More than 50 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act and George Wallace’s ‘stand in the schoolhouse door,’ the struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to ensure equal access to quality higher education for African-American students continues. This past year has seen black students, joined by other minorities and white students, organize in protest of not only the legacy of injustice at their schools but also recent acts of racism on campus and a general state of inequality in higher education.
From student protests to the Supreme Court, last year, the nation was made aware that many of the causes for which Dr. King fought are not yet things of the past. There are many bright spots, though, like higher college enrollment for African-Americans and other minorities, successes at forcing universities to make needed changes, and the growing influence of grassroots student movements.
A breakdown below provides a brief overview of the important issues and events that happened in the past year, revealing that the legacy of Dr. King is well-alive and his work still unfinished on many fronts.
Student protests, racism on campus and Black Lives Matter
The last year saw increases in student protests and activism across the nation’s colleges and universities. Sit-ins at Princeton protesting racial injustice resembled nonviolent protest strategies and the student sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement. Even student protests like the Million Student March, focusing on student debt, inevitably ended up drawing attention to issues of racism affecting university students from the Ivy League to state universities.
At the University of Missouri, the poor handling of racially charged episodes like swastikas being smeared on walls in human waste and threats made to black students on social media, “touched off protests, a hunger strike, the threat of a boycott by the football team and…the resignation of the university system’s president and the chancellor of this [UM-Columbia] campus,” the New York Times reported.
A new movement entered the scene at universities as students took to action in support of Black Lives Matter, protesting jury verdicts that failed to indict in the murders of unarmed black youth and black men. “We are, after all, living through a moment in history when the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which shouldn’t be controversial but apparently is for many whites, has captured the nation’s attention. The reason is simple: The phrase succinctly captures the perilousness of being black in the United States today,” wrote Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on why the movement resonated so strongly across college campuses last year.
Recognizing the far-and-wide reach of social media, minority students used it to organize around issues of racism and injustice this year, with Twitter campaigns like #BlackOnCampus opening up national debates on race and playing critical roles bringing about university resignations. Different from the social organizing landscape of the 1960s, now, “A protest goes viral in no time flat. With Instagram and Twitter, you’re in an immediate news cycle,” said UCLA associate of dean equity, diversity and inclusion Tyrone Howard to the LA Times.
Student protests led to action at universities like Yale, whose president pledged to create a new academic center on race and ethnicity to research and address issues of racism and inequality in higher education. And in the face of public spotlight on inequality at the university-level, increasing faculty diversity became an important issue, with John Hopkins, Brown, Harvard and many others pledging increases in faculty members and scholars from underrepresented groups, as well as more research focusing on the issues impacting diversity in academia and the country as a whole.
Supreme Court hears affirmative action
The Supreme Court heard Fisher v. University of Texas for a second time in 2015, pulling into question, once again, affirmative action in the university. Some of the justices’ remarks were discouraging for the future of affirmative action policies put in place to correct racial/ethnic imbalances in access to quality education.
“[T]here are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a … slower track school where they do well,” said Justice Antonin Scalia. “I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer [African-Americans].”
His words resonate with, and even perhaps exceed, the “separate but equal” arguments proposed by supporters of segregation in the past. Judge Scalia did not attempt to mask deep inequalities that persist in higher education, proposing that maybe African-Americans ‘should’ go to ‘slower schools.’ The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., sought to ensure fair access to the best schools for blacks, whites and all others who wanted to study at these institutions.
His work also served to point out the lack of investment and consideration for schools that serve large shares of African-Americans, calling for fair treatment of these institutions and the young people that attend them.
Higher college enrollment, low graduation rates and wage gaps persist
According to the Department of Education, “From 1976 to 2012, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 15 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 15 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.9 percent.”
Graduation rates for minority groups, though, continue to lag far behind whites. What’s more, for black and Hispanic students that do graduate with bachelor’s or advanced degrees, significant gaps in earnings persist in the workplace. And women, especially, from these groups are largely absent from high-paying, high-demand careers in STEM.
Undocumented students no longer an invisible class
Dr. King worked to ensure that African-Americans were no longer considered “second-class citizens” in their access to education and other aspects of daily life. Today, undocumented students, an “invisible class” until recent years – have put Dr. King’s teachings into practice, taking their fate into their own hands, in the face of inaction at the federal level, and working at the grassroots level to gain access to higher education and financial aid.
Receiving support from some of the most well-known names today, including Mark Zuckerberg and First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, these students have organized around the DREAM Act and gaining access to in-state tuition and financial aid, passing word-of-mouth knowledge about opportunities for funding and using technology to make access to education a possibility for many more students living in the shadows up until now. And in the spirit of Dr. King, they marched on Washington in 2012.
Their actions have born some fruit, with many states and cities enacting their own rules to create climates of inclusion for undocumented residents and granting undocumented students equal access to many of the benefits enjoyed by other students in their states and cities. Even the U.S. Department of Education, in a more tenuous attempt to provide support for undocumented students, last year, released a resource guide for schools to better serve the needs of undocumented students.
Last year’s events and its major challenges point to 2016 becoming an important year in progressing, or unraveling, the work of Dr. King and others who fought to ensure students of all colors and backgrounds have access to quality higher education and a fair chance at a good future that allows them to productively contribute to the country they call home – the United States of America.