Why So Unequal? The Racial Achievement Gap in American Public Urban Schools

by Katie Shine

©Medium Magazine

Countless non-white Americans, particularly African-Americans, continue to have unacceptable access to high-quality schools, experienced teachers, and challenging academic curriculum. Why? After excavating the racial academic achievement gap in public urban schools, historians have analyzed our past. In doing so, it is evident that the U.S.’s negligent view towards white privilege and segregation’s legacy has led to unequal educational opportunities and harmful race-based theories about the reasons for the gap, such as the concept of a “cultural deficit” (a perceived deficiency in African Americans’ attitude towards education). This inaccurate and offensive theory is a direct consequence of the inability of many Americans to acknowledge our own history of racism which to continues to hinder the educational experiences of many non-white students. 

Fact: The last year of minimal difference between the average black American student’s academic performance compared to a white peer can occur as young as 6 years old.1Tim J. Wise, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. (Positions, Routledge, 2005), 41. This frustrating statistic points to current conditions in America that are still suffering from the legacy of segregation, racial discrimination, and deep inequalities in family wealth and income between races.  The average black high school student is 17% more likely to reside in a low-income, poverty-concentrated neighborhood than the average American high school student.2Wise, 42. This statistic is more than two times the percentage of a similar white high school student. In America, academic performance has recently been characterized by methodically “tracking” the performance of students. This tracking is often exercised by white, middle class teachers and administrators who may not have had the experience to understand the socioeconomic and behavioral needs of their students. Students, that are deemed academically poor performers, are more likely to believe their teachers do not have faith in their academic abilities, possess lower self-esteem, never graduate high school, and never apply to college.3Wise, 54-55. The tracking of students does not take into full consideration the educational inequities that have contributed to the student’s performance, such as the luxuries of time and money to seek tutoring, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and access to experienced, well-paid teachers.4Wise, 52. White high school seniors are nearly four times more likely to have been offered and taken an AP exam for university credit than their non-white counterparts because they simply had the opportunity to do so.5Wise, 52-53. The theory of cultural deficiency, that non-white students are less able to handle the same challenging coursework  as their white counterparts, sorely lacks in evidence. As Tim J. Wise remarks in Affirmative Action: Racial Preference(s) in Black and White, race does not have to be a contributing factor: “studies show that greater than 90% of all students can master virtually any course material so long as the material is presented in a challenging way, using appropriate instructional techniques”.6Wise, 52. 

For the past six decades, large urban school districts have suffered a series of frustrations in battling the racial education gap. However, the gap also presents an opportunity to provide an education that is more racially conscious, absent of the dichotomy of white educational performance vs. performance of the “other” races, and fortified by experienced instructors.7Joseph P. Viteritti, When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City (Brookings Institution Press, 2009). 2-3. This nod to the “other” is an issue because its invocation as a means of comparison reinforces the narrative that white academic success is the norm and that the “other” must catch up to the white student norm. Non-white students face additional hurdles such as their access to challenging AP courses and fair evaluation by their teachers; this not a failure of the students themselves but an oversight of the school administration to focus on curriculum, accountability and leadership.8Viteritti, 3-4. 

By 2007, after nearly a decade of extensive district assessments and reform initiatives focusing on improving reading skills, mathematical levels and test scores, the Boston school district reported that 89% of whites in 10th grade met or exceeded standards in reading and math. Only 45% of African-Americans and 48% of Hispanic Americans had met those same standards.9Viteritti, 107. In Chicago, by 2010, despite a decade of attempting to improve the performance of students placed in remedial courses in high school, teachers and administrators provided undeserved waivers for ⅓ of all detained students. The “odds of receiving a waiver were significantly higher for white students than for African Americans” and those students that received a waiver were more likely to pass their classes.10Viteritti, 127. By 2001, the standardized test scores between African American students in Chicago public schools and their white counterparts had widened significantly from previous years and the high school graduation rate was similarly low.11Viteritti, 129. 

Proposed solutions in the 21st century have included new models based on culturally sensitive teaching methods, accountability for administrations, adjustments to meet the specter of violence in schools, and increased advanced curriculum.12Viteritti, 219-220. Additional brainstorming sessions have produced methods like the recruitment of more diverse teachers, and productive dialogue with current teachers regarding effective, realistic instruction methods customized to the needs of non-white students. In his landmark book, Why Race Culture Matters in Schools, Tyrone Howard confronts the difficulty in executing these ideal solutions. He describes the achievement gap as one that is rooted in America’s past history of racism: a “discrepancy in educational outcomes between various student groups namely African-Americans ,Native Americans, certain Asian Americans and Latinos on the low end of the performance scale, and primarily white students at the higher end of the academic performance”.13Tyrone C. Howard, Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms, (Teachers College Press, 2010), 10. Howard’s solution includes the fierce denial of “cultural deficiency”; the rejection of colorblind policies and diversity initiatives as an ineffective healing balm; and “culturally responsive” instruments that acknowledge systemic disparities between white and non-white students.14Howard, 68. These methods, of course, entail admitting that the history of racism in America still affects opportunities in school.  Despite popular belief, we are not living in an America “post-racism”.15Bettina L. Love, and Brandelyn Tosolt,  “Reality or Rhetoric? Barack Obama and Post-Racial America” (Race, Gender & Class 17, 2010), 19. 

