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Mixing the rainbow we have

South Africa—like Duke—prides itself on being a diverse place.

And on our first day there, it was hard not to think of home sweet Durham when we were told about the inherent problem with the “Rainbow Nation.” Rainbows, we were told, have distinct and separate lines of color that don’t interact. Similarly, South African society—despite the end of apartheid—is still characterized by self-segregation. Whites, for the most part, live near whites, blacks near blacks, and coloureds near coloureds. One professor told us that the country should instead be striving for a paradigm more along the lines of a fruit salad, since all the colors are jumbled up and mixed together.

When we talk about these issues in class, the libertarian in me makes me throw my hands up in frustration. No government official with a head on his shoulders will ever tell people they need to leave their tight-knit communities in the interest of societal desegregation. And it’s tough, at a national level, to see so much tractability when it comes to something as ingrained as self-segregation.

Not so for a college administration, which has far more leeway to redraw a community social scene. Duke’s administration has the power to dictate just about every aspect of our lives in our four years spent in the Gothic Wonderland. So though it may be unreasonable to expect a national government to do anything about self-segregation, there’s no reason to absolve the gurus in the Allen Building from their responsibility to foster diverse social interactions.

The problem is that they’ve been spending a disproportionate amount of time trying to add to Duke’s Rainbow Campus, if you will, rather than focusing on mixing up the pretty diverse rainbow we already have. Read the 2006 “Making a Difference” strategic plan and you’ll see a school promising to “renew our commitment to being a University composed of different people from different parts of the country and the world.”

This misses the point. The defining problem of diversity at Duke isn’t that there are 10 percent too many white students or 3 percent too few Native American students. The problem is that there is precious little discussion of how to foster interaction amongst the diverse student body we already have. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education correctly points out that “the experience at Duke proves that simply enrolling large numbers of black students will not necessarily lead to a racially integrated campus.”

Fortunately, there has been a wealth of research published on the subject of how to fight self-segregation on college campuses. The same article in The Journal, for instance, argues that universities should create “jigsaw classrooms” in which small groups reflecting the racial or ethnic makeup of the school are created and given problem-solving tasks or case studies to prepare. I don’t harbor the expectation that a mandatory first-year course along these lines would solve all our problems, but I bet it’d contribute more to our intellectual development than Writing 20.

Another proposal, made in The Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests cultural exchanges, in which students from particular parts of the world or cultures are enrolled in educational exchanges in which they teach areas of local expertise. A student from China helps an American counterpart with Mandarin in exchange for help in an American history course, or a black student gives assistance to a Jewish student enrolled in an African American studies course in exchange for help with Hebrew. It’s nothing too revolutionary, but it would certainly foster interaction in a new and innovative way.

Much of the research I came across challenges some very reasonable assumptions. I’d always thought, for instance, that the new “cultural houses” planned under the new House Model were a terrible idea because they fostered self-segregation (in fact, I almost said so in this column). Turns out a 1991 empirical study of student life at UC-Berkeley looked at the effect of precisely these kinds of houses and found that they in fact facilitate diverse interactions by making minority students feel more comfortable on campus. It isn’t all so obvious, in other words—this research needs to be dissected in order to understand which administrative-level decisions make the most sense.

There are clearly solutions to be discussed and research to be reviewed. Read through the archives of this paper and you’ll find any number of open houses, forums, conferences and discussions on race relations and self-segregation at Duke. But all of them, so far as I can tell, privileged discussions of the problem over potential solutions. Enough—there are too many ideas out there to keep regurgitating what is essentially a natural problem.

I once promised myself I’d never propose the creation of another committee or club at Duke, but promises are made to be broken. A student-led committee with administrative support should be tasked with looking at the various research-based methods used to promote diverse interactions on college campuses. There may be no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problem.

And just because self-segregation is natural doesn’t mean we can’t fight it.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior and is currently studying abroad in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam. His column runs every other Monday.

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