As the national debate about affirmative action and the constitutionality of minority-only programs mounted last year, Brown University decided to allow white students to participate in its traditionally minority-only freshman program, “Third World Transition Program.” Controversy has swirled since the Brown Daily Herald reported last week that although administrators decided last year to open the program to white students it made no public announcement about the change. Rather, officials claimed that while white members of Brown’s class of 2007 did not receive invitations to the program, they would have been allowed to participate if they had asked.
Although Brown’s official decision may have been right, its execution was decidedly wrong. If Brown wants to be the progressive institution it has long prided itself on being, it should reconsider its approach, and be willing to critically examine other aspects of its program.
As we noted when Yale announced last fall that Cultural Connections would accept white students beginning with the Class of 2008, it seems such opening up of minority-only programs is inevitable given the current political climate. At least, making such opportunities more inclusive seems an infinitely better option than the alternative of eliminating them altogether.
The merit of Brown’s decision, however, seems less the issue here. Although the program will technically be open to white students, Brown officials said they have not yet decided if next year’s white freshmen will even receive invitations. As long as certain students are denied an equal chance to register, Brown’s gesture remains simply that — symbolic instead of substantive. If Brown has decided to admit white students, it should do so because it feels it is the right thing to do — not as a result of legal pressure. And if Brown truly believes it is the right thing to do, it should back its rhetoric with action — by actually giving white students the same chance to participate as others. The whole debacle is embarrassing for Brown. Its failure to publicize the decision makes it look less like a conscious choice to connect people and more like a legal concession the university hoped to keep quiet.
The recent attention Brown’s program has received begs other questions as well, especially about its name, “Third World Transition Program.” Brown’s argument that it chose the term “Third World” over “minority” because the latter has negative connotations is ludicrous. Both terms are rife with negative connotations, and there are more neutral terms — “cultural” and “diversity” for example — that are widely acceptable. Not only is “Third World” offensive and arcane, it is also wrong. The name belies a confusion between socioeconomics and race and between race and ethnicity. “Third World” refers to the economic characteristics of a population, not its racial composition.
We’d predict that most of the “students of color” Brown invited to participate — including those of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American descent — are American-born and U.S. citizens, and not every international student hails from the so-called “Third World.” Even using the term for those that do disregards the fact that the phrase “Third World” has largely faded from public discourse because it was deemed offensive.
Brown’s change to symbolically include white students in its cultural program will likely not quell the controversy over the program. If Brown truly wants to move in a more equalizing direction, perhaps it needs to rethink more than just who attends.