Michael Eric Dyson has asserted that fixing the efficiencies in accountability and leadership in low-income, minority schools requires moving towards a “post-racist” society instead of a “post-racial” one.16Jeffrey S. Brooks, and Noelle Witherspoon Arnold, Anti-Racist School Leadership: Toward Equity in Education for America’s Students, (Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, N.C., 2013), ix. Post-racism equates to transcending the narrative of whiteness as the norm, and that white privilege must be the default power structure.17Brooks, ix-iv. An associated remedy is the tailoring of educational standards to local schools so that students’ needs are met and that well-intentioned yet sometimes inexperienced teachers can “learn and unlearn racism” and put their talents towards individualized instruction and support.18Brooks, xv. The additional expectations of “passion, persistence, and practice” for teachers are quite demanding especially in low-income, urban school districts already pinched for time, resources, and emotional support on the job.19Brooks, 26.

However difficult, American public schools need to move past a post-racial educational system to a post-racist one. Cheryl Harris, the preeminent scholar and legal expert, addressed this quandary with her theory,“whiteness as property”, and the employment of critical race theory in legal scholarship.20Brooks, 3. Harris asserted that the effects of racial inequality in America, and the limited benefits of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for African-Americans, has had undesired results such as de facto segregation that persists in neighborhoods and the displacement of African-American students to low-quality public schools.21Brooks, 3-4.  When Americans classify urban school districts as undesirable, low-income, unsuccessful, and most likely populated with minority students, they are enforcing an unhelpful stereotype that strengthens whiteness as property, privilege, and success. The mass media’s depiction of inner-city school districts, from Chicago to New York City, as “the other” in America only helps to support inaccurate views and create a harmful image about the potential academic success of non-white public urban students.22Brooks, 153.  

Recent calls to increase federal funding, promote diversity,  and embolden teacher’s unions are missing the crux of the argument that one-on-one interactions between teachers and students are more effective than vacant colorblind practices and indiscriminate transfer of funds to districts. All of these fail to mention the unique needs of students, the demands placed upon teachers and their lack of resources to implement these goals, and the lingering effects of the history of racism upon the academic achievement gap.23Szafir and Petersen. In social science discourse, the current racial educational achievement gap is a product of a gap between races in many areas of American life: differing rates of homeownership, the physical safety of residential neighborhoods, inequality in school facilities, and unrealistic expectations for tracking and test scores.24Reardon et al, 1171. This milieu of factors stems from segregation that continues to rule America’s schools and neighborhoods de facto long after segregation was declared illegal in 1954.25Reardon et al, 1171-1172. The metropolitan areas that have the largest examples of de facto segregation and a higher racial educational achievement gap, as of January 2019, can be found in appealing, prosperous cities like Atlanta, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Charleston, Minneapolis, and Oakland.26Reardon et al, 1171-1172. The presence and press coverage of these cities’ as plentiful tourist attractions, having higher standards of living for some residents, and showcasing gentrification conceals the fact that a harrowing racial educational achievement  gap remains.27Reardon et al, 1188. 

As a former tutor and instructor to public urban high school students with limited educational and socioeconomic opportunities, I have become infuriated that many Americans still refuse to admit that whiteness is a form of power and that segregation has still left disparaging signs of inequality in our public urban school systems. The history of race in America has led us directly to our current situation and gap in academic achievement. As more authors contribute to this field and acknowledge the historical and sociological reasons for the gap, I hope we can confront it and understand how the “local process” of curriculum offerings, teaching methods, opportunities, and school quality helps explain the continued manifestation and persistence of the gap.28Reardon et al, 1210. The answer (one that is complex and deserving of more time than solely this piece) should at least recognize that we reside in an America, still blighted by less visible signs of racial segregation.

Bibliography

Brooks, Jeffrey S., and Noelle Witherspoon Arnold. 2013. Anti-Racist School Leadership: Toward Equity in Education for America’s Students. Educational Leadership for Social Justice. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. 

Howard, Tyrone C. 2010. Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Love, Bettina L., and Brandelyn Tosolt. “Reality or Rhetoric? Barack Obama and Post-Racial America.” Race, Gender & Class 17, no. 3/4 (2010): 19-37

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action In Higher Education. Rutgers University Press.

Reardon, Sean F., Demetra Kalogrides, and Kenneth Shores. 2019. “The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps”. American Journal of Sociology 124 (4): 1164-1221.

Szafir, CJ and Cori Petersen. “Beware Warren’s Madisonian Plan for Public Education”. The Wall Street Journal. November 15, 2019. 

Viteritti, Joseph P. When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City. Brookings Institution Press, 2009. 

Wise, Tim J. 2005. Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. Positions. Routledge.

White Privilege Continues to Reign in Admissions: The Debate about Affirmative Action

by Katie Shine

© Urban Institute

Affirmative Action. Frequently contested in public debates, it is often seriously misunderstood. Although the policy offers concrete benefits for marginalized minorities in the U.S., our nation’s deep entanglement with race and racism has made it difficult for affirmative action to battle its constant bedfellow: white privilege.  After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of federal guidelines, affirmative action was developed to ameliorate the effects of educational segregation. Surprisingly, the charge was led by a former advocate for segregation, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The mandate of “nondiscrimination under a ‘race-blind Constitution’” was a fortunate byproduct of the tireless efforts of activists during the civil rights movement in the 1960s after years of Jim Crow segregation.1Hugh Davis Graham, “The Origins of Affirmative Action”, (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523, 1992), 50. Affirmative action attempted to correct the systemic racism that has always pervaded America. Today, affirmative action is most often debated when discussing admission to elite universities, especially the stubbornly low admission rates and retention rates of non-white students. Affirmative action critics and proponents however both need to remember the historical manifestations for white privilege and how its weight still silently controls which Amerians have the best chances to succeed in higher education.

