Hoodwinked and Bamboozled: Black Colleges, Desegregation And Selling OutIt is a rainy Tuesday afternoon at the end of the semester. I am at home trying to grade final exams that are due by Friday. As I often do, I have a video playing quietly in the background. Today it has been Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” running unobtrusively on my home office television. At least until I heard Denzel Washington proclaim the words, “I say and I say it again, you’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok.” Now, I have to take a break and draft a few thoughts.
The eternal words of Malcolm X regarding political maneuvering in the African American community relate strongly to recent trends regarding Black colleges and collegiate desegregation compliance, particularly court settlements. The fact that court settlements and consent decrees have become commonplace in collegiate desegregation litigation does not bode well for the future of public Black colleges. Court settlements and consent decrees are ultimate forms of trickery, misperception and “deceit.” The recently approved settlement of Mississippi’s Ayers/Fordice case is a prime example.
The federal government plaintiff, the state identified defendant and the court official have agreed to a $503 million settlement (see Black Issues, May 10, 2001). The settlement is to be executed over a period of 17 years, (i.e. $29 million per year). The funds are to be divided among three public historically Black colleges in the state, (i.e. less than $10 million a year per institution). The funds focus primarily on addressing deferred maintenance on the physical plants resulting from years of inequitable funding by state higher education governance structures. With the remaining resources, institutions are to improve their academic programs and grow the institutional endowment. In exchange for the above, the state of Mississippi is held harmless for over 130 years of racial discrimination manifested in disproportionate funding, disparate impact and bureaucratic maltreatment.
The epistemology of absolution inherent in collegiate desegregation court settlement has long-term implications for institutional funding, capacity and development between the public Black institutions. Court settlements in collegiate desegregation free states from the penalties or consequences of their actions. The agreement is final and legally binding. There is no further negotiation; the differences have been settled. The case is closed.
This trend is not a surprise to me. I warned higher education policy-makers of the implications to collegiate desegregation compliance of allowing the federal plaintiff to usurp the private plaintiffs in my book, The Quest to Define Collegiate Desegregation: Black Colleges, Title VI Compliance, and Post-Adams Litigation (Bergin & Garvey, 1999). In that book, I detailed how the laissez-faire practice of allowing the federal Office of Civil Rights to initiate litigation on behalf of African American plaintiffs and Black colleges would result in a nullification of the spirit and intent of the origins of the case. The federal government is by both statute and nature concerned with expediting the judicial review common in collegiate desegregation. Federal attorneys are swift to attempt to settle disputes outside of the courthouse through consent decrees, consent agreements or stipulations of agreements. While this process abridges the legal process, it simultaneously permits subjunctive legal issues to be “fixed” or “resolved” in secret negotiations between a federal plaintiff rather than through the more observable court process.
Studies of civil rights compliance have indicated that there is a zealous inclination to settle cases. Note the dispensational process of 2,000 civil rights violations brought during a five-year period. Only 27 cases have administrative hearings, 24 were referred to the Justice Department, and 1,949 were settled (without so much as an administrative hearing, much less judicial review). That is a 98 percent settlement rate. Likewise, the government’s primary pursuit in the area of collegiate desegregation compliance has become reaching a settlement, as opposed to investigating the legal merits on which the complaints were brought by African American plaintiffs and Black colleges. These out-of-court settlements, consent degrees and stipulations of agreement inherently weaken the statutory authority of collegiate desegregation compliance, much less the ability of Black colleges to achieve redress for decades of underfunding and unfair treatment. I contend that settlements serve to circumvent collegiate desegregation rather than facilitate compliance.
What have the public Black colleges in the state of Mississippi really gained in the settlement that they did not already have a legal right to? What will be the response to future requests for capital improvements, fiscal concerns, or programmatic growth in Mississippi’s public Black colleges?
I fear that Malcolm X was speaking both historically and prophetically. I’ll go on record as saying it, and upon request I’ll say it again. The public Black colleges in Mississippi (and other states with settlements) have been had. They’ve been took. They’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok. They have been sold a settlement that can never satisfy the deep thirst for just and equitable treatment resulting from over 100 years of being ignored.
— Dr. M. Christopher Brown II is an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University.
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