Access and Equity for African American Students in Higher Education: A Critical Race Historical Analysis of Policy Efforts

By Harper, Shaun R.; Patton, Lori D. et al. | Journal of Higher Education, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview
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Access and Equity for African American Students in Higher Education: A Critical Race Historical Analysis of Policy Efforts


Harper, Shaun R., Patton, Lori D., Wooden, Ontario S., Journal of Higher Education


Higher education has been characterized as "one of the greatest hopes for intellectual and civic progress in this country. Yet for many Americans, however, it has been seen as part of the problem rather than the solution" (Boyer, 1997, p. 85). Some have acknowledged that higher education is a public good through which individual participation accrues benefits for the larger society (Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1998; Kezar, Chambers, & Burkhardt, 2005; Lewis & Hearn, 2003). Despite this, recent analyses have confirmed that too few African Americans are offered access to the socioeconomic advantages associated with college degree attainment (Harper, 2006; Perna et al., 2006). In some ways, the recurrent struggle for racial equity is surprising, given the number of policies that have been enacted to close college opportunity gaps between African Americans and their White counterparts at various junctures throughout the history of higher education.

Though presumably for the best, Tyack and Cuban (1995) acknowledge that education policymaking does not always lead to sustainable progress. Much evidence exists to confirm this has been the case with policies created to increase access and ensure equity for African American students in higher education. Such efforts are described in this article. While various scholars have offered insights into the educational histories of African Americans (e.g., Allen & Jewell, 1995; Anderson, 1988; Gasman, 2007; Katz, 1969), comprehensive analyses of the underlying catalysts, low sustainability, and ultimate effects of policy efforts throughout the lifespan of higher education are scarce. This article seeks to fill that void. Policies that have affected participation and degree attainment rates for this population across various time periods are reviewed and discussed below. We juxtapose historically noteworthy progressive steps toward access and equity with recent indicators of backward movement. Implications of these policy shifts are considered and critiqued at the end of the article. But first, the lens through which we analyzed these policies is described in the next section.

Analytical Framework

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is used as an analytical framework in this article. This race-based epistemology is particularly useful here because it provides a lens through which to question, critique, and challenge the manner and methods in which race, white supremacy, supposed meritocracy, and racist ideologies have shaped and undermined policy efforts for African American student participation in higher education. CRT is interdisciplinary in nature, incorporating intellectual traditions and scholarly perspectives from law, sociology, history, ethnic studies, and women's studies to advance and give voice to the ongoing quest for racial justice (Bell, 1987; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001). Solorzano (1998) notes, "A critical race theory in education challenges ahistoricism and the unidisciplinary focus of most analyses, and insists on analyzing race and racism in education by placing them in both a historical and contemporary context using interdisciplinary methods" (p. 123). While no single definition exists for CRT, many scholars agree on the centrality of seven tenets:

1. Racism is a normal part of American life, often lacking the ability to be distinctively recognized, and thus is difficult to eliminate or address (Delgado, 1995; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 2000; Solorzano, 1998). Racial microaggressions--"subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously" (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000, p. 60)--replace more overt demonstrations of racism in most settings. A CRT lens unveils the various forms in which racism continually manifests itself, despite espoused institutional values regarding equity and social justice.

2. CRT rejects the notion of a "colorblind" society.

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