I will start my discussion with the themes that most affect the affirmative action debate: the achievement gap; and white privilege. Next, I will explore the negative aspects of ‘color blindness’ as a solution to the racial achievement gap in college admissions; and historians’ arguments that the history of American racism has led to the gap. I will then transition to the importance of understanding affirmative action as a history, including the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court case involving Allan Bakke. Finally, I will conclude with a contemporary look at the challenges that admissions offices face, a personal account on class and racial discrimination during one man’s path to earning degrees from elite universities, and my final thoughts on this debate and its (lack of) mention of the lingering specter of white privilege. 

Affirmative action addresses two themes: the academic achievement gap; and the privilege of “whiteness”. Who has historically had the best chances for success in American society? In a 1965 public debate between the politically conservative scholar, William F. Buckley Jr., and the renowned African-American author, James Baldwin, Buckley argued that black Americans needed to “aspire” to the conditions of whiteness…however unattainable”.2Thomas Meaney, “When James Baldwin Squared Off Against William F. Buckley Jr.”, (The New York Times, 2019). He implied that African-Americans must rise up, despite impossible socio-economic obstacles and a history of mistreatment, to the standard of “whiteness”. His statement also exonerated white Americans as the gatekeepers for whiteness. To be “white” often implied than an individual could possess increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Baldwin repudiated Buckley’s ideas and countered that it is imperative that white Americans recognize their own role in propping up racism for the past three centuries. Whiteness is an inherent privilege.3Meany. It is a privilege that is still visible in higher education. The introduction of affirmative action was an attempt to reorient the American past and create a more prosperous future for those that had been discriminated against.4David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness (Basic Books, 2006) , 8. 

However, affirmative action has left something to be desired. The racial gap in higher education has a complicated, historically contingent set of causes including: disparities in family income; the lack of a college-going culture in some communities; and the harmful stereotype of the diminished academic potential of non-white youths. Race remains integrated into our norms. The average non-white American college applicant faces steep obstacles when creating an ideal college application. As Noel Ignatiev and Cheryl Harris, have noted, “whiteness”, the factor that privileges one race over another, is a form of power. The advantages of “whiteness” were immediately visible to recently arrived Irish immigrants in the 19th century who saw the benefit of presenting themselves as “white” to assimilate into “white” culture in the U.S. This is unfortunately “something in the atmosphere of America” that Irish immigrants to America, with no previous understanding of whiteness as a social status, wryly noted.5Roediger, 31. Whiteness as a privilege implies that one “has a master…and has to beg for the privilege”.6Roediger, 79. Buckley heralded this aspect of “begging” in his sparring with Baldwin when he stated that whiteness is not a privilege “attainable” for all.7Meaney. White privilege has benefited a large portion of white Americans in their ability to apply to college, pursue careers, and own a home. Erasing America’s racial past by declaring affirmative action as the new beginning to a “colorblind” America is naive at best, and destructive at worse. Although minority representation in higher education has increased since affirmative action’s debut in the 1960s, there is still work to be done. By having college campuses that are less racially diverse than the actual representation of our nation, our educational leaders decrease the chances that white Americans will recognize their white privilege and that both white and non-white Americans will communicate and engage more meaningfully and regularly.8Ignatiev, 5.  

Colorblind policies are ineffectual because they negate race as a factor of consideration in admissions. Instead, racially conscious admissions policies offer a way to recognize the different experiences, stigmas, and obstacles that many non-white Americans face. One of these obstacles is the racial inequality in the caliber of American public schools.9Ignatiev, 57-62. Racial inequality in a student’s college preparation starts well before senior year. An average American student’s kindergarten to 12th grade education, tied with his or her socioeconomic background, is the most important indicator if he or she will be able to afford and attend college.10Ignatiev, 149. The college admissions process’ emphasis on standardized test scores and the paucity of financial aid decreases the chance that the average low-income, non-white student will even apply.11Ignatiev, 149-150. Universities also face steep challenges such as reviewing thousands of applications with a short-staffed admissions team; balancing tuition revenue and meeting enrollment targets; and battling their institution’s reputation as too homogenous or expensive for students to consider applying to.  

© The New York Times (2017)

Critics of affirmative action argue that the policy takes university seats away from qualified white Americans and subsequently offers them to less qualified minority students. Not only is this statement statistically false but it ignores the fact that white students’ ancestors have had “preferential treatment” in the realm of education, housing, legacy admissions, and wealth acquisition for decades.12Tim J. Wise, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. (Positions, Routledge, 2005), 4-5. In an infamous veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, President Andrew Johnson rejected the call for equality for African-Americans based upon the idea that developing a means of opportunity for blacks was “infinitely beyond any that the Central Government have ever provided for the white race”.13Wise, 29. This claim reveals the general ignorance of white privilege that has resurfaced in the arguments of affirmative action critics as well. By not discussing white privilege, affirmative action proponents are missing a pivotal opportunity for how to defeat the arguments of their opponents and debunk their misleading statements tied to historical advantages for most white Americans.Some of these quesitonable arguments include: that whites lose out on college spots; that colleges decrease the quality of their student body by increasing the representation of non-whites; that non-white students lose “sef-esteem” by being admitted to rigorous universities; and most offensively, that non-whites, especially African-Americans, are not admitted into select unviersities due to a “cultural deficiency”.14Wise, 69-70.

