School Segregation Lives on in Class Difference

Andy Monserud

On a recent trip to New Orleans with a few other Whitties, a concierge at a hotel made a joke that made me think. Exhausted from almost a full day of traveling, we had come to the hotel for the Associated College Press conference hosted there. Amused by our dazed appearances, the concierge laughed and said, “Y’all look like you’ve never seen a black person before.” We explained our fatigue, but over the course of the weekend, I realized that the man had a point. African Americans, especially those from working-class backgrounds, are conspicuously absent at Whitman. Less than three percent of the class of 2017 are African American, and while first-generation college students are more common they still only make up 10 percent of the class. This has a lot to do with geography, of course. From sheer historical background, Louisiana will probably always have more African Americans than Washington does. The African American population of the state of Washington is not much denser than that of Whitman, representing a little under four percent of the total population.

But that can’t be the whole story. A better illustration of race at Whitman lies right here in Walla Walla County. Twenty percent of the county identified themselves as Latino or Hispanic in the most recent census. Of the class of 2017, only 7.4 percent claimed Hispanic heritage on their applications. This puts them well behind Asian Americans, who clock in at 12.6 percent at Whitman. This makes Asian Americans the largest non-white group by a full 5.2 percentage points, but only 1.4 percent of Walla Walla County and 7.7 percent of Washington identifies as Asian American. Obviously, Whitman wants to recruit from outside of the Walla Walla bubble, but there is a noticeable imbalance between the college’s demographics and those of the state. The Seattle area, home to an enormous portion of Whitman students, reflects these statistics a little more closely with a low Hispanic population and a high Asian American one, but it is almost eight percent African-American and just under 70 percent white, a drop from Whitman’s Caucasian numbers. So the geography argument is moot. Whitman College’s admissions process is selective, with only a 54 percent admittance rate. So most of the people who come here are not only intelligent, but come from strong educational backgrounds, not to mention parents willing to foot at least a large part of the bill. That means that most students come from private schools or high-income public schools. Most working-class families of any ethnic group don’t have access to that kind of education.

I remember visiting my mother, a public school teacher at an inner-city school, at work in my youth. Upon walking in the door, I realized that almost everyone I saw was black –– most of them first- or second-generation Somali immigrants, whose families began coming to Minnesota in large waves in the early 2000s. I remember marveling at the fact that there were so many black people; at my second-ring suburban elementary school there were so few I could probably count them on my hands. Much larger classes than mine were packed into rooms smaller than those at my school, teachers had to make do with out-of-touch curriculum mandated by No Child Left Behind and my mother to this day will rarely talk about anything other than the fact that she has to teach for standardized tests to keep the school above water, preventing her from helping students actually learn anything. But I may talk education reform another time.

The point is, school segregation lives on in class distinction. College is expensive for everyone, of every race, ethnic group, religion or socioeconomic class. Whitman’s courses of study are difficult and require a solid high school education. Although Whitman offers impressive financial aid, it’s important that as members of the community, we examine the factors that contribute to Whitman’s white-washing, and take action to combat them. Walla Walla has so many schools that it’s hard to find a spot outside a school-zone, as Residence Life staff informed us on move-in day. With all those kids around, we should do something to help them get the opportunities afforded to us. Student service opportunities abound at Whitman, including several that support school-age children and adolescents around Walla Walla and the world. I strongly recommend checking them out.