To briefly celebrate the birthday and influence of James Baldwin, I wanted to borrow from his introduction in “A Talk to Teachers” where he highlighted the significance of education as an integral part of revolution during America’s opposition to civil rights efforts in the 1960’s:
“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.”
We are several decades out of Jim Crow era politics and supremacist legislation, but somehow still find ourselves in a much more disguised undertaking by the country’s current administration. It’s at this particular venture—where education takes center stage as an issue of who gets what—that educators and academics alike must ‘go for broke’. The New York Times recently reported on a project the Justice Department’s civil rights division will lead in order to “investigate and sue universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants”, according to documents they’ve obtained. Additionally, the document, which was distributed internally to the civil rights division, also detailed that the project is seeking legal advisors to pursue “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”
Equity and inclusion were just some of the principles driving the creation of Affirmative Action in 1961, but since its inception the program has divided political groups across the country, causing many to speculate its effectiveness in combating the real lack of representation of Black and Brown students at the university level and beyond. The past twenty odd years, however, have seen significant increases in the representation of Black and Brown students on college and university campuses across the country, due much in part to the work done by Black families and by programs seeking to diversify higher education, but according to a report byThe Atlantic, the country’s most esteemed research institutions have seen the numbers of their Black students drop—specifically from 1994 to 2013, according to the article.
Their report goes on to explain that top-tier research institutions and universities have seen a drop in numbers because of their push for a more competitive admissions process, one that disproportionately pits Black students at a disadvantage. Figure in the socioeconomic disadvantage students of color face in their pursuit of top-tier education and you’ll begin to ask yourself how much sense this move by the Trump administration makes, and who exactly they’re trying to keep off university campuses.
Time Magazine reported on the socioeconomics of test-taking and found that nearly 1.7 million students took the SAT in 2015, and that scores varied widely by socioeconomic and demographic groups. Students from the wealthiest families, they pointed out, scored at least 115 points higher on average than those whose families earned $100,000 or less. Furthermore, the 2015 census report on income and poverty in the United States provided information on median household income by race from 1967 to 2015 and showed Black household income fluctuating from around $30,000 to about $37,000, a number far lower than any other median household income shown on the chart. Add to that the findings provided by Forbes that found that the typical black household now has just 6% of the wealth of the typical white household, it becomes clear why Black families seek higher education as a form of economic mobilityconsidering the correlation between education after high school and a higher annual income.
Currently, the Trump administration continues to draw on nationalist sentiment in order to garner support for new efforts to upend whatever footing diversity programs afford families of color. Black women and men still represent less than 5% of all science and engineering doctorates the last decade, are left wholly underrepresented in Hollywood where top ranking executives were found to be 94% white and 100% male, and yet with a population of less than 14% in the country occupy nearly 40% of prison cells. Affirmative Action’s initial inception was to create an avenue for Black women and men into the workforce and academic world—women and men who genuinely and continuously face discrimination on the basis of race even today, and for the current administration to argue that such a program provides an edge “too advantageous” for Black families further reinforces the systemic and institutionalized racism that had trapped those families in the margins decades earlier.