Historians, such as Ira Katznelson, in When Affirmative Action Was White, have recognized that racial discrimination towards non-whites is the primary reason for the racial educational achievement gap. The gap is interconnected to whiteness as a privilege as well as the disparity between white and non-white family incomes, access to equitable hiring practices, and opportunities for home ownership. Particularly after the Second World War, the racial inequality grew due in part to the uneven employment, financial, and educational application of the benefits of the GI Bill to non-white veterans.15Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, (W.W. Norton, 2005), 14-15. However, the debate often instead is unfortunately relegated to a handful of scattered Supreme Court Case decisions and the myths of the disadvantages conferred upon white college applicants from affirmative action.16Katznelson, 150-152. Affirmative action-related Supreme Court cases themselves are only one component and their complexities are often misunderstood. This has led to the unhelpful vague idea that employing colorblindness and introducing optimistic-sounding diversity initiatives are the best methods.

The 1978 Supreme Court Case of a white applicant, Allan Bakke, appealing his rejection to the University of California Medical School due to supposed racial discrimination, is often cited in the affirmative action fracas. Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke was noted as technically a victory for Allan Bakke who claimed that he was discriminated against in a post-affirmative action admissions tactic: the racial quota system. The decision was 5-4 in Bakke’s favor but the results also reveal something deeper about our nation’s public misconceptions about the unintended benefits of the policy.17Katznelson, 151-156. The court case was also a  victory for affirmative action: the idea that race should be a conscious factor of consideration for elite universities’ enrollment practices even if the racial quota system itself was inadvisable. Several of the justices’ statements imply that race consciousness was the appropriate approach to carry out affirmative action. University admissions offices have made attempts to increase the representation of low-income, minority students in recent years but they are hounded by a legitimate fear regarding creating enough annual tuition revenue. 

In September 2019, the New York Times focused on the admissions practices of an elite liberal arts, predominantly white institution, Trinity College, and its director, Angel Perez. Perez highlights the mismatch between enrollment managers’ intentions to increase the representation of minority students yet also admit enough affluent students to balance the budget. Perez notes he has to teach his colleagues “about the fact that you can’t have it all at some time. You’ve got to pick which goals you’re going to pursue”.18Paul Tough, “What College Admissions Offices Really Want”, (The New York Times Magazine, 2019). Perez’s view is one that is less publicized but shared among other racially conscious enrollment managers and affirmative action advocates. Low-income, minority students have been systematically disadvantaged by whiteness as a privilege in college admissions and enrollment.19Tough. However, Perez recognizes that admitting more low-income, minority students will lead to reduced tuition revenue, smaller budgets, and reduced services in order to offer more aid to these students. As more non-white college graduates have explained the difficult circumstances surrounding their journey to collegiate success, a clearer picture has emerged as to how race in America affects them daily.  Anthony Abraham Jack, Amherst College alumnus, and Harvard doctoral fellow, explained how growing up as a low-income, black male near Miami was a constant battle against the effects of racial inequality in his community. He explained that students with similar childhoods have had an immensely challenging college application process. How do they voice their interaction with violence, hunger, financial insecurity, or low-quality schools into their college essay while maintaining their pride? How do they take on rigorous AP courses and extracurricular activities if their school doesn’t even offer them? How do they defeat the stereotype of cultural deficiency? How do they battle their own inaccurate perceptions of their potential success?20Anthony Abraham Jack,“I Was A Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part” (The New York Times Magazine, 2019). 

In conclusion, the history of race and white privilege is essential for all policy advocates, scholars, higher education officials, and students to know. I admit that this is my own first intensive course on race in America as a graduate student. However, by recognizing my own white privilege, dissecting the impact of race upon America’s educational system and collegiate affirmative action programs, I can now see the historically influenced relationship between race, higher education and discrimination in my own country. The differing rates of university admission and campus representation between white and non-white Americans are the result of a protracted process of America’s history of privileging whiteness. This has unfortunately maintained a segregated America with a deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots. 

Bibliography

Graham, Hugh Davis. “The Origins of Affirmative Action: Civil Rights and the Regulatory State.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523 (1992): 50-62. 

Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became White. Routledge. 

Jack, Anthony Abraham. “I Was A Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part”.The New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2019

Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. W.W. Norton.

Meaney, Thomas. “When James Baldwin Squared Off Against William F. Buckley Jr.”. The New York Times, October 18, 2019.

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action In Higher Education. Rutgers University Press.

Roediger, David R. 2006. Working Toward Whiteness. Basic Books. 

Tough, Paul. “What College Admissions Offices Really Want”. The New York Times Magazine. September 10, 2019. 

Wise, Tim J. 2005. Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. Positions. Routledge.

Student Opposition to Affirmative Action Policies in Higher Education

by Grace Campagna

Affirmative action programs and policies in higher education have been divisive since their inception in the 1960s. Supporters have highlighted the positive effects of diverse student bodies and praised efforts to give preference to underrepresented groups and victims of systematic discrimination. Opponents often advocate for “colorblind” approaches to college admissions that value merit without regard to past discrimination or current socioeconomic contexts. Both claim to value equality and fairness yet interpret and apply those terms differently.1Moses, Michele S. Living with Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Controversy about Affirmative Action. The University of Chicago Press, 2016, 27. This is one reason that the debate over affirmative action has been so intense and complex. Students have consistently taken active roles in this process, from the 1960s protests that helped start the programs to lawsuits over rejected applications.

