Alston: A Different Kind of Diversity

This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students protested what they see as Dartmouth’s implicit cooperation with what they consider institutionalized racism and classism. They took issue with the fact that Dartmouth maintains what they referred to as the “commitment to the illusion of diversity.”  While issues of racial equality are important, Dartmouth has actually come a long way in terms of racial diversity.

When my mom stepped on campus in the fall of 1973, the campus population was a little over 10 percent female and roughly 90 percent white.  When people talk of a stereotypical Dartmouth, one white as the snow that graces the Green, this is the image that pops into my mind.

Though the buildings and the scenery remain the same, Dartmouth looks nothing like the school my mom attended. The core principle of liberal arts education remains, but a wider variety of people now bask in its benefits. In fact, fewer than half of the students are white. Forty years ago there were few Hispanic, Asian or international students, but these groups now represent 6, 14 and 16 percent of the student body, respectively. We’re far from the pinnacle of pluralism, but Dartmouth still boasts an incredibly diverse group of students — at least in terms of skin color.

To me, though, skin color is a poor measure of diversity and its use as such promotes superficial judgments. A blind commitment to raising the representation of some races ignores other measures of diversity, primarily socioeconomic status. Dartmouth’s efforts to boost racial diversity and minority representation, combined with efforts to keep a healthy number of legacies in the student population, have left the white middle and working class — the largest segment of the American population — woefully underrepresented. This phenomenon is not limited to white people. Only 15 percent of the overall Dartmouth undergraduate student body receive Pell Grants and just shy of 50 percent of students do not receive financial aid (though to be fair, many of our peer institutions are comparable in this regard).

I feel this deficiency in socioeconomic diversity deprives students of perspectives that can only be gleaned from interaction with people of substantively different backgrounds. Race may be an indicator of superficial difference but does not guarantee a substantially different worldview. Conversely, one’s socioeconomic status may not be as apparent upon first glance, but it does provide one with a fundamentally different vantage point than from peers of different backgrounds.

I’ve lived in a Super Zip bubble for almost all of my life, and my peers were mostly of a similar socioeconomic status despite being of fairly diverse ethnic backgrounds. Most of us were part of the same recreational sports as kids, put ourselves through the same advanced courses in high school and for the longest time, shared a broadly left-liberal political outlook. I had limited experience and substantive understanding of how people outside this bubble of relative socioeconomic parity lived and thought.

A diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds naturally alleviates this problem, as people who are part of the top income brackets have substantively different political views than their less well-off counterparts, especially regarding social issues, and have different childhood experiences.  Understanding these differences is important in a community that is supposed to cultivate the leaders of the future.

While Dartmouth is far from a King-style utopia in racial and gender diversity and harmony, we’ve come a long way from the fairly bland, mostly white campus of my mom’s day. Though the importance of racial issues should not be dismissed, if we are to shape future leaders, we must expose students to backgrounds and upbringings radically different from their own. A rainbow of skin colors isn’t enough to accomplish this. So I feel it’s time that Dartmouth refocuses its efforts on something that hasn’t improved enough on campus since the 1970s — socioeconomic diversity.

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