Walter Allen’71 Takes on the Status Quo
in General Hospital #2, the “colored hospital” in Kansas City, Mo. Jim Crow segregation was very much alive, and Allen was educated at a school that was largely black and poor, a school where ideas of what a student could achieve certainly didn’t include becoming a leader in the field of sociology and a respected professor at a major university. In 1949, Walter Allen’71 was born
But Allen was fortunate that when he graduated high school in 1967, times were changing. The National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students took African-American students who did well on their national achievement tests and matched them with colleges looking to increase their tiny—or nonexistent—percentage of black students.
That was just the beginning for Allen, who calls himself “a member of the pioneer generation of black ‘shock troops.’ I rode the wave of ‘firsts’ into a distinguished academic career.”
Allen decided to attend Beloit because he had visited Wisconsin once before and liked it, “but I was there in August and it didn’t dawn on me that January would come.” Allen’s first plan was to study marine biology—a plan that “crashed on the shores of biochemistry,” he wryly notes. “I came from a very weak academic background and was put in a very tough academic schedule. I was also playing football and had a full-time job. I stumbled very seriously that first semester.”
He passed biochemistry, but barely (as a sign of his persistence, he retook the class his senior year and received an A minus). Then he enrolled in a class taught by Blake Hill, “a brilliant young teacher. She recognized something in me, cultivated me, and I was swept up in sociology.”
With help from some key professors, Allen applied to and got into the University of Chicago and received his Ph.D. in sociology. After stints at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan, he joined UCLA’s sociology department in 1988 and is now the Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.
The overarching theme for all his research, he said, is to demonstrate and combat the separate and unequal segregation that is embedded in America—from the hospital one is born in to the education opportunities to the cleanliness and safety of neighborhoods.
“My entire career has been about documenting that these issues are real,” he says.
Allen is quick to say that this country has evolved since he was a boy—and certainly since his parents worked as sharecroppers in the South.
“I absolutely celebrate the changes we’ve made in overcoming prejudices regarding race, ethnicity, and gender,” he says. “But we have so much further to go.”
One of Allen’s major undertakings is the 1998 establishment of The Choices Project, a research initiative. The project examines how California’s African-American and Latino students, who historically have low college attendance and graduation rates, are affected during key transitional points in their education.
The project focuses on creating a college-going culture through elementary and secondary school; basic information for high schoolers about what college is and represents; identification of the individual, family, and institutional characteristics that ensure most of these students have a successful college experience; and better access for African Americans and Latinos to graduate schools in law, medicine, and other disciplines.
Some of Allen’s most notable work has been focused on diversity in law schools. A year after the landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision which upheld the affirmative action admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School—a case in which Allen testified as an expert—he and three colleagues from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill formed the Educational Diversity Project. The first step was to gather data from about 8,000 students at 68 law schools and conduct interviews with law professors.
They also held focus groups with a subset of the participants and in 2007, when the classes graduated, they did a follow-up survey and conducted interviews with law professors.
They found, “diversity matters in a big way,” Allen says. “We have black-letter law, but when you start discussing individuals, and bringing context and interpretation and perspectives of human beings in the mix, it becomes so much more important to bring diversity to the table.”
That may seem like common sense, but as Allen says, “social science is important because then we have empirical evidence. It’s not just a matter of opinion.”
More heterogeneous law schools, he says, made differences in everything from the professions lawyers chose—public interest over corporate law, for example—to choices in law firms.
The project is looking for additional funding for a 10-year follow-up to see if the impact of diversity has continued.
Most recently, Allen has expanded his work into an area that may seem unusual, but rather is a natural evolution from his underlying concerns: race, justice, and equality. He is part of the Central African Biological Diversity Alliance, working with ecologists, environmental scientists, and evolutionary biologists to preserve tropical forests while also saving the way of life “of people nearby who have a long historical relationship with the land,” he says. “If you declare it a conservation area and off limits, where will the people get the game meat to supplement their meager diets? What happens if you ban access to ancestral burial grounds?”
The organization is in its third year of a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation.
Besides his research, Allen points with pride to his teaching and training of undergraduates and graduate students who continue and expand on his work. He has received numerous awards for his research and teaching.
“All my experiences at Beloit bridge to what I do now—the progressive social change orientation, working across disciplines, and a clear sense that the work should have relevance in the real world,” he says.
While acknowledging that “we are in a very problematic period in terms of inequality,” he also knows that the nature of change is that it ebbs and flows.
“When you challenge power, privilege, and the status quo,” he says, “the status quo will fight back.”
Alina Tugend is a freelance journalist based in New York.