programs like the Transitional Year Program, the Posse Program, and of course, the ICC:

Take Posse, for example. A central purpose of the program is to create a small group of friends who know they can depend on one another, and every year, entering Posse scholars form what seems, at least from an outsider’s perspective, to be a very close-knit clique. It is precisely that exclusivity that led several scholars to describe the comfort they draw from their “posse.”

“If I didn’t have Posse freshman year, it would have been rough,” said Engy Lamour ’07, a scholar from Haiti who grew up in Brooklyn. “I don’t know if I would have made it.”

Which of course brings us back to self-segregation.

In my experience, white students tend to think that self-segregation is primarily the ‘fault’ of the minority students who ‘just won’t make friends with white people.’ They refuse to think of their own shortcomings and their failure to make friends with people from entirely different backgrounds (and maybe they’re prepared to use the ‘some of my best friends’ line). Rarely do we ask the question ‘why are all the white kids sitting together?’ (For more information, see Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria)

As a white Jew, I don’t know what to do about it. Most of my friends are white, most of the clubs I’m involved with have mostly white membership, and I don’t go to many cultural events on campus. There’s a part of me that feels guilty for this, but I need motivation to accept my responsibility as someone who wants to actively fight racism.

My cousin’s article provides an interesting look into the racial dynamics at Brandeis. It ultimately suggests that despite Brandeis’ successes at bridging the academic gap between white students and students of color, it has come at the expense of diversity and integration.

What can Brandeis, and the students of Brandeis, do to maintain the academic success of racial minorities, while simultaneously improving the racial dynamics in the dorms and dining halls?


19 thoughts on “Self-Segregation and Racial Identity at Brandeis”

  1. Keep talking about these issues Brandeis. You won’t agree on everything, perhaps not even on most things. But keep the discussion going. It can only make the campus a more vibrant place.

  2. Sure, stereotypes will be a reality. But I don’t believe Lev mentioned them at all in his article, so comments about them are essentially irrelevant to his point.

    I accept that some sort of objective ‘good-for-society’ can be different from what the society wants, but only if I am the one to be that ‘objective’ person. In this case, with someone else telling me what is ‘objectively good’, I can’t accept the conclusions if I disagree with the subjective position of my objective observer.

  3. The Man doesn’t force groups to self-segregate, but stereotypes do and stereotypes have always been, and continue to be, a reality in America.

  4. I think it has very practical consequences, though, and I think we need to accept that what society wants and what is actually good for society can be two very different things. And I’m not blaming “the Man” for self-segregation, nor indeed anyone at all. I believe that there are very understandable reasons why groups tend to self-segregate; I just don’t think that they make its existence a net positive.

  5. But this is all purely theoretical. If the society wanted it, it would happen. The Man isn’t keeping blacks and Brazilians at Brandeis separate from each other. It’s those groups themselves.

  6. In response to those who posit that there exist no actual negative consequences to self-segregation, I feel that the mental attitudes that lead to such a pattern cannot possibly be wholly benign in nature. The preference for the company of individuals who look like you is not a random urge; there must be some reason, conscious or otherwise, for it, and these reasons could be detrimental to a stable society. I’m not saying that there aren’t understandable sociological reasons why a black student would feel uncomfortable at a table with ten white students (or vice versa), but such reasons are founded in societal ills that we all agree need correcting (and in some situations, misunderstanding or even latent racism).

    Even if you disagree that the motivations behind self-segregation are harmless, you at least must accept the possibility that the consequences of it are dangerous. Ignorance and fear ultimately lie in a lack of exposure, and by preventing oneself from experiencing a diverse range of social situations, one is certain to suffer from ignorance of that which outside that range. Take Bill O’Reilly, for example. He probably avoids poor black people like the plague, and thus there is little wonder that when he actually visited a restaurant in Harlem, he expected everyone to be “screaming ‘M-Fer I want more ice tea'” (his actual words). People’s opinions of the culture and actions of those of other racial, religious, etc. groups can either be shaped by a stereotyping entertainment industry and a fear-mongering news media or by substantiative interaction with people of other backgrounds, and I think it’s obvious which will provide a picture more honest and conducive to a healthy society.

  7. I don’t think my being a senator has anything to do with this post. I’m still a student at Brandeis. The problem that I have with segregation here is that its not just random. Its the result of racism and perpetuates the cycle of oppression.

  8. “Legal and mostly victimless”

    As an organic phenomenon, there isn’t a way to “fix” self-segregation at Brandeis or anywhere else. Having a higher authority, in this case a Senator-elect, decry the divisions inherent in a social group (Brandeis) doesn’t provide any impetus to the groups to change their interactions. If the Jewish, Korean, male, and sophomore social groups choose to cross-relate while the Blacks, linguistics majors and Ziv-dwellers like to keep to themselves, if doesn’t help anyone’s cause to push for their reintegration.