The most recent challenge to affirmative action policies in higher education was the high-profile case in which Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University over the school’s use of race in admissions decisions. The group believes that “racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional” and that Harvard uses such policies to consistently discriminate against Asian American applicants.2“About.” Students for Fair Admissions, https://studentsforfairadmissions.org/about/. In October 2019, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in Harvard’s favor, citing a lack of evidence that the university’s policies negatively impact the chances of Asian-American applicants3.Griffith, Janelle. “Judge Rules in Favor of Harvard in Affirmative Action Case.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, October 1, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/judge-rules-favor-harvard-affirmative-action-case-n1060921. While this case is not the first to question policies that take race into account, it is unique in asserting that a school’s affirmative action policies are harming minorities. This case, and similar lawsuits against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin (the plaintiff in both cases is Students for Fair Admissions) complicate a history of primarily white student opposition to affirmative action. Other high-profile cases that challenged the use of race in admissions (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2013)) alleged that race-conscious policies harmed white students. While the Harvard case includes white students in the case, the primary focus has been discrimination against Asian-Americans. 

Students for Fair Admissions brought its lawsuit under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.”4Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, et seq. The organization claims that Harvard’s policies contradict American principles of equality, promote “racial balancing” in the form of predetermined racial percentages, use race as a primary factor in admissions decisions, and do not fulfill the school’s goal of creating a diverse student body.5Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., Plaintiff, v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard Corporation); and The Honorable and Reverend the Board of Overseers, Defendants., 1:2014cv14176. In Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice, J. Edward Kellough presents a synthesis of the five key and most common arguments against affirmative action.6Kellough, J. Edward. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice. Georgetown University Press, 2008, 83-91. The complaint against Harvard makes use of three of them, demonstrating that, while the case is unique, the arguments are not. The plaintiff and Asian American students involved in the Harvard case use many of the same arguments that others have traditionally used to support white interests in order to support those of Asian American students. Recent cases that accuse universities of using race-conscious admissions policies to discriminate against Asian-American applicants demonstrate that student opposition to affirmative action extends beyond the white student population. It is when students view affirmative action policies, or those they seek to benefit, as a threat to their chances of admission or position on campus that they take action against those policies. 

Student opposition to affirmative action programs began as soon as universities began to implement them in the 1960s. During that period, backlash centered around the idea that programs to help minority students “upset a meritocratic order that many Americans had come to believe helped create postwar prosperity and improved social relations.”7Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 52. Supporters of this meritocracy argued that affirmative action programs impeded the education of the most talented students and that race and gender should not be factors in admissions decisions. The implementation of some programs occasionally prompted violent backlash against minority students. In 1969, “white students, shouting racial epithets, pursued black and Puerto Rican” CUNY students who had been protesting admissions policies.8Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution, 69. In this case, it was white students who opposed affirmative action programs because they viewed an increased population of minority students as a threat to their privileged position on campus (in 1969, around 80% of CUNY’s student body was white) and the admission chances of other white students.9Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution, 62.

A decade later, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race-conscious admissions policies in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Allan Bakke sued the University of California after the school denied his application to medical school twice. He argued that the University’s special admissions program, which evaluated minority candidates separately from the general application pool, violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause.10Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978), 266. The school reserved sixteen out of one hundred spaces in the class for students from minority and disadvantaged groups. Bakke believed that the university admitted less qualified students than himself in an effort to fill those sixteen spaces, which resulted in his rejection. In a 5-4 decision, the Court struck down the special admissions policy and the use of race as the sole determining factor in admissions decisions (i.e. quotas). However, it upheld race as a partial factor in admissions decisions in order to remedy past discrimination and disadvantage, as long as the university used race as only one of many points of consideration. This case illustrates the idea that student opposition to affirmative action oftentimes stems from a feeling of victimization. Bakke believed that the admission of minority students directly influenced his rejection and that, had the university not chosen to reserve the sixteen seats, they would have admitted him.11Horn, Catherine L., and Patricia Marin. “Realizing the Legacy of Bakke.” In Realizing Bakke’s Legacy: Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, and Access to Higher Education, edited by Catherine L. Horn and Patricia Marin, Stylus Publishing, LLC., 2008, pp. 1–14, 2. 

A similar process was at work in the Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) cases. In each one, white plaintiffs challenged university affirmative action policies over rejected applications. Rather than stemming from a dislike of minority students or a commitment to equality, the students’ opposition was the result of a negative personal experience. This assertion is consistent with previous studies that have identified a correlation between support for affirmative action and self-interest. Those that will not benefit from the policy will be less likely to support it.12Sax, Linda J., and Marisol Arredondo. “Student Attitudes toward Affirmative Action in College Admissions.” Research in Higher Education 40, no. 4 (1999): 439-59, 452. For some students, diversity on college campuses is admirable until it comes at a perceived personal cost.  

Understanding student opposition to affirmative action through the language of personal victimization and threat does not provide an all-encompassing framework with which to approach this complex issue. However, it does help to contextualize a few of the prominent examples, explain the motivations behind some of the individuals involved, and provide one possible explanation for minority opposition to affirmative action in the Harvard case. Although both student and public opinions on affirmative action change regularly in reaction to new developments, college students may approach the issue differently than the general public because of their personal stake in the matter. Further research into how students have formed opinions, which factors influenced their viewpoints, and how they differed from the general public will help shed light on student positions over time and how their current states came to be. 

Bibliography 

“About.” Students for Fair Admissions, https://studentsforfairadmissions.org/about/.

Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Griffith, Janelle. “Judge Rules in Favor of Harvard in Affirmative Action Case.” NBCNews.com

NBCUniversal News Group, October 1, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/judge-rules-favor-harvard-affirmative-action-case-n1060921.

