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The Persistence of Racial Inequalities on Liberal Campuses


If I were asked to identify a single book published in 2020 that profoundly changed the way I look at higher education, it would be Matthew Johnson’s Undermining Racial Justice, a study of how the University of Michigan embraced the ideal of racial diversity and inclusion without fundamentally rectifying the campus’ racial inequities.

More than the story of a single university, the book provides powerful, profoundly uncomfortable insights into how highly selective institutions have dealt with the politics of race. True equity, Johnson argues, proved, in the end, to be a secondary priority, behind other campus concerns, including reputation, rankings, and a misguided conception of rigor that channeled far too many Black students away from the highest demand fields. 

Thanks to the 2003 Supreme Court cases Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, Michigan became the poster child for higher education’s efforts to adopt affirmative action in college admissions.  Yet today, just 4.2 percent of the Ann Arbor campus’ undergraduate and graduate student population is Black – in a state where African Americans make up 17 percent of the population.

Why is it that university administrators, genuinely committed to affirmative action in admissions, achieved so little?  Part of the answer can be found in sociologist  Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s 2003 book, Racism without Racists (now in its fifth edition), which shows how seemingly objective, color-blind, race neutral policies architected and administered by individuals without overt racial malice often result in a disparate racial impact. 

Johnson’s volume goes further:  He show how administrators, convinced of their good intentions, valued status over equity, substituted soft diversity initiatives for more disruptive efforts to reduce racial disparities, and sought to coopt pressures for racial justice and prevent activists from disrupting other institutional priorities.

According to Johnson, senior administrators had two overarching goals: To transform the campus into a true multiracial community, while doing nothing that might endanger the campus’ elite status or undermine selectivity, merit, and qualifications in admissions.  By portraying the university as a victim of a racist and inequitable society, which bore responsibility for the campus’ racial disparities, and by creating a host of offices directed by Black staff members, the university’s leadership sought to coopt and channel pressure for radical change and prevent student activists from disrupting other institutional priorities.

Undermining Racial Justice is one of a number of new books that place campus responses to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements into historical perspective.  Eddie R. Coyles’s The Campus Color Line lays bare the contradictory ways that college presidents – South and North, Black and white, from the 1940s through the 1960s — responded to pressure to integrate and diversify their student bodies, while securing funding from foundations and state legislatures and balancing student demands with those of alumni and local officials.

It is noteworthy that some of the same presidents who favored affirmative action in admissions also lobbied for urban renewal near their campuses, displacing nearby Black communities in the process.

Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University by rosalind hampton (sic) examines how Black students and scholars at McGill University negotiate a curriculum and a campus culture that nominally celebrates multiculturalism but which demarcates spaces and activities racially, pressures Blacks to “act white,” teems with stereotype threats, reifies and stereotypes blackness, and patronizes and condescends to Black exposes students and scholars repeatedly. The volume does a powerful job of describing the sense of dislocation, disorientation, and ambivalence that many Black students experience.

In a prophetic essay in the 1969 volume Black Studies in the University, David Brion Davis, who helped negotiate an end to the occupation of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall during Parents’ Weekend that same year, issued a formidable warning:  That universities were deluded if they thought that previously underrepresented students would gladly and gratefully assimilate into preexisting campus cultures. The schools themselves would have to change in ways large and small.

This is a lesson that campuses, over half a century later, still struggle to learn.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Monday, January 4, 2021
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Monday, January 4, 2021