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From Where I Sit: With Deliberately Breathtaking Speed: The Resegregation of Higher Education?

Troy Duster, Director, Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California–Berkeley

On a spring afternoon in 1954, I was standing in the cafeteria line at Northwestern University, reflecting on my soon-to-be-completed first year of college. A student in back of me touched my shoulder and asked, "Have you heard today's news?" When I replied that I had not, he smiled and said, "This must be a big day for you--the Supreme Court has just outlawed racial segregation."

Exactly forty years later, I was sitting in my office when I got another "tap on the shoulder." This time it was a phone call from Kansas City, posing a question: "Would I come and conduct a major study of the school system?" Why? A federal judge had ruled that since the public schools were still overwhelmingly racially segregated, there would be a massive infusion of public funds into "inner city schools." I was to study alternative strategies for making effective use of those funds in achieving a minimal level of desegregation.

To round out the surface contours of this strange tale of irony: On November 5, 1996, California voters passed a proposition ending the consideration of race as a factor in student admissions to public higher education. The next morning I received a memo from the president of the University of California saying that the whole system would be in full compliance.

The irony here has several faces. First, while it took less than twenty-four hours for the university president to declare full compliance with a policy to "end the consideration of race," it has taken more than forty years for many jurisdictions in this nation to end considerations of race when it comes to matters of access.

Higher education has, in fact, been profoundly changed for the better as a result of its engagement with student diversity. Diversity has improved the educational experience for all students.

Second, let us return to 1954, when the language of "all deliberate speed" was etched into the nation's vocabulary. Note that I was picked out of the line, and told that the day was momentous for me. I was at the time one of seven Negro students (that was the term used in 1954) on a campus of seventy-two hundred undergraduates. The white student who tapped my shoulder did not (perhaps could not) reflect on the idea that this might be a momentous day for white students as well. Many people at the time thought that the entry of "other students" would simply open opportunities denied--but hardly inform, engage, challenge dominant assumptions, enrich, and possibly enhance the college experience of white students.

Higher education has, in fact, been profoundly changed for the better as a result of its engagement with student diversity. Diversity has improved the educational experience for all students.

But all this is now being threatened. With the regents' actions in California and the Hopwood case in Texas, we are seeing a dramatic resegregation of many college campuses, at least in terms of race and ethnicity.

The number of black students offered admission at the Boalt School of Law of the University of California–Berkeley declined from 75 in 1996 to 14 in 1997. The same pattern has emerged at the University of Texas–Austin, where black students have dropped from 65 admittees to 11 in one year. The impact on Latinos is nearly as dramatic, with a more than 50 percent drop during the same period.

There is one final irony which has escaped the attention of almost all commentators. In California, Ward Connerly, the regent who led the attack on affirmative action, has gone so far as to celebrate the Hopwood decision. The irony is that over the last forty (indeed 250) years, not a single African American has been told by the courts that s/he could seek damages for discrimination by race--for access denied to an educational institution. But Cheryl Hopwood, based upon explicit instruction from the appellate court ruling in her case, is now seeking more than one million dollars in damages for having been denied access to the University of Texas law school because she is white.

As we return to policies that will deny access to groups that were just beginning to make a difference for all students, the issue of who is robbed and who is enriched takes on a whole new cast. We will surely lose what we now recognize as a key to educational excellence for all students if we allow the current policies to proceed, with deliberately breathtaking speed.


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