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Racial tension persists on campus, study says

STANFORD -- A sample of Stanford students perceives that racial tension on campus has increased in recent years, but most have not experienced racist behavior firsthand, according to a new study by political scientist John H. Bunzel.

An overwhelming majority of both black and white students surveyed say that Stanford is not a racist institution, the study indicates.

"Students talk easily about racism in fairly abstract terms," said Bunzel, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former president of San Jose State University. "But the number of those interviewed reporting firsthand experience with racist behavior (on campus) is quite low - only 5 percent of the white students and less than 30 percent of the black students."

Bunzel's study, Race Relations on Campus: Stanford Students Speak, has just been published by the Portable Stanford Book Series.

"The purpose (of the study) was to see if there is a 'new' or different racism today - different, for example, from the racism that confronted civil rights advocates in the 1960s - and, if so, how it is manifested in the behavior of students on the campus of a major university," Bunzel said.

The answer, Bunzel concluded from his research, is that tensions between black and white students are "largely a function of their inability to understand one another - more precisely, the failure of whites to understand the nature of black consciousness, and the pronounced tendency of blacks to self-segregate rather than to communicate."

That conclusion, he said, is far more accurate than one "that would have us believe that American colleges and universities - and white students in particular - are inherently racist."

The focus was on black/white issues "because these are the ones that are most often at the heart of the controversy, not only at Stanford but on most campuses today," he said.

The study is based on one-on-one interviews with 54 undergraduate students, plus a nine-page questionnaire completed by about 450 members of the class of 1989.

The one-on-one interviews included 24 black students, 20 white students and 10 classified as "other." Those interviewed were not chosen scientifically, Bunzel said. The written questionnaires were sent to a random sample of 862 seniors -- one half of the class of '89. The response rate was 52 percent.

An additional source for the study is the 1989 report of the University Committee on Minority Issues, which assessed the state of racial and ethnic relations at Stanford.

When asked what they mean by racism, most white students surveyed said it is "the degrading of other people because of their color - in short, hostility against individuals and groups because of their background or membership in one race or another," Bunzel said.

By contrast, a high percentage of black students surveyed talked in terms of "institutional racism" or the "white power structure on campus," Bunzel said. "Thus black student leaders call for 'real change' within the university through the collective struggle for power, while white students are primarily concerned with interpersonal relations," he said.

Implicit in the white students' idea of racism is the belief that people of all races can be racist, Bunzel said. As one freshman woman said, "It's a prejudice against another racial group. It can work both ways, blacks against whites and whites against blacks."

But many black students surveyed regard racism as involving oppression by the racial group in power, and maintain that "only whites, who control the levers of power," can be racist.

Other findings in Bunzel's study include:

"But the more complicated truth is that interracial interaction does not appear to occur at significant levels of friendship," Bunzel says. When students in the senior survey were asked to comment on the statement, "There is a great deal of socializing between black and white students at parties and similar events," almost 70 percent said they "somewhat" or "strongly" disagreed.

"Black and white students live in peace with each other - 'we coexist,' as one student put it - but they do not fully integrate in the most positive sense of the term," Bunzel said.


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