Knocking at Freedom's Door: Race, Equity and Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education

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Introduction and Overview

Knocking at Freedom's Door: Race, Equity and Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education*

The American Dream lies at the very heart of the U.S. cultural ethos. At the center of this ideal is the emphatic conviction that, in this society, education opens the door to success. The belief that even the poorest citizen can achieve greatness with talent and hard work is one of this nation's most cherished cultural tenets (Hochschild, 1995). In most instances for those who adhere to these beliefs, talent is equated with educational attainment. African Americans have embraced this viewpoint to the extreme. Dating back to when slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write under threat of death or physical harm, African Americans have invested education with mythic qualities, holding it up as both hope and salvation for the future. Yet no matter how much education African Americans have achieved, they have still suffered discrimination based on skin color. Nevertheless, Black people in the United States have continued to crave and embrace education as the ultimate solution (Allen & Jewell, 1995). Despite the paradox of societal stereotypes depicting Blacks as lazy, ignorant, and mentally inferior-even as the nation developed history's most elaborate system of institutional barriers intent on denying them opportunities for schooling-African Americans continued to value and pursue education. The "holy grails" of education in general and higher education in particular have long embodied Black people's hopes and frustrations as they seek the "promised land" of freedom and opportunity.

Education has long been seen as an essential foundation of democracy. The extent to which citizens of any society are afforded equal educational opportunity speaks volumes about openness and power relations within that society. For African Americans, the centuries-old struggle for access to and success in higher education has been emblematic of a larger fight for personhood and equality. In this struggle, progress has come in fits and starts, interspersed with rollbacks and lost ground (Allen & Jewell, 1995). From 1965 to 1995, equal opportunity programs, and later affirmative action programs, represented rays of hope and promise for the nation's disenfranchised. For a relatively brief moment, U.S. society cracked open the doors of opportunity. Groups previously excluded from key positions and institutions slipped into those settings, although not necessarily in massive numbers. Nevertheless, they found some purchase where folks like themselvesBlacks, Latinos, Asians, and women-had not previously been allowed to set foot in any sizeable numbers, except to clean or to serve food. In the case of African Americans, a country torn asunder by racial conflict and on the verge of precipitating a second Civil War cracked open the doors to higher education briefly. Under the imperatives of equity, inclusiveness, and diversity, U.S. universities enrolled African Americans from the tobacco fields of North Carolina, the ghettoes of New York City, the fruit and vegetable orchards of California, and the foundries of Saginaw. Equal opportunity and affirmative action programs gave minorities, women, and others who were routinely pushed to this society's fringes the chance to prove their worth. These programs did not guarantee success; they only provided the chance to compete and the opportunity to succeed-or fail-on one's own merit.

Having proven their value and effectiveness, affirmative action programs are today under severe, extensive attack. Yet, make no mistake about it: affirmative action is currently being challenged precisely because of its effectiveness. Affirmative action programs have made, or promise to continue to make, significant inroads against the established status quos of racial and patriarchal hierarchy. Powerful, vested interests see this progress and are determined to first stem and then reverse the gains. …