Why America’s universities have always been unequal

When Texas’ Senate Bill 3 becomes law, Adam Harris’ trenchant examination of how America’s public higher education system is shot through with racism – The State Must Provide: Why America’s colleges have always been unequal – and how to set them right (HarperCollins), due to be published on 10 August – will be beyond the pale for the Lone Star State’s high schools.

By pointing out in the first paragraph on page 3 that Alabama “locked black people into an unequal education system”, Harris skates close to the line drawn by Bill 3, which no longer requires that ‘white supremacy’ be taught as being ‘morally wrong’.

By underscoring that it was a crime to teach slaves to read – and millions of them lived in states where they could be executed ‘for being found with a book’ – Harris would be seen as offending the spirit of Bill 3 since, when teaching about the ‘institution of slavery’, it is no longer necessary to explain that it was ‘morally wrong’.

Since Bill 3 erases the lessons about how the Supreme Court of the United States outlawed discrimination in public schools in Brown vs the Board of Education (1954), Harris’ discussions of how Gains vs Canada (1938), Sipuel vs Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948), McLaurin vs Oklahoma State Regents (1950) and several other cases chipped away at the Jim Crow education laws that prevented black students from accessing equal higher education would, perforce, not pass muster in the largest of the former Confederate states.

Neither are teachers allowed to teach that the Ku Klux Klan was ‘morally wrong’. By extension, students would not be able to read about the history of Berea College in Kentucky, the first school in the South dedicated to educating whites alongside what were then called ‘negroes’, or the racist beliefs that undergirded tactics used in 1855 against the preacher John Fee’s efforts to establish this college presaged the Klan’s.

White supremacist vigilantes burned down the first building Fee chose as well as the second. Fee was run out of a third town he surveyed for the school.

Before the year was out, however, he founded the school on land in Berea, Kentucky, purchased for this purpose by Mohammad Ali’s namesake, Cassius Clay (the heavyweight champion’s name before he converted to Islam); Clay had been a wealthy slave holder before turning against his economic class.

Berea was closed during the Civil War and re-opened in 1866 with 96 black and 91 white students; it awarded its first bachelor degree three years later.

Instituting de facto segregation

Central to Harris’ argument are the Land Grant Universities founded after the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.

The Morrill Act was modelled on the law that saw the US Federal Government give 180 million acres (73 million hectares) to the railroads, which sold parcels to finance the building of the railroads. Under the Morrill Act, 17.4 million acres of Federal land was given to the states, which they could either sell to raise money to build universities or hold until it appreciated and then sell it and use the proceeds for higher education.

As Harris points out, 10 million of the acres dispersed under the Morrill Act was expropriated from some 250 indigenous tribes.

The text of the Morrill Act forbids de jure discrimination against blacks. Yet, the first land grant school, which later became Iowa State, had no trouble instituting de facto segregation.

The state’s constitution may have banned slavery, but it required any black person moving into the state to pay $500, the equivalent of US$14,600 today. Nor were blacks allowed to vote, or serve on juries or in the state’s militia.

The constitution ensured that no black Iowan could apply to the state’s colleges by preventing them from attending both primary and secondary schools.

For the first dozen years after the Civil War ended in 1865, during what was called ‘Reconstruction’, a number of land grant institutions were established for the Freedmen. Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, founded in 1871, in Alcorn, Mississippi was one. For its first four years, the Republican-led state government, which included a number of black legislators, provided this land grant college with $50,000.

Then, in 1875, a cabal of white supremacists, many of whom had had leading positions in the state during the Civil War, overthrew the state government. This so-called ‘Redeemer government’ cut the grant to Alcorn to $15,000 and, a year later, to a tenth of what it had been two years earlier.

As Harris outlines, this scenario played out across the country, and it is one of the reasons why the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were – and remain – underfunded. Between 2010 and 2012, years when Barack Obama was president, state governments across the south shorted HBCUs by US$56,627,199, notes Harris.

As Jim Crow laws cemented segregation in public places, even Oberlin College, which had been educating black men since the 1830s, turned partly away from its self-declared mission of inter-racial education – or at least many of its white students did.

In 1882, Oberlin’s president, James Fairchild, turned back the complaints of white students about having to sit with students of the ‘other race’ in the dining hall.

He could do nothing, however, about the hundreds of students who moved off campus – and, true to their racist beliefs, refused to rent rooms in boarding houses that rented to blacks. By the 1890s, black enrolment had dwindled to 3%, some 50 students out of 1,357.

Depriving blacks of higher education

The second part of Harris’ book is a singular achievement. He has retrieved from the dusty law school shelves a series of lawsuits that chipped away at the Jim Crow restrictions on blacks accessing higher education – and, in the process, reveals the absurd lengths to which America’s racist legislators and school administrators went to deprive blacks from receiving higher education.

In 1935, like Missouri, Lloyd Gaines’ home state, Kentucky paid for blacks to study in other states rather than integrate their own graduate schools or establish a similar programme at a black university.

But no matter how poorly financed these schools would be, they would have fulfilled the letter of the US Supreme Court’s decision Plessy vs Ferguson (1896), which established the infamous doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.

In Gaines v Canada, registrar Silas Canada defended his refusal to enrol Gaines in the University of Missouri’s law school by pointing to the Missouri statute banning blacks from enrolling in the university, which had been upheld by the state’s supreme court (before the case had been appealed to the US Supreme Court).

The justices on the nation’s highest court in the land felt differently, as became obvious during the oral questions: “How can you say,” asked the chief justice, “that negroes have equal educational opportunities . . . when they are compelled to leave their own state to find such professional training?”

