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Letting Time Tell the Story

Letting Time Tell the StoryAfrican American enslavement ended in 1865, which makes current college populations (ages 18-25) only 139 years removed from enslavement. Furthermore, most students are only two generations removed from the Jim Crow era, making it very likely that they have a close relative that spent their entire educational career under the auspices of “separate but equal.”

This history is important to consider, as the benefits, performance and consequences of Black student participation in higher education must be examined from a context that considers the circumstances in which most African Americans enter academia. Given the long history of higher education in this country (Harvard College established in 1636), broad college participation among African Americans is a relatively new phenomenon. Dr. William Bowen and Derek Bok in The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions assert that Black students are less likely to enter college from a background that adequately prepares them for college participation and success.

“Few people today recall the full measure of the predicament in which African Americans found themselves prior to World War II. In 1940, most Black men and women lived out of a common view in rural communities, chiefly in the South. Their annual earnings were less than half those of Whites. The education they received was markedly inferior in quality…The median amount of education received by Blacks aged 25-29 was about seven years. Only 12 percent of Blacks aged 25-29 had completed high school; less than 2 percent could claim a college degree,” note Bowen and Bok.

Large gaps continue to persist regarding salary, education and general life satisfaction between Blacks and Whites, but they are clearly not at the levels present just 60 years ago. The Black community has benefited from pursuing higher education, with Black college graduates serving in leadership roles in not only the Black community, but society at large. However, across the board, research confirms that students of color at predominantly White institutions (PWIs), specifically Black and Latino students, experience less academic success and social satisfaction than their White counterparts.

American colleges and universities still have much work to do in regards to educating and serving their Black student communities. Afterall, it took 89 years after the abolition of slavery (1865) for the country to institute laws desegregating schools (1954). And it will take many more years to truly equalize the educational system for students of color. Therefore, it is premature to question whether affirmative action is working. We are only at the first turn on the long road of educational reform. Fifty years of officially desegregated schools fails to compare to over 400 years of intentional and affirmative efforts to oppress the Black community.

Have as many resources and as much effort been afforded to the social inclusion of the Black community as was initially spent on its enslavement and social exclusion? If not, then as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board, it is clear that we have at least another 50 years of work to do.

Jenkins is the director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center     at Penn State University and doctoral student in educational policy at the University of Maryland College Park.

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