Horn, Catherine L., and Patricia Marin. “Realizing the Legacy of Bakke.” In Realizing Bakke’s Legacy: Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, and Access to Higher Education, edited by Catherine L. Horn and Patricia Marin, Stylus Publishing, LLC., 2008, pp. 1–14.

Jacobson, Cardell K. “The Bakke Decision: White Reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Test of Affirmative Action Programs.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 27, no. 4 (December 1983): 687–705. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002783027004007.

Kellough, J. Edward. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice. Georgetown University Press, 2008.

Moses, Michele S. Living with Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Controversy about Affirmative Action. The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978).

Sax, Linda J., and Marisol Arredondo. “Student Attitudes toward Affirmative Action in College Admissions.” Research in Higher Education 40, no. 4 (1999): 439-59.

Schmidt, Peter. Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, et seq.

Almost 100 years after Harvard expelled students for their sexuality, are universities doing enough to welcome and protect LGBTQ students?

by Grace Campagna 

Until 2015, Baylor University listed homosexuality as a punishable offense under its sexual misconduct policy. LGBTQ students could not publicly display affection for their partners and could face disciplinary procedures for engaging in “homosexual acts.”1“Sexual Misconduct BU-PP 031.” Baylor University, 2007. The university has also consistently refused to grant official recognition to LGBTQ groups on campus and allowed instances of discrimination to go unaddressed.2Retta, Mary. “These LGBTQ Students Say Their School Treats Them Like Second-Class Citizens.” The Nation. The Nation Company , December 2, 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/christian-university/. Although perhaps an extreme example, the experiences of Baylor students are not unique to the private, Christian university. American universities have a long history of anti-LGBTQ policies and unchecked discrimination. Some attitudes and issues are remnants from the past, while others are new to the 21st century. All are the result of reactive university policies that treat LGBTQ students as problems, a tendency to prioritize the interests of straight and cisgender students, little attention to the specific needs of LGBTQ students, and a lack of comprehensive federal regulations designed to protect students in all forms of higher education.3This blog post uses the term “LGBTQ” to refer to anyone who does not identify as heterosexual and/or cisgender. Although this is a more recent term, the blog also uses it to describe groups of students in the 1920s and 1960s for the sake of consistency.

Hostility towards LGBTQ students is not new. In fact, it used to be much more severe. In 2002, Harvard University student Amit Paley discovered a box of secret files in the school’s archives. After a drawn-out appeal process to achieve their release, the records turned out to be court proceedings from a 1920 university investigation into gay men and their associations at Harvard. The Secret Court files reveal several weeks of interrogations that began after the suicide of a gay student and aimed to expose a gay community at the school. Administrators targeted students that they observed entering specific dorm rooms, frequenting bars and restaurants known to be gay meeting places, and those who did not strictly adhere to masculine gender norms in their clothing and behavior. Deliberations by several university officials resulted in the expulsion of seven undergraduates, the termination of several employees, and a second suicide of a gay student.4Wright, William. Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005.

The university’s policies were generally consistent with the popular beliefs about gay men at the time: “While the 1920s became known as a period of sexual liberation, the new freedom was for young women and did not apply to homosexuals.”5Wright, William. Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals, 82. Early twentieth-century officials, doctors, and religious leaders characterized homosexuality as a disease, in addition to a moral problem.6Wright, William. Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals, 29. Harvard officials in the Secret Court case subscribed to this understanding. A dean who wished to “reduce the chances of another outbreak” was instrumental in targeting close friends and roommates of gay students, suggesting he believed homosexuality functioned as a contagious disease.7Wright, William. Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals, 169. The documents also implied that this sort of purge was an unpleasant, but necessary (and not uncommon) task that preserved the safety and integrity of the entire university community. Many officials expressed regret at having to expel the students, but maintained that the well-being of other students and faculty had to come first. Police operations around this time frequently targeted urban gay establishments and meeting places, increasing public wariness of a secretive gay underworld. Much of the early 20th century upper-class acknowledged the existence of the LGBTQ community but, because they viewed homosexuality as a disease and moral problem, believed that its members resided in low-income communities separate from their own and that immoral acts did not occur in their neighborhoods and institutions. This was likely the mindset of university officials who saw Harvard’s gay community as an infestation and a threat to student safety. To deal with a gay “problem” at the school, officials employed policies to remove the offending students as quickly as possible and prevent them from entering other universities. University policies on LGBTQ students did not seek to protect them or ensure a positive college experience. Instead, they only came into play once the students became an issue, thus the term “reactive.” This case illustrates general trends in university attitudes and policies towards LGBTQ students that continue through the 20th century and are still visible today. 

In such a climate of institutional hostility and widespread societal disapproval, most LGBTQ students and campus networks remained hidden until the 1960s, when gay student groups on campuses began to demand the right to organize as the Civil Rights Movement inspired many to fight for their rights. Some of the first official LGBTQ student organizations began in New York City. In 1966, Stephen Donaldson, an openly bisexual student at Columbia University, started the first college LGBTQ advocacy and support organization after the university forced him to move out of his residence hall due to complaints from his roommates about his sexuality.8Beemyn, Brett. “The Silence Is Broken: A History of the First Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Groups.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12, no. 2 (2003): 205-223, 207. The Student Homophile League initially encountered problems when Columbia would not grant official recognition to an organization without a list of members. If the students wanted to have an official group, they would have to provide a list of their names to the administration and risk exposing themselves to harassment and ridicule. After finally granting the group an official charter in 1967, the university faced both internal and external backlash to the decision. Responses ranged from deeming the group unnecessary to accusing its members of promoting “deviant behavior” at the university.9Beemyn, Brett. “The Silence Is Broken: A History of the First Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Groups,” 207. 

