Anti-Racist Activism to Increase Access to Quality Education for All People of Color


            A common theme you hear within the United States is that everybody has equal opportunity.  Unfortunately even in 2011, groups are still fighting racial discrimination in “The Land of the Free”.  The majority of Americans believe that we have successfully demolished racism, and that it only exists in rural areas of the south.  However the truth is far from this belief and racism is deeply rooted into our society throughout many of our country’s institutions, including education.  The easiest way to control a human being is by limiting their knowledge, which is why the denial of access to higher education for minorities in the United States is problematic and prevalent within the United States.

This denial of access is obviously nothing new to America.  Since the abolition of slavery we have looked for a proper way to integrate people of color into our society and become equals, socially and economically.  Problems arose quickly with the “Separate but Equal” laws including education.  Whites were the only citizens with access to higher education such as law school and other forms of graduate degrees.  Throughout the 20th century there were more ideas adopted, such as the creation of affirmative action and Federal institutions such as the Office for Civil Rights which is located within the Department of Education.

With these innovations allowing more opportunity to minorities, mainly African Americans, there was some success.  However, data still shows that access is still denied to most inner-city, poor minorities.  According to the United States Census of 2004, almost 12 percent of black undergraduate students in colleges within the US were born in a foreign country.  This is quadruple the amount of whites within these colleges.  Also, 21 percent of blacks in United States colleges have at least one parent born outside the United States.  Looking at these statistics among graduate students is even more alarming.  Almost 19 percent of blacks enrolled were born outside the country, which is the triple the rate for whites.[1]  Professor Henry Louise Gates Jr., the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University said that most of his black students were either children or grandchildren of West Indians or Africans and that very few were actual descendents of American slaves.  The intention of ideas such as affirmative action was to integrate the former slaves however we notice that this is not necessarily the case here, especially within the prestigious schools.

History of Movements/Organizations

Many groups have organized and fought for access for minorities for the past 100 years and this continues into our present day.  Almost 20 years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Booker T. Washington realized that even though blacks were free, they still struggled to become integrated into society with whites.  The biggest obstacle to overcome would be to educate blacks because even though they had access to universities it doesn’t mean they would be accepted.  As a result, Washington helped create Tuskegee University.  He was not the only participant in its creation however because former slave Lewis Adams also played a major role.

Adams was confronted by W.F. Foster, a candidate for re-election in the Alabama Senate, who asked what he needed to do to secure black votes.  Despite the possibility of money or other forms of capital Adams could have asked for, he instead asked for a school in order to educate his fellow African-Americans.  This is where Booker T. Washington, a prominent black rights figure, was approached and made the dream happen becoming principal until his death in 1916.[2]  The creation of the school that later became the widely known Tuskegee University was a profound step for African Americans in finding a way to become educated.  Unfortunately, there is still inequality within education over 100 years later and that is what we look to change.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was a group that was founded in 1909.  W.E.B. Dubois was a director for the association and although their main aim was to eliminate the Jim Crow laws altogether, they first looked for equality in schools.  They helped a black man gain admissions to University of Maryland Law School because there was no other way for a black man to be educated beyond a bachelor’s degree.  They also filed a suit in 1938 because black teachers in Norfolk were paid less than their white co-workers.  It was found that this violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, however they still were paid two thirds of what whites made, and stayed this way until 1952.[3]

Another attempt at forming a greater access for minorities is through economic help.  The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) is an organization that raises money for African Americans to give them opportunities for scholarships and grants, and still exists today.  This organization helps create much more of an opportunity economically for African Americans, leading to less loans and debt later in life.  The UNCF was created in 1944 by Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, who at the time was president of Tuskegee Institute, which is now Tuskegee University.  Patterson argued that they must raise money through an “appeal to the national conscience”.  This phrase recognized the normality in society was placing black’s hierarchically below whites in education within United States and aimed to change it with the creation of the UNCF.[4]

After its creation the UNCF was highly successful.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller Jr. were among the first supporters of the organization and in its first effort the UNCF raised $760,000, which translates to $8.6 million today.  As they grew in popularity John F. Kennedy donated the proceeds from his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage in 1959.  In 1972 the UNCF adopted the motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” which was created specifically for them by Forest Long, an executive at the Young and Rubicam Ad Agency.[5]  This organization showed how getting people organized and doing something as simple as raising money can lead to change for a group, and yet again is an inspiration to spark change within American society.

