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Is the Department of Justice at War With Diversity?

Is the Department of Justice at War With Diversity?
By Julianne Malveaux

The volume of the bickering on Capitol Hill kicked up considerably as Congress prepared to cut out of Washington for the holidays. Our legislators could not seem to agree on anything when it came to Iraq, bird flue or the deficit. Yet with all that prattling and posturing, they had no reaction to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s announcement that it would not pay for the hotel stays of 60,000 homeless Hurricane Katrina families after Dec. 1. The agency has since decided to extend the hotel deadline. There was also barely a peep made by Congress about the way the Department of Justice is attacking diverse graduate students at Southern Illinois University.

The Justice Department says that three SIU fellowships discriminated against Whites or White males. A fellowship called “Bridge to the Doctorate” was established in 2004 “for underrepresented minority students to initiate graduate study in science, technology, engineering and math” (see Diverse, Dec. 1, 2005). With an annual budget of less than $1 million, the program offers a $30,000 stipend plus $10,500 for educational expenses. A whopping 24 students have been granted this award since its inception. Two other programs, both established in 2000, also allegedly discriminate. One is a graduate fellowship “for women and traditionally underrepresented students who have overcome social, cultural or economic conditions.” Sixteen of the 27 students who have received tuition waivers and $1,000 monthly stipends through that program were White. The other program is the “Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow” program. Seventy-eight students have received tuition waivers and a monthly stipend. For some reason this seems to rankle the Justice Department.

Actually, the department seems to be acting as a front for the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Center for Individual Rights, anti-affirmative action “think thanks” that have declared war on race-conscious scholarships. The malcontents at the CEO are in abject denial about racism and the racial disparities that remain in our society. At a time when African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are woefully underrepresented in the Ph.D. ranks, especially in the sciences and engineering, an organization that purports to stand for equal opportunity is using its resources to attempt to slam doors in the faces of thousands of students.

According to the National Science Foundation, 28,041 doctoral degrees were awarded in 2005. Just 1,695 of those — 6 percent — were awarded to African-Americans. Another 1,419 — 5 percent — were awarded to Hispanics. A scant 136 degrees, or less than half of 1 percent, were awarded to American Indians. In the name of equity it seems that our government ought to applaud, not attempt to shut down, efforts to increase these numbers.

To be sure, any conversation that focuses solely on the Ph.D. deals with just a tiny slice of the educational challenges that people of color face. There are unarguably issues from pre-K on up the line. Many of them have been painfully illustrated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Most public schools will not open in New Orleans until 2006. From a race and class perspective, it is likely that low- and moderate-income African-American students are most affected by these school closings, and that their families will be the ones most affected by the pace of rebuilding New Orleans. The contrast in the physical plant and equipment of inner-city high schools and suburban high schools is stark, which shows up as a contrast in exposure and achievement level between students who attended those very different high schools. And cost is as much a barrier for higher education as anything else.

Still, the thirst for knowledge among some students of color is as keen as it has ever been. Despite both obvious and subtle barriers, thousands of students continue to pursue the doctorate and life in the academy. These students need encouragement, financial support and other help. Is it justice or injustice that a government department wants these programs to stop? Why not instead look at the many programs and scholarship funds, throughout academe, that have never provided a dollar to a student of color? Why not do exit interviews with students who have left Ph.D. programs depressed and demoralized because their professors were tormentors, not mentors?

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., says the attack on diverse students “just doesn’t make sense.” Most reasonable people would concur. But it is not clear to me that this Justice Department has a goal of making sense, or of promoting justice. Instead, it has sent yet another signal to diverse students chasing their educational dreams. To refine rapper Kanye West’s comment that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” I would just say that his administration does not care about educational diversity.

SIU was given a November deadline to cease and desist its fellowship programs or risk a federal lawsuit. The university has responded by asking the department for a meeting, which is set to take place in the not-too-distant future. It will be interesting to watch the ways this case develops. Is the Department of Justice at war with diversity?

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