Four Decades after Brown, Southern Higher Education Remains Separate, Unequal: Closing, Merging HBCUs No Remedy for Desegregation

By Hawkins, B. Denise | Black Issues in Higher Education, June 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Four Decades after Brown, Southern Higher Education Remains Separate, Unequal: Closing, Merging HBCUs No Remedy for Desegregation


Hawkins, B. Denise, Black Issues in Higher Education


Four Decades After Brown, Southern Higher Education Remains Separate,. Unequal: Closing, Merging HBCUs No Remedy for Desegregation

by B. Denise Hawkins

WASHINGTON, DC -- In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. whet America's appetite with his vision of a non-racial society -- one where "little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers" and where "even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

But Dr. King's dream may have to be deferred another 40 years, according to some of the nation's leading scholars.

In a long-awaited higher education desegregation report, a special Southern Education Foundation (SEF) panel found that little progress has been made in increasing access of students of color to white, flagship institutions; closing the gap in graduation rates between students of color and white students; hiring more minority faculty; or creating a more hospitable climate for students of color attending predominantly white institutions.

After an 18-month study, SEF's Panel on Educational Opportunity and Postsecondary Desegregation, emerged with a spate of recommendations described as "student-centered," and intended to usher in a "non-racial education system." The report, "Redeeming the American Promise," was underwritten by a half-million dollar grant from the Ford Foundation.

One day, the report says, race will have no place in the nation's higher education system and it won't be a "factor in student access or in student success." White institutions will "no longer exclude minority students..." nor will historically Black institutions "be relegated by state policy to second-tier status."

The non-racial education system the panel envisions won't materialize overnight. "It's taken us 135 years or more to get where we are today, but I hope this transformation will be a lot quicker than that. I think that the principles that we suggest can begin soon in every state," says Robert Kronley who directed the SEF study.

It is doubtful that such a transformation, however, will occur until America finally decides to confront the issue of race. What is needed to construct a race-neutral education system is creativity and imagination, says Jean Fairfax, a consultant and a member of the panel. Inherent in Dr. King's speech was an understanding that his dream would be realized "one day" but not today.

"There is no such thing as a colorblind society," says Fairfax. "And I don't buy into the notion that anything that is race conscious is counter to the constitution. We are working toward a race-neutral society, but we must have a raceconscious society in order to get there," says Fairfax. For now, the reality is that four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, state higher-education systems throughout the South remain segregated and unequal.

Little Progress

The Mississippi Dr. King spoke of in his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech more than 30 years ago was brimming with hatred and injustice. And even today, many observers of race relations in the Magnolia State maintain that despite civil rights' gains, the state has far to go before it can truly dismantle remnants of its ugly past. But the hopeful eyes of SEF's 26-member panel of high-profile educators, Black-college presidents, attorneys and community leaders are focused on the landmark U.S. v. Fordice case, born in Mississippi more than 20 years ago.

SEF, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that promotes education equity, launched the study in 1993, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Mississippi to further desegregate its public university system (See Black Issues Sept. 9, 1993). The litigation, they say, offers that state, the South and the nation a chance to finally disentangle race from educational opportunities and success.

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