Current Movements/Organizations

The largest civil rights organization today is the NAACP and consists of thousands of workers and hundreds of thousands of members.  This group has had a great impact on fighting racial inequality in this country and looks to do so still to this day.  They are big enough to have a section in Washington D.C. that is responsible for lobbying in order to achieve certain laws or go against bills.  Although the NAACP resists many factors that uphold the racist structure in the United States, they understand the importance of education and fight for equal access for all Americans.

The NAACP played a major role in the creation of the Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn through Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  This was an attempt for reformation on the No Child Left Behind Act and looks to increase equity within education for all Americans.  They propose several factors in this framework that would create change and reduce advantages based on race.  One of these factors includes a recommendation titled Equitable Opportunities for All.  This section focuses on making sure that there should be federal standards to make sure each student is subject to high quality, early childhood education, highly effective teachers, a broad and college bound curriculum that prepares students to participate in our democracy, and equitable resources.[6]

By doing so, schools would focus less on standardized test scores that ignore science, foreign languages, social studies and arts programs.   This is one of the biggest reasons the No Child Left Behind Act was so controversial because as a result many schools must make huge budget cuts toward these subjects that are left out of the standardized tests.  These tests, that have no direct correlation to college education, become the only source for analyzing how effective a school is.  As a result, criticism of teachers is based directly off of test scores, ignoring how effective the teacher is in teaching, their attendance, peer evaluations, etc.  (The proposal also looks to change this).  This focus on tests leads to many opportunities being blocked for minorities.  In inner-city schools, they don’t have the funding to accommodate an effective, broad education because they’re so focused on test scores.  This approach to cram certain subjects down teenager’s throats while ignoring many other subjects leads to many drop-outs according to a study done in 2008.[7]  This study suggests that out of the 271,000 students sampled in Texas’ public schools, 60 percent of African American, 75 percent of Latino students, and 80 percent of students whom English is a second language did not graduate within five years.  These rates of student’s not finishing school are alarming, and the authors of the proposition argue that the No Child Left Behind Act is the direct factor.  However, this is not the only group fighting for equality in this country.

The Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA) is another movement that seeks racial equity.  They use the term equity instead of equality because it infers that there is a fair inclusion of people where everybody can participate and prosper.  This is a good term to use because equality can be taken as a colorblind term, where we are all equal with no differences at all.  Although biologically this may be true, history has made the differences that we see in race and that must be recognized.

The ARA attempts to dismantle the racist structure that we live in by going around the country holding the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in the Undoing Racism Workshop.  According to the ARA website these workshops, “focus on the symptoms of racism to an understanding of what racism is, where it comes from, how it functions, why it persists and how it can be undone.”[8]  This is a great organization because it spreads the awareness of the existence of a racialized system within our country.  In order to be successful in dismantling this racial structure the majority of the population must be aware and that’s exactly what the ARA seeks to do.

Targeted Elements of Racism

  • Institutional Racism
  • Color Blind Racism
  • Inequitable Opportunities

My Analysis and Recommendations

            Attempting to eliminate the gap in access to education between whites and minorities is a complex task.  The first step that I propose to attack this problem is for awareness to be spread through education.  The Anti-Racist Alliance mentioned above does a great job of this by holding workshops that teach people about race and racism in our society.  This is important to demolish misconceptions that many people in the United States have about race and racism.  For example, there is a common thought that the big gap in higher education between races is based on lack of work ethic or a biological lack of intelligence of minorities.  As a result stereotypes are born and spread throughout society to uphold these thoughts.  As an educated person on race it is important to challenge these misconceptions or as we say, “Give Em Hell!”

There are more scholarships around today that are focused to help minorities get into higher education such as the United Negro College Fund mentioned above.  This is important to give opportunity to minorities who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford college.  Unfortunately, the majority of minority families aren’t able to afford higher education for their children, so if the child wants to attend college then they must take out loans.  This process puts the student into debt and limits opportunity compared to white families that are able to pay for college. These scholarships are imperative to equalize opportunity and help these minorities gain access to higher education, however many people think that this is all that is necessary.

Another issue that we must confront is school funding.  The funding shouldn’t be based on test scores like it has been after No Child Left Behind, and rather it should be based off of the size of the school and student body.  This would allow schools in cities to have a broad education in their public schools, instead of a narrow minded curriculum focused on two or three subjects primarily because they need them to pass the test.  This broad education can spark interest in students in certain subjects to understand their strengths and weaknesses but most importantly interests that they have that can be carried over into college.

Scholarly References:


Other Helpful Links:

 Written by Andrew Ferreira

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