By Charlene Crowell
As millions of students return to school, the nation’s Justice Department (DOJ) is beginning an investigation that could potentially sue universities over affirmative action admissions policies. As first reported by the New York Times, Justice’s Civil Rights Division will carry out this effort to determine whether white applicants were discriminated against.
For Black people and other ethnic and racial minorities, this investigation seems like window-dressing to deny millions of students a quality education in the name of injustice. Such actions also signal a more subtle message to roll back the progress achieved in broadly affording students of all races and ethnicities the benefits that higher education derives. Among education and civil rights advocates a strong belief holds that everyone benefits when obstacles to educational opportunity are overcome.
“The American Dream offers each new generation the opportunity to build on the successes of previous ones,” wrote Nikitra Bailey, an executive vice president with the Center for Responsible Lending, in a related op-ed. “However, if you are African-American, the nation’s history of enslavement and legal bigotry consistently requires each generation to start anew.”
Bailey is correct.
Despite the vigilance of civil rights heroes over multiple generations, the heralded 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, or a series of 1960s laws that were enacted to guarantee full and first-class citizenship to every Black American, even more work remains to be done before everyone is afforded the promises of America.
It’s been several years since the anti-affirmation action crusade took its venomous campaign to states across the country. Beginning in California in 1996 and continuing through 2010, Ward Connerly, a former University of California Regent, led a series of statewide campaigns to constitutionally ban affirmative action in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington State. Regardless of the state, the goal was always the same: make it illegal for public colleges and universities to include consideration of race or ethnicity in college admissions.
Only in Colorado was the effort turned back by voters. In all of the other locales, the measure passed with broad support, often despite many business and corporate leaders joining with civil rights advocates in opposition.
For example, prior to the November 2006 Proposal 2 ballot vote in Michigan, Paul Hillegonds, a white Republican and former Speaker of the State House, helped to lead a statewide coalition of more than 200 organizations pledged to defeat the measure.
“If it passes, we are announcing to the world that women and minorities will not be given an equal opportunity to succeed in business in our state,” said Hillegonds. “This is the wrong message to send at a time when we are trying to attract new businesses and develop a talented, multicultural workforce ready to meet the demands of the 21st Century economy.”
State approved bans on affirmative action in higher education also led to fewer Black students in the University of California system as well as at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Today the real difference between then and now is that the U.S. Justice Department is resuming a fight for the preservation of white privilege that is armed with resources and personnel that taxpayers of all colors provide.
“President Trump’s Justice Department has hardly been worthy of its name,” said Sherrilynn A. Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It has retreated from meaningful police reform, argued on behalf of state laws that suppress minority voting rights, directed prosecutors to seek harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and extended the federal government’s power to seize the property of innocent Americans.”
“Each of these steps disproportionately and systematically burdens people of color, denying them their constitutional rights and widening the racial divides that this country has struggled for so long to close,” continued Ifill.
The United States Supreme Court recently affirmed the use of affirmative action in admissions decisions in Fisher v. University of Texas. In that ruling, the importance of diversity as a compelling state interest was affirmed as settled law. The decision was also a victory for equal opportunity and recognized again that it is critical for schools to create diverse and inclusive student bodies.
As the cost of higher education tends to increase every year, students of color are the ones most likely to go into debt in search of a degree that will deliver a middle class standard of living. Even four years after graduation, Black college graduates earning a bachelor’s degree owe almost double the debt of their white classmates, according to CRL research.
“The U.S. Justice Department must enforce inclusive educational policies as they open the doors of opportunity for all,” said Bailey.
Charlene Crowell is the communications deputy director with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at Charlene.firstname.lastname@example.org.