December 17, 2017

Colleges & Universities must enter the fight for Racial equity

I entered college in the late 1960s at a time of great civil unrest. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, Lyndon Johnson had announced that he would not seek re-election and our cities were exploding with racial discontent. Despite what looked like total despair from the outside, there was still this promise of hope-that America would get it right this time and create this multiracial democracy that would include all of us; that surely the civil rights era would be the time when racial equality would become a reality.

Blacks were entering college in record numbers after the passage of Civil rights legislation and the Higher Education Acts. Social programs were expanded. Government spending for training and jobs increased. Although discrimination continued, these advances were significant. Equally as important were the “intangibles.” The consciousness of not just African-Americans but other people of color, and millions of whites had substantially changed.

As a result I thought I had a legitimate reason to believe that in my lifetime I would be able to sit under the tree of racial equality and that our colleges and universities would lead the way. As I grew older I hoped that in my son’s lifetime that he would be able to sit under that same tree. Now I’m not at all convinced that my grandson will find shelter under that tree either.

Will we someday create a multiracial democracy that truly represents all of us? What role will our colleges and universities play? Will they continue to sit on the sidelines aloof from tackling the real social problems that continue to plague us; or will they get in the ring and go toe to toe with injustice, racial disparities and give meaning to the pledge: one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all? Those questions are just as important today as they were 45 years ago. I realize that we have powerful forces wedded to the status quo and that’s why I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime. My life and my generation’s lives are still needed to plant seeds so that some future generation will be able to bask in the shade. I understand that now.

But I also understand that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We have to fight for change and we need our institutions of higher education to enjoin this fight and make the goal of social justice their clarion call too. Our great academic institutions are charged with “educating” millions of college students annually. Just imagine if they graduated these students with a passion for correcting inequities instead of replicating them.

That was my hope 45 years ago and unless these institutions undergo a radical shift I’m afraid it will be my grandson’s hope 45 years from now.


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