Amherst Magazine

Social Experiments

imageBy Sarah Auerbach '96

“There are white people on financial aid?”

The question comes from an Amherst student, under the pseudonym Trina, in Elizabeth Aries’ new book, Race and Class Matters at an Elite College. The day financial aid forms are due at Amherst, Trina, an African-American student from a low-income family, and some classmates fill out the forms in their common room. That’s when Trina discovers that “not all white people are rich, and not all black people are the poor ones.”

In 2005-06, Aries, a professor of psychology, surveyed 58 members of the first-year class, including Trina, in order to find out what Amherst is like for four categories of students: white and affluent, black and affluent, white and lower-income and black and lower-income. Aries interviewed the students at the start and end of freshman year.

She wanted to know: What challenges do lower-income students and black students face on campus? Do students make friends across lines of race and class? Do they talk about or take courses that address racial and socioeconomic divisions?

More broadly, she wanted to know whether students learn from one another—about difference and similarity, about self and other and, beyond such abstractions, about one another’s lives. The overall answer, Aries says, is yes.

But, as Aries reports, lower-income students and black students learn more than affluent whites. For example, 93
percent of lower-income whites in the study, but only 54 percent of affluent whites, report getting to know two or more black students well. Forty-seven percent of lower-income whites, compared to 21 percent of affluent whites, report that living and interacting with students of different races at the college has changed their view of race.

Why the discrepancy? One possible explanation, Aries says, is that, with more affluent whites on campus than either black students or lower-income students, it’s easier for affluent whites to surround themselves with students like themselves. The lower-income students and black students in the study, Aries says, “had to reach outside their comfort zones to form connections with classmates.”

In Race and Class, published in October by Temple University Press, the students (whose real names are not used) speak freely. Aries writes that, at the start of freshman year, many less-affluent students are hyper-aware of their richer classmates’ belongings. “Everyone here has an iPod,” Nicole, a lower-income white student, says in the book. “I definitely don’t have one of those.” Students like Nicole notice other trappings of wealth: their peers’ trips to Europe, exposure to Broadway plays and networks of summer camp and private school friends.
 
Aries visits thorny topics. Do black students “self-segregate,” as some white students in her study fear aloud they will? Aries says no. She teases out a detailed picture of a phenomenon that she says can look like self-segregation: As Sarah,
an affluent white subject, says, “When [black students] are in their clique, I don’t know if I can really approach them.” But Aries points out that “most black students, upon seeing whites together, did not assume any special ‘tie’ or ‘bond’ in operation because of race.”

The book also takes up stereotypes of affluent students—that rich white girls all carry “the same Coach bag,” as one subject puts it, have “the same Dooney and Bourke rain boots” and “would exclude people based on class issues.”
“It is striking,” Aries writes, “that on a campus where it is unacceptable to disparage people based on their race, religion or sexuality … students felt quite free to make pejorative comments about very wealthy students.”

To Aries, one of the book’s disturbing findings is that, after a year at Amherst, lower-income students find themselves bridging two very different worlds—home and college—with a growing distance between them. Not only do some see the communities they’ve left behind in a less positive light, but their friends and family from home can perceive them as “showing off” and as outsiders.

As a whole, though, the book demonstrates that efforts at Amherst to enroll qualified students of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are not simply acts of social justice or generosity—they’re good education, and they make places like Amherst ideal backdrops for reducing prejudice.

Image copyright Kathy Warinner / Corbis.