Racial barriers in post secondary education

Sean W. Cooper, Assistant Opinion Editor

Editor’s Note: Sean W. Cooper is a sophomore at UNCW majoring in Communication Studies. He is the Assistant Opinion Editor for The Seahawk. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Assistant Opinion Editor Sean W. Cooper can be found on Twitter @SWWCoop. All suggestions or inquires may be sent via email to swc9205@uncw.edu. 

It’s no secret that certain races are more disadvantaged than others in America. This is especially true of the African American population. Had it not been for centuries of slavery followed by another century of Jim Crow laws, it’s pretty much guaranteed that African Americans would have full equality with their Caucasian counterparts.

Granted we would also be a far less diverse nation, but that is beside the point; equality is equality, no matter how large the majority or minorities.

Let’s take into consideration that these disadvantaging events only ended roughly fifty years ago. That means that America had been a slave-owning country for nearly 80% of its existence. The ramifications are still present.

I would like to mention a few examples for you. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, African Americans face a national incarceration rate of 2,306 for every 100,000, more than five times the incarceration rate of Caucasians. Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau states that all-black households earn a mean annual income that is nearly $30,000 shy of those in all-white households.

That’s not what I’m here to talk about, though. I’m here to talk about what is most pertinent to us as college students: the ramifications of past oppression as far as education is concerned.

Up until the Reconstruction Era, African Americans had few prospects for receiving a post secondary education. According to American RadioWorks, few white schools in the 19th century would accept African American students and only three schools (one in Ohio and two in Pennsylvania) educated predominantly African American students.

Therefore the fight for education for African Americans was a grassroots movement that involved creating schools specifically for African Americans, which of course are known today as historically black colleges or HBCU’s.

Who helped get it all started? African American preachers who were devoted to breaking the barrier along with Caucasian philanthropists who were willing to help out with the financial aspects.

This was only the first part of the change. The second part was the Morrill Act of 1890, which mandated that in order receive federal funding for higher education the states had to provide education to African American students.

While this mandate was a successful step toward solving the problem, it also proved to exacerbate the problem. No way in hell was any white school in 1890 going to let “Negro” students through their doors—so instead, the states opened more HBCU’s.

It baffles me how long it has taken to integrate schools. If we go back to even as recently as 1963 we see Governor George Wallace standing in front of the doors to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama, in a symbolic attempt to prevent three African American students from entering (thus, attending) the school.

What we should be doing is closing down these HBCU’s because their existence is a remnant of, if not a continuous catalyst for, de facto desegregation. Furthermore, the existence of HBCU’s is the reason even the top public universities have low levels of diversity.

At the University of Virginia, for example, only 6.1% of students are African American and at the University of California – Berkeley, only 2.5% of students are African American. Here at UNCW, roughly 5% of our population is African American.

Now I’m not advocating affirmative action here or reverse discrimination as some prefer to call it. In a recent article I covered diversity in UNCW’s faculty, writing that we shouldn’t be aiming specifically to make our staff as white as possible or as black as possible—and the same goes for students.

However, we must go back to my initial point: African Americans have been systematically disadvantaged in America and this is exactly why they are underrepresented on our campuses. It all starts with the way people are raised and as mentioned earlier, all-black households bring home an annual mean income that is nearly $30,000 short of what all-white households bring home.

The sad reality is that a larger percentage of the African American population than the Caucasian population is growing up in the lower underclass, working poor or working-class families. This means a whole host of different things. It means that African Americans aren’t as often raised by parents who have gone to college. It means these students aren’t quite as commonly expected as Caucasian students to go to college. It means that they are more often attending schools in poorer areas that don’t prepare them as well for college.

Perhaps most certainly, it means that these families can’t afford to send their kids to college.

Now I’m not going to say how this issue can be solved and that’s because I don’t know how. I wish I did. If I were Bernie Sanders and thought I could wave my magic executive order wand and say “free college for everybody,” I would—but unfortunately, that sort of economics only works in the land of make-believe. (As much as we’d like it to, Occam’s razor—the theory that the simplest solution to a problem is always the best solution—rarely seems to work in politics.)

In the words of the Grateful Dead, our best temporary solution is to “hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.” Things certainly won’t change on their own, but if the voting population among us elects men and women who will push for progress, then progress is guaranteed. It’s hard to deny that inequality exists along racial boundaries, but it’s equally hard to deny that we have come quite far in the past five decades; we can only go up from here.