Diversity Symposium: Harper Talks Race and Achievement

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As a part of the diversity symposium Dr. Shaun Harper, director of the Graduate School of Education Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education of the University of Pennsylvania, spoke last Friday on his study of black male achievement at liberal arts colleges.

Swarthmore was one of 12 liberal arts colleges that participated in Professor Harper’s study. 48 percent of Swarthmore’s students of color were counted in the study.

“Even at an institution that is racially diverse like Swarthmore there is still racial stereotyping,” said Harper.

Harper argued that racial stereotyping in college often stems from early childhood misconceptions about race. Several studies have already been made that analyze how young children are socialized to think about race and the race of others.

“What is more troubling,” said Harper, “is that those children will enter a university environment having the same biases. Thus, we are complicit in sending out students into the world without having their assumptions confronted.”

At Swarthmore, Harper said there are very few structured venues designed to help students grapple with such issues.

“There’s a paradox because on the one hand some students are tired of talking about race and on the other hand other students are engaging in unstructured conversation about race,” he said.

Harper also pointed out that the students whom he had lunch with before the lecture talked about racial clustering or visible pockets of students on campus from only one background.Furthermore, the fact that Swarthmore had no permanent Latino faculty was shocking to Harper.

“This has to be something with which every person at the college [Swarthmore] responsively grapples with because the college cannot create a more affirming racial climate if you don’t even know what undermines the effort,” he said.

During the questions and answers, students agreed with Harper that Swarthmore needs more structure in order to efficiently grapple with racial issues.

“As a freshman they sit you down in a room and you’re supposed to talk about diversity. But this is not a comfortable environment, there are no tools gained, no knowledge. The college should find more ways to deal with diversity,” said a student in the audience.

Harper agreed to the student and added that work also needed to be done within the faculty so they don’t disseminate racial prejudices among students.

A necessary first step for working with the faculty would be to create an environment in which they have to grapple with their assumptions and stereotypes about students who come from different backgrounds.

“In many institutions, the faculty cannot be convinced that they should be teaching differently so there has to be a structured venue in which consciousness is raised,” said Harper.

Olivia Ensign ’12, an organizer of the Symposium said that it was great to see many administrators and faculty members in the audience.

“I thought it was very interesting discussion and I would encourage everyone to read his study,” said Ensign.

But Rachell Morillo ‘14 and Desheane Newman ’14 were not pleased with faculty and administrator participation.

“There were few [faculty or administrators] who asked questions or participated in the conversation, which I think speaks to the problem he was pointing out,” said Morillo.

“It was disappointing because I thought they would want to engage more but they didn’t,” added Newman.

But for Harper it was a good experience: “It’s good to be in a community that is much smaller and intimate. […] I met with about 50 students over lunch and […] it seems like it was therapeutic for them to be invited to talk about this issue,” he said.

For more on Swarthmore’s Diversity Symposium see Dr. Tatum’s lecture on talking about diversity.


  1. “…the fact that Swarthmore had no permanent Latino faculty was shocking to Harper.”

    What about Professor Braulio Muñoz? or Professor Luciano Martinez & other various people in the Spanish department (admittedly I never took Spanish so I’m not very informed)? I know some distinguish between Hispanic and Latino, but I’m curious about the status of these faculty as permanent and/or why they aren’t included in the term “Latino”

    • @random question:

      That part of the article stood out to me as well. Other permanent (Associate Professor and Full Professor, respectively) Latino (of Latin American heritage) faculty include Diego Armus of the History Department and Aurora Camacho de Schmidt of the Spanish Section of the Modern Languages and Literatures Department. Perhaps these professors self-identify racially (though not culturally) as Cacausian rather than Latino? Or perhaps Dr. Harper was simply misinformed? Either way, the statement was rather disconcerting, and I hope an explanation can be provided.

  2. Neither Professor Muñoz nor Professor Martínez were born in the United States, though they are from Latin America. When we talk about the need for Latino/a professors and the larger goal of diversifying the faculty, it stems from the need to both affirm and reflect the identities represented in the student body. As many on this campus would attest, the experience of international and U.S.-born minorities are very different, even if talking about the same place of “origin” (ex. Koreans versus Korean Americans). For the large group of people on campus who are of Latin American origin, but who were born in the U.S., it is unacceptable that there is no faculty member (on a tenure track, not just a visiting professor) who comes from a similar background and who can speak to that experience. The absence of such a professor, whose presence would benefit non-Latino students and faculty just as much as it would Latino students, sends a clear message to students, staff, faculty, parents, etc. about the priorities of Swarthmore College (as an esteemed institution of higher learning), and what it deems important enough to act on.

    *Also important to keep it mind – as Professor Harper reminded us, it would be a shame for us to bypass this opportunity for real growth by hiring “a token Latino Professor” for the school. This call for a Latino professor is about much more than filling that one gap.

    • Thanks for clarifying. I agree that the distinction between those born in the U.S. and those from other countries is certainly relevant to one’s identity as a minority.

      However, you didn’t really answer my question. Basically, what seems to be implied is that Swarthmore College actually does have permanent Latino faculty – they just aren’t born in the U.S. So perhaps Harper was just misinformed, or this article forgot to include the important qualifier of “U.S.-born” (I didn’t go to the symposium so I have no idea which one it is). It’s a shame that neither this article or the other articles seem to mention anything about nationality, which is conceptually distinct from race – but nonetheless informs how individuals understand their race.

      • Latino is not the same as Latin American. They are not mutually exclusive terms, but they are not the same. Latino encompasses a community that resides specifically in the U.S. The experiences of the Latino community within the U.S. as a minority group vary vastly from the experience of somebody who grew up their whole life in Latin America. In other words, Latinos grew up being American, and being a minority in America. This is not necessarily the case for Latin Americans. If we do not make a distinction between Latino and Latin American, then we are ignoring the unique experiences of the Latino community which Latin Americans may not have.

        I would correct “US-born” to growing up in the US, though, since many Latin@s were born in their countries of origin and then migrated to the U.S.

  3. If they’re not born in the U.S., then no – they probably don’t identify as Latin@. For example, Enlace, the Latino group on campus, attracts students of Latin American heritage, all of whom were born in the U.S. International students from Latin America do not feel that the group is as relevant to them. The terms Latino and Hispanic aren’t typically used in Latin America by Latin Americans (but when they come to the U.S. it might be imposed upon them). “Latin@” (and Hispanic) speaks to an specific experience and relationship unique to North America.

  4. May I point out that here is one example of the sorts of discussion Harper urged us to have – and it’s refreshing to see. Throughout the Symposium speakers urged us to push through the discomfort that comes from talking about issues of race and engage with one another on the topic regardless, and I see that happening more and more – first due to a terrible national event (the Fl. Shooting) and local event (Confed. Flag incident), and now because of positive happenings (the Symposium). Hopefully this is a sign of progress, and the faculty/administration can join in and help *facilitate* such dialogues so that the onus is not on students.

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