April 27, 2014

OH | Race and Faith at Cornell

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Last weekend on the Arts Quad, the coalition of pan-Christian organizations carried out its annual celebration — Easter on the Quad — that attracted close to 1,000 students. In this rare occasion when different Christian groups — from campus chapters of nationally organized ministries as Cru and InterVarsity to the ethnic-based fellowships for Chinese and Korean students — all gathered together, one couldn’t help but notice all-too-familiar religious demographics on this campus: disproportionately high concentration of Asian students, moderately represented black and Latino students and a scarce white population. Once on campus, you get used to it and never question it, but the national demographic suggests otherwise. Racial disparity in organized religion isn’t an issue per se, but it poses an interesting question over the breakdown of diversity at Cornell as well as its representative scale to the national breakdown. Or for selective universities as a whole.

With strong educational emphasis from early on, I’ve seen Asian-Americans, or to be more specific, those of Chinese, Korean and Indian origins grow up with strong academic motivation which culminates in acceptance to some of the prestigious higher learning institutions of this country, mainly the Ivy League. As multiple media have speculated, there seems to be strong evidence for discrimination against those of Asian descent, given artificially-construed proportion of Asian students across the Ivy — between 15 and 20 percent — as if they all had mutually agreed and vowed to stabilize the rate.

Walking around campus, however, one sees far more Asians than the 18-some percent of the student population as the data suggests. This discrepancy exists since the racial breakdown for domestic students does not include the international student population — which comprises 10 percent of undergraduate student body. There are also a noticeable fraction of students who refuse to classify their ethnicity on their applications out of concern that their chance for admission may suffer due to their race. Adding up the Asian-heavy international student population and “race-less” students on the paper, the real figure for Asian population shoots up to more than 25 percent. Asian Americans also tend to be more religious, especially Christians in the U.S. compared to their counterparts in Asia.

Hence, strong presence of Asians with their religious conviction partially explains the racial disparity, albeit the meagre number of Caucasians still remain to be answered. This is partially due to one particular ethnic group who has successfully integrated themselves into the mainstream of Americans of European ancestry in the U.S. — American Jews.

Like other Ivies, Cornell’s Jewish student population fluctuates around 25 percent. The prominent Jewish population in selective universities has been historically well-documented. In 1920s a number of schools felt “threatened” in their identity and felt their primary mission of training next generation of male white students were at stake when the Jewish population rose as high as 40 percent of the entire student body. To mediate this issue, schools began to practice discriminatory admission practice toward Jewish students through a quota.

Nevertheless, even with a quarter Jewish students, a quarter Asian students and about 15 percent of underrepresented minority students, Cornell should still have at least a third of its student body who identify as non-Jewish, non-Hispanic Caucasian. And the national statistics suggests three-quarters of them should be Christian. This turns out to be a half-true statement for Cornell, since there is a formidable population of white students who identify as Catholics, but the same cannot be said about the mainstream Christian denominations.

For the past decade, schools have made considerable effort to attract students of color and lower socio-economic background to deviate from the conventional association of the Ivy League as male WASP paradise. The student body back then were indeed homogenous, but has the diversifying movement overachieved its initial goal, pushing away Caucasian students of Christian background?

The tone of this question may sound counterintuitive and flat-out wrong, it is a fact that prestigious institutions are increasingly more diverse. The Christian right has used this fact as a base for their criticism against college education in this nation, labeling it as the breeding ground for liberalism and atheism. This argument may not be completely untrue, but it implies as if the outcome stems from the discrimination from the college admissions point of view which is flat-out wrong.

Like many of its counterparts, the small Christian evangelical high school I attended placed its utmost priority on cultivating religious devotion, even at the cost of compromising academic standard. The biology class taught us how to defend creationism rather than learning about the evolutionary process, and texts for English class was subject to parental censorship on the grounds of vulgar, suggestive language and “ungodly” narrative. During election cycles, picket signs advocating the Republican party were planted on the school lawn, and any political stance not in accord with the right were silenced. With the vast majority of my fellow classmates continuing their education at Christian colleges, I was the second student to enter an Ivy since the school’s founding.

Over the years, Cornell has attained remarkable progress in increasing racial, socioeconomic diversity. If we strive to seek yet another dimension to our campus diversity, it’s time to reach students whose “ideology” and religious upbringing may not allow themselves from applying to schools like Cornell.