In her forthcoming book, “The Impact of College Diversity: Struggles and Successes at Age 30,” Amherst College psychology professor Elizabeth Aries discovered a disturbing dual reality for Black students going to the small, private liberal arts college where she teaches. On the one hand, interacting with students from different backgrounds better prepared them for the world of higher education and work. But Black students also felt pressured to sacrifice their cultural identities in favor of “whiteness” in order to succeed. In the following Q&A, Aries elaborates on her findings and what they mean as the Supreme Court decides whether to restrict or outlaw the use of race in college admissions.
1. What prompted you to do this research?
In 2003, Amherst College began to more actively recruit and enroll students of color and individuals from low-income backgrounds. The idea was to promote equity and social mobility. But the effort was also driven by the belief that students benefit educationally when they interact daily with classmates whose experiences and views are different from their own.
I wanted to understand how living in a diverse community would affect students. To do that, I interviewed Black and white students, both affluent and lower-income, three times over a period of 12 years. The interviews were conducted during their first year of college, at the end of their senior year and at age 30.
I chronicled the nature and extent of what students learned about race and class from engagement with racially and socioeconomically diverse classmates. I also examined the challenges students faced on campus because of their race and class. I believe my findings have great relevance at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is about to again consider the legality of the use of race in admission decisions.
2. What is the main takeaway from your book?
At age 30, the vast majority of Black and white Amherst graduates I interviewed – 81% – told me they gained insight from interacting regularly with classmates of different races. For instance, over their four years of college, the white graduates gained a deeper understanding of the harm of racial stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, and of their own racial privilege. Black graduates acquired coping strategies to deal with racial prejudice. They also learned to be “bicultural,” enabling success in predominantly white settings.
Through cross-class interactions, lower-income students gained higher aspirations to seek graduate and professional degrees. They also accessed social networks that connected them to desired internships, graduate programs and jobs. They reported greater social mobility as a result of the skills they learned from living and learning in such a diverse environment.
Almost all strongly agreed that a diverse student body is essential to teaching skills to succeed and lead in the work environment.
3. Why do Black students benefit from learning to be ‘bicultural’?
Black graduates enter the professional work world where positions of power are largely held by white people, and racial biases are present. At age 30, 77% of the Black graduates I interviewed reported facing racial bias at work, and 47% felt they faced a career ceiling because of their race. They reported learning during college how to be bicultural – to adjust their presentation and behavior and be Black in “the right way” to facilitate their success. This required being attentive to self-presentation in speech, dress, hair and demeanor so that it came closer to whiteness, making it more acceptable to the middle-class white people around them.
While Black graduates benefited from learning to be bicultural, they reported this performance came at a cost. Fitting in to standards of whiteness entailed the stress of hiding parts of themselves and thus made it difficult to feel fully true to themselves.
That said, engagement with diverse peers during college can help lead to the creation of more equitable workplaces. Research has found interaction among people from different racial backgrounds leads to a decrease in racial prejudice and increases knowledge and acceptance of different races or cultures and openness to diversity. Further, when students participate in interracial dialogues, after college they are more likely to commit and take action to redress inequality.
A third of the white graduates in my study said they were actively addressing systemic inequalities in their work lives. Further, 52% aspired to teach their future children to be aware of the internalization of racial stereotypes and of the prejudice and discrimination faced by people of color.
4. Did Amherst need affirmative action to achieve diversity?
The use of race-conscious admissions undoubtedly enabled Amherst to build a richly diverse community. Today 49% of U.S. Amherst College students self-identify as students of color.
Amherst has for many years reviewed applicants holistically and by using a wide range of factors. This includes, of course, the standard measures on applications, such as the student’s academic program and record, intellectual talent and creativity, nonacademic achievement and leadership. Also factored into Amherst’s admissions process, though, are such aspects as diversity of socioeconomics, family education, background, life experiences and geography. And, yes, race is also one factor of many in such a holistic consideration.
5. What happens if affirmative action is banned?
A decision by the Supreme Court to end race-conscious admissions would severely impede colleges’ ability to attain the kind of diversity needed to achieve their educational goals.
Where states have banned the consideration of race in admission, the proportion of students from underrepresented groups fell precipitously. California, which banned consideration of race in admissions in 1996, saw 50% declines for African American and Latino students at the most selective campuses between 1995 and 1998.
Many students from underrepresented backgrounds – who previously would have been accepted at flagship schools – went to less selective public and private universities. At these less selective schools, degree attainment declined, leading to lower wages, thereby increasing socioeconomic inequities.
The use of race-neutral admissions policies after Michigan passed a ballot initiative in 2006 to ban the use of race in college admissions was as catastrophic: It resulted in a 44% drop in the enrollment of Black students from 2006 to 2021. Meanwhile, the enrollment of Native American students dropped nearly 90% despite considerable efforts using race-neutral alternatives.
Elizabeth Aries does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.