'In the Face of Inequality'

Author discusses new book about how historically black colleges have responded to discrimination, economic challenges and more.

June 26, 2015

Historically black colleges -- public and private -- were created amid an era of overt discrimination and hostility to their mission. A new book traces how they responded to those challenges, typically without the financing enjoyed by other institutions, as well as to challenges that followed the theoretical end of Jim Crow. In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt (State University of New York Press) is by Melissa E. Wooten, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Your book is about historically black colleges, but in the 20th century, not the 21st. Why did you focus on black colleges primarily before today?

A: The last half of the 20th century was a fascinating time in both American and black college history. Events such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, ruling and the 1964 Civil Rights Act fundamentally altered black Americans’ educational and political possibilities. At the same time, events like this caused many to question the necessity and relevance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It is in the last decades of the 20th century that a narrative casting HBCUs as impediments to desegregating America’s colleges and universities developed. This was an unexpected turn.

The initial focus on desegregating America’s colleges and universities focused on guaranteeing an individual’s right to access predominantly white colleges. Yet, the judiciary responsible for interpreting Brown and subsequent desegregation rulings, as well as southern political leaders implementing desegregation plans, claimed the presence of HBCUs prevented black students from choosing to attend a predominantly white college. How did HBCUs garner political and financial support during such challenging circumstances? How did HBCUs adapt culturally and organizationally within an environment that constantly questioned their relevance? Did HBCU efforts to adapt result in a re-evaluation of the schools as impediments to desegregation? Studying HBCUs in the last half of the 20th century provides a chance to understand how the schools navigated this pivotal moment.

Q: You document the way black colleges were encouraged (or required) to focus on certain academic fields, such as education. What is the significance of that, compared to the broader range of programs at predominantly white institutions?

A: That black colleges historically focused on certain academic fields (e.g., education) and not others (e.g., business administration) is significant because it demonstrates the effect of racial inequality on organizational development. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that specifically dealt with labor market discrimination, people took it for granted that black college graduates would have limited job opportunities. No such assumption existed for white college graduates. As a result, degree programs at predominantly white colleges were not constrained to particular fields whereas those at black colleges were. Even as late as 1969, the average black college had 32 degree programs compared to 113 for the average predominantly white college in the South. Ultimately, colleges and universities are responsive to the job opportunities available to their core students. However, it’s important to understand that at times, this responsiveness is reflective of limited opportunities available to students and that in the case of black colleges these limits were racially based.

Q: You note that efforts by state governments and society to limit the role of black colleges continued past the era of desegregation. How did those efforts change after the end (in theory) of Jim Crow?

A: Because state governments could not as easily explicitly disadvantage black colleges, one of the ways efforts to limit the role of HBCUs changed following Jim Crow was in their subtlety. Take the proliferation of predominantly white state university satellite campuses across the South as an example. Despite the objections of black college leaders, policy makers have located many satellite campuses within the vicinity of existing HBCUs. Placing satellite campuses close to HBCUs cuts into these schools’ market share, making it especially difficult to recruit nonblack students that may have otherwise chosen to attend a black college because of its proximity to their home. Most students prefer to attend college close to home, and this is particularly true within the South. While many assume HBCUs can’t recruit nonblack students, the public HBCUs in West Virginia with their significant white enrollments suggest otherwise. So here we see something seemingly unrelated to HBCUs, the extension of state universities via satellites, limiting their ability to adapt.

Q: You write at length about the way black colleges adapted. What are some key ways they adapted, both in the segregated era and after?

A: Across both the segregated and desegregated eras, black colleges have shown remarkable creativity when it comes to adaptation. When revenues stagnated in the 1940s, the presidents of private black colleges formed the United Negro College Fund -- the first collective fund-raising program among colleges and universities. When higher education desegregation rulings began to depict black colleges as impediments to racial integration, black college leaders and advocates not only challenged these interpretations in the courts, they also rearticulated the importance of single-race educational settings for a society now privileging racially integrated ones. Most importantly, across both eras, black colleges consistently adapted to meet the educational needs and career opportunities of their students. When few black Americans had access to elementary and high school education, black colleges took it upon themselves to offer courses at these levels in addition to their collegiate work. HBCUs expanded their curricula to ensure that their graduates could take part in the career opportunities that emerged for black Americans following the Civil Rights Act. These trends have continued into the 21st century, as HBCUs are now a key site for black college students to earn degrees in STEM-related fields.

Q: Are there lessons to share from your book about the challenges facing black colleges and their role today?

A: Yes, I’m a firm believer that understanding the present requires deep knowledge of the past. Take the events surrounding South Carolina State University earlier this year that were often discussed through the lens of mismanagement. In February 2015, the South Carolina House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Higher Education proposed shutting down the school, the state’s only publicly supported HBCU. Legislators pointed to the school’s deficit as one of the factors contributing to their decision. Absent the historical context, it was easy to make the case that fiscal mismanagement explained the school’s fate. But it’s important to realize that focusing on mismanagement glosses over the links between school’s current situation and the inequities in funding and resources that are rooted in racial inequality.

During de jure segregation, throughout the South HBCUs were intentionally and strategically underfunded. HBCU advocates have consistently fought to obtain more funding for these schools particularly in the years following legal rulings aimed at racially desegregating higher education. Advocates filed lawsuits to force the southern states to pony up not only going forward, but also for a century’s worth of underfunding. Southern politicians, southern district court judges and ultimately the Supreme Court consistently rebuffed these efforts, declaring that reparations for past wrongs unduly burdened the contemporary southern states. Data from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities indicates that between 2010 and 2012, the legislature underfunded South Carolina State University by more than $6 million. Add to this the overall declines in state support that colleges and universities have dealt with nationwide alongside the changes to the Federal Parent-Plus Loan Program that removed $155 million from HBCU budgets, and a more complex picture emerges. Understanding how state-sanctioned inequality negatively affected HBCUs and the compounding consequences of this is paramount to our ability to properly appreciate, value and converse about HBCUs.


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