Confused Thinking about White Student Unions and Racism

The controversy over establishing a White Student Union (WSU) at Towson University in Baltimore provides an excellent opportunity to explore how whites think about issues like racism, inequality, discrimination and education.  While it may be the case that Matthew Heimbach, the white student promoting the WSU, is a genuine white supremacist, some of his arguments resonate with more mainstream whites: “If they have a Black Student Union, why shouldn’t we have a White Student Union?  Isn’t this just a matter of fairness?”

Even before the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, public opinion polls showed that a large proportion of whites believed that racism was a thing of the past.  In employment and education, the argument goes, the playing field is fairly level today.  Racial discrimination is only a minor problem and hard work generally leads to success.

Of course, most of us can clearly see that there are large inequalities between the incomes and educational attainments of whites and Asians, on the one hand, and Blacks and Hispanics on the other.  The explanation inequality, according to this argument, relies on culture rather than discrimination: Blacks and Hispanics don’t try hard enough, they don’t value education, they don’t have strong families, etc.  Sociologists refer to this as blaming the victim.

If you accept this culture argument, the idea that whites are privileged and that special programs are needed to help Blacks and Hispanics seems ludicrous.   Not only are these programs seen as unnecessary and wasteful, many of them are viewed as hurting whites who have struggled hard to get where they are.  Some even use the term reverse discrimination.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not based on reality.  Racism and racial inequality are, unfortunately, still alive and well, even though they are different than in the past.

o In 2009, for example, the FBI reported almost 4000 race-based hate crimes, with Blacks being victimized at four times the rate of whites.  Most observers see this as the tip of the ice berg.

o In 2011, 35,000 race-based employment discrimination complaints were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the vast majority by Blacks and Hispanics.

o  Blacks and Hispanics make up 61 percent of the prison population even though they are only about one-third of the American population.

o Towson University is still a predominantly white campus, with almost 70% of the student body being white and only 13.5% black.  Compare this to the 30% of the state population that is black.  Even UMBC, a more selective institution on the other side of Baltimore County, clocks in at 15% black and slightly less than half white.

Towson, like most other colleges,  reflects mainstream American culture, which is also white.  Towson University IS the white student union, although it is making progress with cultural diversity.

Minority student unions began emerging across the country in the late 1960s to develop a sense of cultural solidarity and to fight for minority rights and more diversity on campus.  While they have achieved some success, the struggle isn’t over.  White student unions are a great step backward.


Affirmative Action in College Admissions: Race vs Class


Fred L. Pincus


In the current debate over affirmative action at the University of Texas, one issue that always comes up is the “class vs race” debate.  While affirmative action programs on college admissions focus on race, critics often argue that the real problem is class; i.e., low income families are underrepresented in higher education.

As so often happens in affirmative action debates, critics present this as an “either/or” discussion when it should be structured in “both/and” terminology.  Non-Asian students of color still need help, but so do low income students from all backgrounds.

Some simple statistics can illustrate this point.


Table 1: Percent Distribution of Bachelor’s Degrees Compared with Racial Distribution of Population, 2010
Racial Group Bachelor’s Degrees Total Population Over/Under Representation
Non-Hispanic Whites             72.9%             63.8%             +9.1%



Black             10.3             12.2             -1.9
Hispanic               8.8


American Indian               0.8



Other/ 2+ races                na







Chronicle of Higher Eduation, August 31, 2010.  U.S.Census Bureau.

These data make it clear that in spite of several decades of affirmative action and other programs designed to help the underprivileged, whites are still overrepresented in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees that they receive (72.9%) when compared to their distribution in the general population (63.8%).   Blacks and especially Hispanics are still underrepresented.

Asians are also overrepresented among BA recipients but this figure masks important differences among Asians.  While students from Chinese, Japanese and Indian backgrounds are doing quite well, those from Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hmong backgrounds are not.  The data also suggest that American Indian students are adequately represented but the numbers are too small to be confident in this conclusion.  There is still a lot of work to be done to achieve racial equity.


It is much more difficult to get good data on family income and education than on race.  Fortunately, a neat little newsletter, Postsecondary Education Opportunity, has been publishing these data for years.  Using federal income data, Tom Mortenson separates families into 4 income quartiles, or fourths.  He then estimates the chances that a student from each quartile will get a bachelor’s degree.

Table 2: Estimated Baccalaureate Degree Attainment by Age 24 by Family Income Quartile, 1970 and 2009
Family Income Quartile  























Highest:lowest ratio





Postsecondary Education Opportunity, November 2010.


In 2009, children from the highest income quartile had an 82.4% chance of getting a BA, while those from the lowest quartile only had an 8.3% chance of getting a BA.  This means that high income children were almost 10 times more likely to get a BA than children from low income families.

Comparing the 2009 data to the 1970 data, we see several things.  First, students from all quartiles were more likely to get a BA in 2009 than in 1970.  Second, students from low income families were less likely than those from high income families to get a bachelor’s degree in 1970, just as they were in 2009.

Finally, and most astonishingly, the gap between high and low income families grew significantly in 2009 as compared with 1970.  In 1970, students from high income families were 6.5 times more likely than low income families to get a BA.  In 2009, that same figure jumped to 9.9.

What does this tell us.  First, it is still necessary to pursue race-based affirmative action to deal with the under-representation of blacks and Hispanics among BA recipients.  Second, it is necessary to pursue policies to increase the number BA recipients from low- and moderate-income families.  Both race and class inequality in higher education are still critically important.  Most of those who make the “class rather than race” argument are more interested in stopping race-based affirmative action than in helping low and moderate income students.