    Segregation is undoubtedly a bad concept from a policy point of view, whether out of pure equality (water fountains, buses, etc.) or out of fostering a split in society (Arab citizens not serving in the IDF and then having reduced social benefits later in life). But if the Amish or Hassidim or FLDS choose to self-segregate from (what we see as) the mainstream culture, who is to say that they need to change their attitudes? As the saying goes, your rights stop where mine begin.

  9. I think the reasons are numerous. At least when you start out with a progressive perspective on the world.

    The weird thing about self-segregation is that it doesn’t hurt any person or group directly and immediately, but I think in the long-run it is harmful to the Brandeis community, the United States, and the global community. I guess that maybe there is no fatal flaw in the concept of self-segregation itself, but I would think that among people reading this blog, the idea of self-segregation probably contradicts your worldview.

    1. Self-segregation inhibits us from learning about other cultures and traditions, whether they come from another religion, region of the U.S., country, racial group, or sexual preference. I think self-segregation could also refer to gender divisions, although in Brandeis’ case that probably isn’t really an issue. But just to use gender as an example, think about how much you hang out with people of your own race (or religion) at Brandeis – 60% of the time? 70%? 80%? Would you be comfortable applying the same ratio to your relationships with people of the same gender?

    The process of self-segregation runs counter to the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. because it keeps all of us from interacting with other (racial, religious etc…) groups on an equal basis. I will never fully understand what it means to be part of the black community, asian community, or Jewish community because I am not black, asian or Jewish. But since those groups are an important part of the Brandeis community, I think I should at least understand the issues they face in the world in general, and at Brandeis specifically. Until I understand their perspectives it is impossible for me to see their needs as just as important as those of my own racial or religious community.

    2. From a completely self-serving standpoint, the politically liberal/progressive community would benefit from working to diminish self-segregation at Brandeis and on the national scale (and globally), because liberals would gain a wealth of support from communities that currently prefer to keep to themselves. (They currently keep to themselves because they know they can rely on people of the same group to have their best interest in mind, but they are bound to have at least a little distrust for anyone outside that group.) When liberals reach out to other communities and beginning to understand their concerns, minority groups will come to understand that we really do care about what happens to them. Of course, for this to be effective, it has to happen out of genuine concern and not out of I want your vote concern that is already prevalent among both parties.

    3. Interacting with rich, white people all the time is SO boring.

  10. I believe that self-segregation at Brandeis is bad and must be fixed.

    I must repeat my question, because I’m having a hard time coming up with a good answer, though I feel there might be one – why is self-segregation inherently bad?

  11. Yeah, I agree with Tim. Sure it happens everywhere. No one’s saying otherwise.

    A lot of things happen everywhere that I’m not cool with. For instance, colleges are notoriously bad for having high rates of sexual assault. Am I ok with that, just because it happens everywhere? No, not all. I’m not saying the two compare, not at all, assault is illegal and very hurtful, self-segregation is legal and mostly victimless. However, just like I believe that assault at Brandeis is bad, I believe that self-segregation at Brandeis is bad and must be fixed.

    To fix racism on a global scale, we must first start locally.

  12. Yeah, so what if it happens at Brandeis as well?

    I can sympathize with that response Gideon because it makes sense to say, “well this is a common occurrence so you can’t blame me for doing something wrong, when really it’s not just me or us (Brandeis students), but everyone.” However, I disagree because I think that reasoning is an easy excuse that we could use to legitimate our actions. Just because self-segregation is the most common response of people who live in multi-racial communities doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best response or that it should be ours.

    Figuring out what solution will be the most beneficial to the Brandeis community will certainly be an extended process, but I have many pages of final papers to write, so I will leave the hypothesizing about possible solutions for later.

  13. Self-segregation happens everywhere. There’s black neighborhoods and white ones, and when blacks move in, whites choose to move out. Take even the extreme example of Neveh Shalom in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together. They self-segregate from the population that doesn’t think it can live together.

    Shalom Auslander’s “America, the Ad Campaign” (; 45 minutes in — This American Life, 12/15/06) is also about how you can try to talk to someone else but in the end, leave it to the black folks to talk to the black customers.

    Basically: so what if it happens at Brandeis also?

  14. Ria left a comment on the justice article claiming she was misquoted. That’s a shame. The editors stuck an annoying at the end of it that says something along the lines of “Roberts was given a chance to correct all quotes before publishing” or something like that.”

    I don’t necessarily think that one misquote means that I shouldn’t put “much stock” in the article. The misquote changes public perception of Ria (which is why she is justified in being outraged at the Justice), but it doesn’t change too much about the article itself. I’d put as much stock in the article as I would in any other article in the Justice.

  15. Three quick comments:

    1. I wouldn’t put too much stock in that article, by the way. Take this quote:

    And Ria Roberts ’10, who is afraid to sit among the largely white crowds in a University dining hall, usually eats by herself in her room. “I guess I’m used to being alone,” she said.

    I’ve talked to Ria about this, and she was horribly misquoted and said something else entirely. And we’ve seen instances of the Justice mangling quotes before.

