September 13, 2023

GLASGOW | Cornell Students Love Segregation, and That’s Ok

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You show up to campus as an eager first year at O-week, and the first Cornell paradox hits you; nobody’s been here long enough to make friends, but somehow everybody is already in groups. Any honest Cornellian knows that we love to divide ourselves, and the most honest of us know that a lot of this division is based simply on what people look like.

There’s nothing radical about the idea of people grouping based on similarities. Prof. Emeritus J. Miller McPherson, sociology, Duke University, put it perfectly when he said, “Similarity breeds connection,” in his captivating work Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks

Despite this, there will always be a fiery backlash to the idea that the majority of people group together based on outward appearance, especially at a place like Cornell and during a time as diversity-conscious as now. 

One doesn’t have to contend with the idea of racially segregated friend groups at Cornell in order to acknowledge the inherent segregation that may result from official channels: Just think about the program houses. 

Student and Campus Life: “Ujamaa celebrates the rich and diverse heritage of Black people in the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, and other regions of the world.” We proudly acknowledge the nation’s first University residence to celebrate American Indian and indigenous cultures. We also have a Latino Living Center. We even have a Loving House that Student and Campus Life describes as “an LGBTQ+ living space.” 

There is a level of generational trauma and shared experiences among minorities that can give immense meaning to program houses. At the same time, Black people from completely different home environments and backgrounds might find little in common with each other. What does a Kenyan have in common with a person from Atlanta? Every person is their own story, right? Cornell likes to use the word “celebrate”; program houses could never bar a person from joining them because of their race or identity, but practically speaking, very few people would apply to an identity-specific house without belonging to those communities.

Before the hounds come biting, the purpose of this writing is neither to advocate for nor against program houses.

The mind can’t escape from that golden message: “I would found an institution where any person can receive instruction in any study.”

Diversity has been part of the mission since day one, and the motto proves it. We’ve been, in fact, largely consistent in living up to this creed. The first student of African descent enrolled in 1869, of Asian descent in 1870 and of Latino descent in 1873. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked closely with Cornell and even lectured about equal education. Educational historian Frederick Rudolph called Cornell University “the first American university,” and there’s a class named for that exact quote that dives into Cornell’s story (AMST 2001: The First American University).

The dinner table facts keep going but the message is the same: By all metrics, Cornell should be the most integrated place in the world. But what would that really look like? The most integrated place in the world: Everyone is given a raffle ticket and put into rooms. The rooms shuffle at every 22nd minute and we’re expected to write individual essays about the people we met along the way. 

Needless to say, ultimate integration can never be the goal. We want to be more than a good environmental, social and governance score. At the end of the day, we have to do what we have to do. That’s our second motto, right? “To do the greatest good.”

We immediately fall into the strata of our majors and fields of study. Interest-based program houses are just as dividing as identity-based houses. We join clubs in order to dive into our interests and express our passions. We look for cohorts that will help us reach our dreams. In order to do what we need to, division is necessary. Cornell does not differ from anywhere else in the nation, and the world, in these regards. 

Most of America holds a collective narrative: There were the slaves, then came the immigrants, we segregated and then Dr. King came to save the day. We are ourselves unsure of how to write the post-Civil Rights story. So much of our western worldview hinges on incorporating every voice and growth through cross-cultural understanding, but that doesn’t always happen. This is a reminder of what was always there to begin with.

Segregation is a serious word, especially in the American context. The University-wide theme for the 2023-2024 academic year “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell” means that it is especially important not to shy away from complicated conversations. When we look at the photos of those who came before us, the lack of color and the grain creates a deep fissure of separation between us and them. Our contemporary society’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion may give the impression that the people of the past were some kind of a different version of human. People function as if segregation is a “back then” thing that is completely stomped out now, although it’s merely a truth of human behavior, revisited now in a different form. Acknowledging that division is in our DNA is the first step toward combating it. A dying few in foreign policy might believe in world peace, but that doesn’t stop them from negotiating. 

Especially after the affirmative action ruling, the eyes of the nation are on Cornell and other American universities.The ongoing racial discourse and diversity-based political fighting in the U.S. is merely a remnant of the Civil War and the remaining droplets of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Reach out — speak to the people you would never go up to. Rather than deny its existence, acknowledging that people like to segregate could be the first step in battling it. It is fully in our power to bring more meaning to the idea of a Big Red Family. 

Cornell students love segregation, and it’s ok, everybody does. We’re a special pocket of the world; it’s not that we don’t have “any person, any study,” it’s that we have too many different people and too many different studies to achieve perfectly inclusive diversity.

Today may be the opportunity to open into a new pocket of the world.  

Leo Glasgow is a second year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. His fortnightly column Can We Talk focuses on student life, domestic and international politics and social issues. He can be reached at [email protected].

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