While these students fared far better than those at Harvard in 1920, several aspects of their case illustrate persistent trends in how universities have approached LGBTQ students. In requiring a list of members, Columbia failed to understand the group’s need for privacy and refused to make an exception to their rules that would have allowed a disadvantaged community to create a space that met their needs. Although Donaldson founded the Student Homophile League after several initial civil rights victories, the organization predated the gay liberation movement, which promoted more widespread visibility of the LGBTQ community and its needs. Before this movement, universities had no incentives to attract LGBTQ students or give them adequate space on campus. In recent decades, however, universities began to see the advantages of having a visible LGBTQ student population as appearing diverse became a priority. Today, many colleges and universities actively recruit LGBTQ students through targeted marketing and advertising the presence of dedicated student groups.10Cegler, Tyler D. “Targeted Recruitment of GLBT Students by Colleges and Universities.” Journal of College Admission, Spring 2012, 18–23. Early LGBTQ student groups, such as the Student Homophile League at Columbia, paved the way for a multitude of other organizations, such as Gay-Straight Alliances and Pride Alliances, and most campuses now have some form of LGBTQ group. Several online resources keep updated lists of LGBTQ-friendly universities in order to help students identify institutions that will support them.11“Campus Pride Index.” Campus Pride. Accessed December 16, 2019. http://www.campusprideindex.org/search/index.

However, surface recognition of LGBTQ groups is often not enough to sufficiently attract, support, and retain LGBTQ students, many of whom still feel isolated on campus and have poorer academic records than straight students.12Greathouse, Maren, BrckaLorenz, Hoban, Huesman Jr., Rankin, and Bara Stolzenberg. “Queer-Spectrum and Trans-Spectrum Student Experiences in American Higher Education.” Rutgers University, August 2018, 37. Even universities that strive to support their LGBTQ populations often miss key opportunities to respond to the needs of that community and create a more welcoming environment. Harvard includes sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, facilitates several LGBTQ-run student and alumni groups (including one specifically for transgender students), and has an Office of BGLTQ Student Life. Despite these resources, the university has denied requests from a student movement to award posthumous degrees to the students it expelled during the investigations of 1920.13“Their Day in the Yard Movement at Harvard.” Their Day in the Yard. Secret Court RSS. Accessed December 11, 2019. http://secretcourt.org/about/. Taking this step would have represented a firm acknowledgement of Harvard’s past mistakes and current support for its LGBTQ community.

The enormous variety of policies also hinders widespread acceptance and support of LGBTQ students. While some schools, such as Grinnell University and Oregon State University, have active LGBTQ populations and a variety of resources to support them, other schools refuse to acknowledge these students as full members of the university population.14“Stonewall Resource Center.” Grinnell College. Accessed December 24, 2019. https://www.grinnell.edu/about/offices-services/intercultural-affairs/src.; “Grinnell College Student Attends Conference on LGBT Issues & Carleton College’s Gender & Sexuality Center.” Grinnell College. Accessed December 24, 2019. https://www.grinnell.edu/news/grinnell-college-student-attends-conference-lgbt-issues-carleton-colleges-gender-sexuality.; Leider, Steven. “OSU Launches New Program to Improve Recruitment, Retention of LGBTQ Students in Science and Engineering Programs.” Life at OSU. Oregon State University , October 8, 2010. https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2010/oct/osu-launches-new-program-improve-recruitment-retention-LGBTQ-students-science-and-e. Baylor University’s sexual misconduct policy, which the school updated in 2015, now states that “Baylor will be guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity.”15“Sexual Conduct BU-PP 031.” Baylor University, 2015. The primary difference between the 2007 and the 2015 policies is the absence of a list of prohibited behaviors. While the revised policy does not explicitly condemn “homosexual acts” as before, its open-ended language leaves plenty of room for interpretation and offers no protection for LGBTQ students who are acting consensually. Baylor is also one of a few universities which continues to refuse recognition to a campus LGBTQ organization. Gamma Alpha Upsilon, in operation since 2011, has requested an official charter every year. As of October 2019, the university had denied each request, citing either biblical motivations or code of conduct violations.16Retta, Mary. “These LGBTQ Students Say Their School Treats Them Like Second-Class Citizens.” The Nation. The Nation Company , December 2, 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/christian-university/. Baylor’s reactive policies only address LGBTQ students when they have become a problem, instead of working proactively to create an accepting atmosphere. 

State and federal legislation has not played a large role in protecting LGBTQ students because of the variety of types of higher education institutions and their diverse policies. Both Title IX and the Civil Rights Act, which could offer some form of protection from discrimination, offer religious exemptions. Baylor’s 2015 Sexual Conduct policy claims exemptions from both pieces of legislation. More recent attempts to gain federal protections for LGBTQ people have focused on other areas of concern, such as healthcare, housing, and employment, instead of education.17“Full Policy & Legislation List.” National Center for Lesbian Rights, August 23, 2013. http://www.nclrights.org/cases-and-policy/full-policy-and-legislation-list/. Even those pushing for educational reforms often have to restrict their efforts to public elementary and high schools. Gaps in legislation and exemptions available to certain institutions prevent the creation and enforcement of comprehensive non-discrimination policies that protect LGBTQ students and create welcoming environments for them on campuses. As higher education becomes increasingly important for the modern job market, universities have become gatekeepers to social mobility. A lack of consistent and enforceable regulations to protect LGBTQ students restricts access to opportunities for a significant portion of the population. 