    2. I like how you brought up “the invisible knapsack.” I analyzed it for UWS and it really is an eye-opening essay, or at least one that clearly spells out the truth.


    She also described the popular U.S. News and World Report ranking system as “perverse.””You don’t get any points in higher education for serving minorities,” she said in a phone interview.

    The US News and World Report system is crap and everyone knows it. For example: Imagine if Brandeis aised Tuition by 10% next year, and then increased spending by 1%. Rather than go down in the rankings, it would probably go up due to “increased spending per student”.

    I prefer the Washington Monthly’s college rankings, which aim to rank colleges by “how much good they’re doing for the country”. Of special notice to this post is the sub-ranking for social mobility:(yes, class and race are different things but they are pretty intertwined and in any case the metric is a salient one when one considers that Brandeis keeps gabbing about Social Justice).

    Brandeis has a mere 2% difference between “Predicted and actual grad rate based on
    % of Pell recipients and incoming SATs”, putting us in 98th place in terms of social mobility (and overall). Now, I didn’t look into the methodology of these scores at all, but I would hope some high-up at Brandeis takes a looks at these and finds out what’s wrong.

  16. I disagree with the Atlantic article’s claim that this is an issue of ‘conservative v. liberal’ and that its the reincarnation of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. I’m taking a class on the Black Panther party this semester, and after reading the first half of the article, I was strongly reminded of the Black Panthers. I think there are a lot of problems with what Crosby says (i.e. blaming rap, that’s just stupid), but for the most part I think he’s on ball. Collectively, the black community does need to whip itself into shape. However, that is not the be-all-end-all. White people, and people in power (of all colors) need to recognize racism in our society and work to bring it to an end.

    The integration question is fairly interesting too. A lot of black families (and the Black Panther Party) think its best to send their kid to all-black schools where black teachers can serve as good role models. I think that integration, for the most part (in the short-term), helps white people more than it helps black people. Integration, I believe, helps slowly eliminate racist attitudes overtime. If we could really achieve integration, I believe racism could be eliminated in America within 100 years. It would be difficult, but I believe possible.

    The trick is getting integration. Its extremely difficult, and the reality is that since 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, schools have become less integrated (if I wasn’t lazy, I could pull out some statistic about how the percene of schools that are 80% or more of one race has grown since 1954, I know it exists, I’ve seen it around). White flight has caused a very nasty de-facto segregation that means that majority black and Latino schools are severely unfunded, and the problem continues.

    I don’t what the answer is, I don’t think anyone does. But I think optimism is necessary, because without it, we aren’t going to go anywhere.

  17. I want to bring up a devil’s advocate point that merits further consideration, but which I by no means am ready to completely support – is there anything inherently wrong with self-segregation? Both you and your cousin seem to implicitly assume in your writings that self-segregation is bad, perpetuates racism, and needs to be changed.

    But is that really true? There can be different social groups that have little contact with each other, even ones divided along racial lines, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is any underlying racism. To many, their race is a pivotal aspect of self and life experience, and may want to hang out mostly with people who share that experience.

    On a more national scale, for example, cities have Chinatowns. Waltham has a large Indian community. Though some of this self-segregation may stem from institutional racism and a feeling of unwelcome, ethnic or racial social groups and neighborhoods aren’t a bad thing when they are joined by choice. Too often the opposite leads to cultural assimilation, which isn’t all that grand either.

    Check out this article about Bill Cosby and others’ black conservatism movement in the newest Atlantic Monthly… sort of touches on similar questions.

  18. I don’t think I ever said the issues were unique to Brandeis. I actually heavily edited this piece down where I took out a lot about segregation in other places (especially my high school). It certainly is not unique to Brandeis, its everywhere, but I was writing about Brandeis and specifically commenting on this article about Brandeis.

    I agree that we cannot blame the administration. The racial problems in society are not Brandeis’ fault. What I’d ask from the administration is to recognize that these problems exist and then work to come up with creative solutions. Certainly Brandeis has done a great job so far, but more needs to be done. Of course the students need to do a lot too, something that I talk about in the above post as well.

  19. It’s a fine piece, Lev. I am very skeptical, however, that these problems are at all unique to Brandeis. In fact, I imagine that racial tensions are probably worse at most other schools. Regardless, there is an obvious divide on our campus – just as there is in our towns, our schools, our neighborhoods, etc. We live in a highly segregated society, and college just isn’t that radically different. Brandeis does not exist in a vacuum; its social problems are produced by the same forces that plague American society in general.
    That said, I do not think that self-segregation and alienation at Brandeis are insoluble issues. What it ultimately comes down to is personal initiative; we each (and I don’t ONLY mean white students) have to make that effort. We can’t blame the school, and call on them to implement some additional policy to make Brandeis more racially harmonious. You cannot prescribe or implement a policy that will completely change something so elusive and insidious as prejudice. As the students of Brandeis, we must hold ourselves accountable.

Comments are closed.