Poison in the Ivy


Poison in the Ivy: Race Relations and the Reproduction of Inequality on Elite College Campuses
(Rutgers University Press, 2017)

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The world of elite campuses is one of rarified social circles, as well as prestigious educational opportunities. W. Carson Byrd studied twenty-eight of the most selective colleges and universities in the United States to see whether elite students’ social interactions with each other might influence their racial beliefs in a positive way, since many of these graduates will eventually hold leadership positions in society. He found that students at these universities believed in the success of the ‘best and the brightest,’ leading them to situate differences in race and status around issues of merit and individual effort.

Poison in the Ivy challenges popular beliefs about the importance of cross-racial interactions as an antidote to racism in the increasingly diverse United States. He shows that it is the context and framing of such interactions on college campuses that plays an important role in shaping students’ beliefs about race and inequality in everyday life for the future political and professional leaders of the nation. Poison in the Ivy is an eye-opening look at race on elite college campuses, and offers lessons for anyone involved in modern American higher education.

Poison in the Ivy is more than a study of how students at highly selective universities interact along racial lines; the book’s insights reach far beyond to the current state of racial inequality more generally.  Byrd examines a group of people – those educated at elite institutions – often held up as a model of sophisticated and liberal racial attitudes.  His careful analysis raises important questions about their actual skills with understanding and navigating current racial realities.  Given that these graduates tend to hold high powered positions in the world post-college, Byrd’s study offers a sobering forecast of what to expect in the years to come.  This is an important book that scholars of race & ethnicity, higher education, and inequality more generally should read immediately.”
–Amanda Lewis, author of Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color-line in Classrooms and Communities

“We are indebted to Byrd for his exploration of the murky social undercurrents of undergraduate life. He documents how the gap between students of different racial groups that begins at home grows into a chasm in college. Those of us who venture to campus—whether as students, staff, or faculty—should take note of Byrd’s somber and sobering call: that without concerted efforts on behalf of college and universities to remake themselves, ‘we will continue to witness students graduate from institutions learning little from their race-related experiences and interactions, and possibly avoiding particular situations’ and people altogether, which will only serve to ‘perpetuate not only racial inequality in the broader social world, but higher education’s role in contributing to such inequality for generations to come’ (p. 190).”
Anthony A. Jack, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, in Contemporary Sociology

Poison in the Ivy definitively demonstrates that racial attitudes, relationships and outcomes do not simply result from personal choices, but instead are deeply rooted in centuries-old patterns. Economic, political, historical and institutional realities can—and too often do—thwart the best intentioned, ‘feel good’ efforts to change structured racial inequality in America by simply changing individual attitudes and behaviors. As Critical Race Theorist Derrick Bell (1992) reminded readers, structured racial inequality is a tough nut to crack, since it rests on notions of White Supremacy, ensures White Privilege and protects White Group Interests. ‘When whites perceive that it will be profitable or at least cost-free to serve, hire, admit, or other-wise deal with blacks on a nondiscriminatory basis, they do so. When they fear—accurately or not—that there may be a loss, inconvenience, or upset to themselves or other whites, discriminatory conduct usually follows.’ (Bell, 1992, p. 7)”
–Walter R. Allen, Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Higher Education Distinguished
Professor of Education, Sociology and African American Studies, UCLA, and Gadise Regassa, doctoral student, UCLA, in the Review of Higher Education

“Such insights have important implications for the study of social interaction
in that they highlight the need to examine not merely the quantity and quality of interactions but the cultural and structural context they are embedded in. Byrd’s analysis convincingly demonstrates that understanding contact alone is insufficient if we do not consider how that context may imbue particular kinds of meanings to those interactions that can enhance or undermine the impact of cross-racial contact. Such insights are important not only to our understanding of higher education but racial inequality more broadly. Without attention to these issues, racial inequality may be perpetuated for decades to come.”
–Jennifer A. Jones, author of The Browning of the New South, in the American Journal of Sociology

“A robust dissection of how educational racial inequality is reproduced under rosy conditions. Staggering in both facts and analysis, Poison in the Ivy will make you jump and twitch, but is so thorough that it guarantees not to leave you itching for more.”
–Matthew W. Hughey, author of White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race

“Higher education decision makers who are struggling with campus relations should make this book a part of their working life.”
–Keondria E. McClish, Journal of Continuing Higher Education

-Interview with Avery Kolers on Ethics Forward (Forward Radio): Recording of Interview
-Interview with Nick Roll of Inside Higher Ed: Q&A with IHE
-Mentioned by Vuyani Sokaba in Voices360 article on institutional racism in higher education: “Institutional Racism at Our Universities: What Sustains It and How Do We Overcome It”

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