The lawyer for the law school made the odd argument that Gaines actually benefited, because the state paid $150 more per year to send him out of state.

As Harris points out, the 6-2 decision in Gaines’ favour secured him a place in the University of Missouri’s law school, but “did not take issue with the separate clause of separate but equal”.

The court ruled for Gaines, in other words, because there was no law school in an all-black university in Missouri.

We can see the importance given to maintaining purity of the all-white flagship university for the government (and people) of Missouri by the fact that, despite it being the middle of the Depression, the cash-strapped Missouri government hastily appropriated US$200,000 (equivalent to US$3.9 million today) to establish an all-black law school.

By 1948, when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Sipuel vs Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, two years had passed since Ada Lois Sipuel had been denied entry into the University of Oklahoma’s law school.

In the rejection letter he signed, Dr Roy Gittinger, the dean of admissions, told Sipuel that she was academically qualified, but Oklahoma’s law “prohibits colored students from attending the schools of Oklahoma, including the University of Oklahoma”.

Further, he told the aspiring lawyer that the law made it a misdemeanour for school officials to “admit colored students” and to “instruct classes of mixed races”.

As Harris notes, this case unfolded against the backdrop of a report by a presidential commission that showed not only that blacks had significantly less education than whites but that states discriminated in their spending by, in the case of Kentucky, a ratio of 42:1.

Despite the seriousness of the issue Harris writes about, it was hard not to smile when he wrote of Associate Justice William O Douglas’s caustic retort to the lawyer for Oklahoma who had just said that the state could maintain segregation by quickly opening a law school for blacks: she “might be an old lady by the time you got the machinery [of a new law school] working”.

Surprisingly, Harris does not point out that Sipuel unfolded against another important domestic political fact. The case was brought after the end of the Second World War, during which millions of black men had served in the armed forces.

Having undergone political education training that stressed America’s role in fighting against fascism and for democracy, these men were manifestly less willing to accept Jim Crow than they would have been otherwise.

Nor does Harris mention that, by 1948, when the Supreme Court was considering Sipuel the Cold War had begun; on 5 March, three months after the ruling was handed down, Winston Churchill gave his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Fulton, Missouri.

As Derrick Bell, one of the founders of Critical Race Theory, noted in regard to Brown vs Board of Education, which was decided a mere six years later, Jim Crow 1) legally sanctioned segregation, 2) clashed with America’s claim to being the land of liberty that was central to its Cold War persona, and 3) made dealing with developing countries problematic.

Still, the court spoke clearly in its one-page ruling that Oklahoma had violated Sipuel’s rights and “was required to provide her with a legal education as it did for any other, white students”. There followed, predictably, the state’s rush to set up a law school for Black Oklahomans that would meet in committee rooms on the fourth floor of the capital building.

Battling the vigilantes

The most exciting chapter in The State Must Provide is the one that deals with James Meredith’s effort to enrol in the University of Mississippi in 1961. After Associate Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black who, as a young man, had been a member of the KKK, ruled that Mississippi was in contempt of court by not following a lower court’s ruling that the black man be enrolled, the issue escalated beyond the courts.

Within days, state troopers and vigilantes sought to keep the Mississippi campus all white. Soon they were facing more than Federal marshals who were stopped by a crowd of 2,500 on the Oxford Mississippi campus.

With former president Dwight Eisenhower’s support (in 1957, he had sent the US Army to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas) and with John Patterson, the Democratic governor of Alabama, threatening him by asking, “If troops are sent to Mississippi, I ask you if you are prepared to invade Alabama,” President John F Kennedy federalised the Mississippi National Guard.

Kennedy ordered the US Air Force to secure the closest airport to Oxford, Mississippi, which allowed the plane carrying Meredith to land and, equally importantly, prevented the one carrying the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan from touching down.

The riot that followed after Meredith was sneaked into the administration building to register cost three lives and saw dozens wounded. Two hundred people were arrested.

Black enrolment under attack

Since the 1970s, when conservatives became the majority on the Supreme Court, Harris shows, a series of Supreme Court decisions have chipped away at the mechanism designed to increase black enrolment in America’s overwhelmingly white public universities.

The most important was University of California Regents vs Bakke, in which the university sought to defend the 16 seats set aside for blacks under an affirmative action programme. Bakke sued, claiming he was being denied his constitutional rights.

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that, while an applicant’s race could be taken into account during the admissions process, it could not be the sole criterion and, thus, the university’s form of affirmative action (or as it was derisively called, ‘quotas’) was unconstitutional.

Since that decision, at least eight states have banned affirmative action with predictable results, a precipitous drop in enrolment in those states’ flagship public universities.

In 2006, Michigan joined the list of states that banned the use of race in admissions, and the predictable happened: black enrolment at the flagship University of Michigan dropped from 10% to 4%, about a third of the percentage of blacks in the state’s population.

(As I write, the Supreme Court is considering taking Students for Fair Admissions vs Harvard; given the solid (6-3) conservative majority, it is expected that the court would rule that any form of affirmative action is unconstitutional.)

HBCUs in financial plight

Harris ends this important book by detailing the financial plight of HBCUs. As compared to white students, black students receive US$1,000 less per year from state governments, which works out to a total gap of US$5 billion.

Harris’s journalistic eye provides an example that perfectly encompasses this gap in funding. All state colleges and universities saw the budgets cut following the Great Recession of 2008-9. Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, an historical black land grant institution, was forced to consolidate programmes and lay off dozens of employees. Delta State University, a publicly funded school in Delta, Mississippi, two hours away by car, closed its golf course.

Adam Harris, The State Must Provide: Why America’s colleges have always been unequal – and how to set them right, is due to be published by HarperCollins on 10 August