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Perspectives: Attacks Against Black Student Programs Have Broad Consequences

We are facing a serious crisis that is robbing higher education of its ability to educate all by providing the special programs that are necessary to make up for centuries of exclusion, subordination, misinformation and inferiorization of the intellect of Blacks. The City University of New York is being sued by a conservative legal organization for maintaining such a program, and in the past few years, nearly 100 programs have been eliminated by such educational terrorism. This crisis must be faced down. 

The problems of access for Blacks and Hispanics, especially to selective institutions, grows more difficult even as the absolute numbers of those enrolled increases. And recent cuts in higher education programs continue to illustrate the lack of will to expand education for all and an understanding that the social environment plays a vital role in this process.

Studies by Dr. Gary Orfield at the Harvard Civil Rights Institute have conclusively demonstrated that the low economic status of Blacks and Hispanics plays a role in their high school attendance and performance and access to higher education. The critical role of economic status is seen in the current enrollment figures that illustrate a decline of Black students in law and medicine schools and flat enrollment in Ph.D. programs. This suggests that students from low-income families are increasingly refusing to take on higher levels of debt to finance their education.

By all accounts, educational access, especially for those who have been left behind, has become an urgent resource. Consider the fact that the economic crisis of the Black community is deepening, although the national economy appeared to flourish. The Bush administration has said that 5 million jobs have been generated in recent years, as unemployment stood at generally 4.7 percent. But it seems the resurgent economy missed the Black community. Some indices come to mind:

·        Industrial jobs have — where Blacks make up 25 percent of the work force — declined by 2.7 million since 2001.

·        Home ownership has increased from 43 percent to 48 percent since 2001, but studies by The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston also found that debt levels increased disproportionately among Blacks compared to Whites.

·        Globalization creates a situation where American workers are the subject of employment pressure due to the outsourcing of jobs and internal competition from immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

·        Affirmative action has been severely weakened by the courts, beginning with the Bakke case of 1978, through Proposition 209 in California and Washington State, and in the Hopwood case, which led to the imposition of Percentage enrollment Plans in Texas and Florida.

Stopping at the Grutter decision, we have arrived at a notion of “diversity” that is not based on the idea of compensatory justice presented by President Lyndon Johnson in his commencement speech at Howard University in June of 1964. Instead, we have a vague notion that institutions of higher education should be allowed to pursue diverse construction of their institution as a principle valuable in the process of education.

Now, conservative legal organizations have threatened institutions with lawsuits over specialized minority programs, which work to overcome the educational limitations caused by substandard K-12 schools. Utilizing a corrupted definition of  “discrimination” — which references consideration of race in any context — these organizationss have intimidated such institutions into behaving as though affirmative action no longer exists and that these relatively small programs somehow threaten the rights and privileges of White students.

The social objective of such threats, very often with inferred support from the Civil Rights Office of the U.S. Department of Education, appears to be to reduce the presence of African-American students in such institutions, an outcome that cannot be justified according to the place of such students in a knowledge-based economy, the constitution of the social membership of the institutions, the needs of the nation for trained manpower or the leadership structure of society as a whole

Recent news reports have said that American universities are becoming more selective as their application rates have soared between 5 percent and 26 percent. According to USAToday, institutions such as the University of  Pennsylvania, Hamilton College,  Northwestern University, Vassar College, Brown University and others have all experienced a boom in applications, while they are accepted a lower percentage of applicants for the entering freshman classes.

It appears somewhat contradictory for the White House to create an initiative in math and science — in the full knowledge that the country is becoming more multicultural through minority majority states like Texas, California and Florida — and yet allow the Civil Rights division of the DOE to participate in limiting special programs. These programs provide enrichment for minority youth — many from underprivileged high schools — to attend summer programs before entering college. Rather than oversee their destruction, the White House should encourage such initiatives.

Dr. Ronald Walters, a professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland, is director of the African American Leadership Institute and Scholar Practitioner Program.

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