Social Justice, Theory and Reality

In 2003, Beverly Tatum published her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race”. The blurb on Amazon notes,

Walk into any racially mixed high school and you will see black youth seated together in the cafeteria. Of course, it’s not just the black kids sitting together-the white, Latino, Asian Pacific, and, in some regions, American Indian youth are clustered in their own groups, too. The same phenomenon can be observed in college dining halls, faculty lounges, and corporate cafeterias. What is going on here? Is this self-segregation a problem we should try to fix, or a coping strategy we should support?

We certainly see this at the university level, and as the above blurb notes, it’s not just blacks and whites, but also Asians, Latinos and so on. Assuming this is an undesirable phenomenon, as I do, the first point I would make here is that, at least at my university, the situation has gotten worse, not better, in the last 10-15 years. In particular, self-segregation among Asian-American students, mainly Chinese, has visibly increased, to the point at which it apparently even effected the design of the remodeled cafeteria in the student union. I won’t go into the details here, and hasten to add that most of the Asian students definitely mingle with the general population, but still, the trend has been toward self-segregation.

What is causing this in the Asian case, I believe, is that many of our students come from feeder schools in Silicon Valley, such as Mission San Jose (in Fremont, not in San Jose), Monta Vista, Lynwood and so on. These schools have enrollments approaching or even exceeding 90% Asian-American. Various articles have been written about this remarkable trend, such as one in the Wall Street Journal in 2005 and this 2015 article in Slate (written by one of the self-segregators). Basically, many if not most of these kids grew up in a mostly-Asian environment, and have never had much serious interaction with others. They’ve always hung out almost exclusively with Asians, and just continue the pattern in college, without even thinking about it.

Having said all that, I was quite startled to find the same situation at Brandeis University, which my wife and I visited (more or less on a whim) on Monday. Yes, whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Asians with Asians etc. And given that Brandeis, originally a Jewish-sponsored school and one whose enrollments are still close to 50% Jewish, that whites-with-whites category may break down further into Jewish and non-Jewish segments.

Should Brandeis be any different? Arguably,yes, it should indeed, in principle, have much less self-segregation than do “ordinary” schools, because Brandeis has a strong theme of social justice. Since adherents of that philosophy define it in largely racial terms, it is puzzling, to say the least to see this self-imposed apartheid.

A student who struck up a conversation with us in the cafeteria, a Latina from Texas, put it bluntly: Though she deplored the situation and doesn’t engage in such behavior herself, she said that many of her classmates simply don’t feel comfortable with other races or ethnicities.

Again, what gets me is that this is Brandeis, the epitome of commitment to social justice. Indeed, the name of its student newspaper, The Justice, granted,  an allusion to the school’s namesake, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, does refer to “justice as in ‘social justice’.” The current issue, for instance,  carries an editorial titled “Change name of ‘Columbus Day’ [to ‘Indigenous People’s Day’].”

So how can it be that these hyper-socially conscious students are uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with other races/ethnicities?

The U.S. still calls itself a “melting pot,” in contrast to the Canadian metaphor of a mosaic. Advocates of large-scale immigration have generally sold the notion in terms of assimilation. The Brandeis students, in supporting their own version of “separate but equal,” seem to be taking Canada as their model.



15 thoughts on “Social Justice, Theory and Reality

  1. But people don’t stay separated. Mixing of genetic material is inevitable. Our descendants will eventually become a blend of every biological group. We already see this, most predominantly in Hawaii and California, and probably New York. But it’s inevitable human behavior.


    • In the Pacific NW, “Mixed” seems to be the fastest growing minority and East Asians are out-scoring WASPS is all positive demographic lists. I predict that in the next generation or so the majority will be a nice brownish “mixed” color. My grand kids will be able to freely discriminate on the basis of civility, education, and ambition.


  2. I think you want to study the physics of melting. Things melt together under different temperatures and pressures, in other regimes they may separate, and relatively small differences can result in all sorts of dramatic phase changes. That is all.


  3. Norm,

    I have worked at many software companies. In companies with a sizable Chinese population, at lunch time the Chinese tended to sit together. They had more in common in regards to topics of discussion. If an American spoke Chinese, then they had no problem with a non-Chinese sitting with them. If I would sit at a sports table, I get bored. Another factor is language fluency in English. Frankly I don’t have a problem with different groups segregating themselves.



  4. Been going on for years. In the 70’s in South Sac, most of our school lunch tables were ethnically separated. Started in junior high and continued through high school and college. A few were mixed but they were the minority, pardon the pun.

    You sit where you are comfortable and with whom you have common beliefs.


  5. “Mosaics” will permit the most civilized and education social contracts to rise to the top and the losers to the bottom. NYC was the first geographic area to impose an open housing law but every sort of “specialized” social contract seems to have its own residential block or neighborhood.

    When I was in 2nd grade we moved from NYC to NJ. It only took a few days to decide who the winners and losers were. In the bad old days when Jews only married Jews, Italians married Italians . . . when the A males and A females were matched, then the As + Bs and down to loser + loser but all within the approved social contract. As the “A” groups enlarge and combine . . . .


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