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Coretta Scott King and I

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In the late ’80s, I shared the stage with Coretta Scott King. For about seven seconds. She spoke at my college graduation ceremony, and if I remember correctly, she stood near the school president as I collected my diploma from him.

It was a brief and somewhat embarrassing brush with greatness.

When I first learned King was to be our speaker, I was tickled that someone of her historical stature (she did everything her husband did, but backwards and in high heels, right?) was even visiting our small school. But then she started talking, and the more she talked, the more I squirmed in my seat.[ADBLOCKHERE]

Smart, educated lass that I now was, it dawned on me pretty quickly that King was speaking to an almost entirely white audience. And she didn’t mince any words, either. My graduating class of about 400 had ONE black student. King talked about the racial inequities that still existed in our country, in particular in education, and our white, middle-to-upper-middle-class audience had to look at ourselves and our school and wonder why almost no people of color–and I’m not just talking about African Americans–were among us that day.

As King spoke in her distinctive tone, I wondered, why the hell did she agree to speak here, a tiny, elite-wannabe liberal arts college in Pennsylvania? Of course, Muhlenberg College was the perfect place for her to speak, a Lutheran school that a) had become so religiously integrated that non-Lutherans outnumbered Lutherans 2:1 but that b) hadn’t figured out how to cultivate a racially balanced student body.

Many years later, the same basic religious distribution remains intact: Catholic (33%), Jewish (28%), and Protestant (25%). But what about racial diversity? Has the school succeeded in attracting candidates from different cultural backgrounds? Or has it remained a haven for average-to-privileged suburban white kids?

You do the math: According to the Muhlenberg web site, “between 7% and 9% of Muhlenberg students are of African-American, Asian, Hispanic or Native American descent.” That’s it; less than ten percent. Unfortunately, in a region of the country where, on average, 15-25% of the population isn’t white, Muhlenberg hasn’t been able to bring its own minority population in line with the overall regional population.

Muhlenberg College Student Body Geographic Distribution
New Jersey 36%
Pennsylvania 21%
New York 21%
New England 14%
Del./Md./Va./D.C. 5%
Other States/Foreign 3%

As the figures above illustrate, Muhlenberg draws its student body from the surrounding states. The three states that provide the school almost 80% of its students have a minority population far larger than 7-9%, as the following census figures indicate:

New Jersey
White: 72.6%

Black/African American: 13.6%
Asian: 5.7%
Hispanic or Latino: 13.3%

New York
White: 67.9%
Black/African American: 15.9%
Asian: 5.5%
Hispanic or Latino: 15.1%

White: 85.4
Black/African American: 10.0%
Asian: 1.8%
Hispanic or Latino: 3.2%

I’m not trying to slam my old school. To be fair, it looks like the college has made a concerted effort to attract more minority students. The problem, of course, is not unique to my alma mater but common among small, private, suburban-esque colleges. How do they attract minority students to campuses where those kids will be in an even smaller minority than they were in their hometowns? What’s in it for the students?

At King’s memorial service Monday, Oprah Winfrey said that King “leaves us all a better America than the America of her childhood.” Certainly true. And yet we still have much more work to do when it comes to integrating certain areas of our society, especially higher education.

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About Lori Mortimer