At the current moment, it is up to individual universities to determine their approach to LGBTQ students, which comprise approximately 11% of the undergraduate population, according to a 2017 study. LGBTQ students are more likely to face discrimination and violence at college, while at the same time they are less likely to seek help from a campus professional.18Greathouse, Maren, BrckaLorenz, Hoban, Huesman Jr., Rankin, and Bara Stolzenberg. “Queer-Spectrum and Trans-Spectrum Student Experiences in American Higher Education,” 37. Many do not feel valued at their institution: 33% of LGB students surveyed in 2016 said they considered leaving their university, while 38% of transgender students said the same.19Windmeyer, Shane. “The Path Forward: LGBTQ Retention and Academic Success.” INSIGHT Into Diversity, April 15, 2016. https://www.insightintodiversity.com/the-path-forward-LGBTQ-retention-and-academic-success/. Several reports from the last few years provide recommendations to universities to increase their support of LGBTQ students. Suggestions include “forming committees charged with the task of improving the quality of life for LGBTQ students and employees; creating LGBTQ resource centers and safe space programs… [and] establishing LGBTQ-themed residential programs.”20Beemyn, Genny and Sue Rankin. The Lives of Transgender People. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, 85. Other first steps include hiring more LGBTQ faculty and specialized mental health professionals, collecting data on LGBTQ students, and giving student groups adequate space, funding, and freedom. While many universities have dedicated affirmative action programs to attract, support, and retain women and racial minorities, there are few such initiatives for LGBTQ students. In 2010, Oregon State University launched a “new program designed to attract LGBTQ students to its engineering and sciences programs,” both fields where LGBTQ students are underrepresented.21Leider, Steven. “OSU Launches New Program to Improve Recruitment, Retention of LGBTQ Students in Science and Engineering Programs.” This program, and others like it, are making concrete steps in the right direction to create more inclusive and welcoming institutions of higher education.

Bibliography 

Beemyn, Brett. “The Silence Is Broken: A History of the First Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual College Student Groups.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12, no. 2 (2003): 205-223.

Beemyn, Genny and Sue Rankin. The Lives of Transgender People. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

“Campus Pride Index.” Campus Pride. Accessed December 16, 2019. http:// www.campusprideindex.org/search/index.

Cegler, Tyler D. “Targeted Recruitment of GLBT Students by Colleges and Universities.” Journal of College Admission, Spring 2012, 18–23.

“Full Policy & Legislation List.” National Center for Lesbian Rights, August 23, 2013. http:// www.nclrights.org/cases-and-policy/full-policy-and-legislation-list/.

Greathouse, Maren, BrckaLorenz, Hoban, Huesman Jr., Rankin, and Bara Stolzenberg. “Queer- Spectrum and Trans-Spectrum Student Experiences in American Higher Education.” Rutgers University, August 2018.

“Grinnell College Student Attends Conference on LGBT Issues & Carleton College’s Gender & Sexuality Center.” Grinnell College. Accessed December 24, 2019. https://www.grinnell.edu/news/grinnell-college-student-attends-conference-lgbt-issues-carleton-colleges-gender-sexuality.

“Harvard Secret Court Expelled Gay Students in 1920.” The Washington Post. WP Company, December 1, 2002. https://www.washingtonpost.com/.

Leider, Steven. “OSU Launches New Program to Improve Recruitment, Retention of LGBTQ Students in Science and Engineering Programs.” Life at OSU. Oregon State University , October 8, 2010. https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2010/oct/osu-launches-new- program-improve-recruitment-retention-LGBTQ-students-science-and-e.

Paley, Amit R. “The Secret Court of 1920.” The Harvard Crimson, November 21, 2002. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2002/11/21/the-secret-court-of-1920-at/.

Reichard, David A. “”We Can’t Hide and They Are Wrong”: The Society for Homosexual Freedom and the Struggle for Recognition at Sacramento State College, 1969–1971.” Law and History Review 28, no. 3 (2010): 629-674.

Renn, Kristin A. “LGBTQ and Queer Research in Higher Education: The State and Status of the Field.” American Educational Research Association 39, no. 2 (March 2010): 132–41.

Renn, Kristin. “LGBTQ Students on Campus: Issues and Opportunities for Higher Education Leaders.” Higher Education Today. American Council on Education, April 10, 2017. https://www.higheredtoday.org/2017/04/10/lgbtq-students-higher-education/.

Retta, Mary. “These LGBTQ Students Say Their School Treats Them Like Second-Class Citizens.” The Nation. The Nation Company, December 2, 2019. https:// www.thenation.com/article/christian-university/.

Savage, Rachel. “Barred, Bullied, Depressed: Life for Many U.S. Trans Students.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, August 16, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-lgbtq- education/barred-bullied-depressed-life-for-many-u-s-trans-students-idUSKCN1V609P.

“Sexual Conduct BU-PP 031.” Baylor University, 2015.

“Sexual Misconduct BU-PP 031.” Baylor University, 2007.

“Stonewall Resource Center.” Grinnell College. Accessed December 24, 2019. https://www.grinnell.edu/about/offices-services/intercultural-affairs/src.

“Their Day in the Yard Movement at Harvard.” Their Day in the Yard. Secret Court RSS. Accessed December 11, 2019. http://secretcourt.org/about/.

Windmeyer, Shane. “The Path Forward: LGBTQ Retention and Academic Success.” INSIGHT Into Diversity, April 15, 2016. https://www.insightintodiversity.com/the-path-forward- LGBTQ-retention-and-academic-success/.

Wright, William. Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005.