Actuating Equity: Historical and Contemporary Analyses of African American Access to Selective Higher Education from Sweatt to the Top 10 Percent Law

Article excerpt

The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) opened its doors on September 15, 1883, under the premise that admission be equally accessible regardless of gender or religion (University of Texas 1975). Yet, the incipient notion of equality at UT-Austin was limited as race could preclude entry. Jim Crow stipulated White students attended White schools and Black students attended Black schools--whether they be K-12 or institutions of higher education (State Department of Education 1935). Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) had legalized segregation as long as there were "separate but equal" institutions and facilities for Blacks. Since there were separate Black universities in Texas such as Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (later called Prairie View A&M) and Texas State University for Negroes (later called Texas Southern University), racial segregation at UT-Austin was legal (Shabazz 2004).

Before the 1950s, Blacks in Texas could not legally attend selective traditionally White institutions of higher education, including the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), because of the "separate but equal" doctrine (State Department of Education 1935). This changed when the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated graduate and professional schools in the landmark court case of Sweatt v. Painter (1950). Sweatt also set an important precedent for Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which effectively overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the "separate but equal" doctrine in all public schools. Although these cases ended de jure segregation for Black students, access to higher education in Texas, and elsewhere, remained a challenge due to the social and cultural contextual barriers that resulted from long-standing systemic and legal discrimination.

The Lone Star State has struggled to increase racial and ethnic diversity within its traditionally White flagship institutions since Sweatt. The University of Texas at Austin attempted to address the persisting underrepresentation of students of color on campus through several programs, including minority recruitment in the 1960s, diversity recruitment plans negotiated by the U.S. Justice Department in the late 1970s, and the implementation of affirmative action in the 1980s. However, all of these proved to be false starts, and then, in 1996, Hopwood v. Texas brought such targeted efforts to a halt. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit decided in Hopwood that admissions practices considering race at the UT-Austin School of Law were unconstitutional. In 1997, then Texas Attorney General Dan Morales issued an opinion on the Hopwood case and applied its ruling to all areas in higher education including admissions, financial aid, and scholarships.

In response to the Texas attorney general's interpretation of Hopwood, Texas House Bill 588 was filed in 1997 by Irma Rangel (D-Kingsville) and passed during the 75th Legislature. The bill, created by a coalition of lawmakers, faculty members, and community activists, called for the automatic admission to any public university in Texas of any student that graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her class. The original intent was to promote geographic, regional, and racial diversity by capitalizing on residential and secondary school segregation in the state. In theory, HB 588 would be a race-neutral admissions practice that would provide greater access to selective higher education to all qualified students in Texas.

However, the question remains as to whether the Top Ten Percent Plan (TTPP) created greater diversity relative to past efforts. As a result, the purpose of this article is to understand the historical and contemporary access of Black students to selective higher education in Texas. In this analysis we use the state's flagship institution: the University of Texas at Austin.

We begin with a literature review that examines the evolution of selective admissions, legislative enactments, and judicial decisions from Jim Crow to the TTPP. …