Higher education institutions in the United States are failing to fully buy in to an equitable and just society for all. Although affirmative action is meant to redress former policies and practices that excluded or limited Black and brown people (and women) from obtaining postsecondary educations and good jobs, racial disparities persist in both arenas.
Black and Latinx students are more likely to receive educations from institutions that are less funded, have higher dropout rates, operate for profit, pay lower faculty salaries and have higher student-to-faculty ratios. The educational spending gap alone gives white students a $5 billion advantage over students of color at public colleges every year, and spending directly impacts student graduation rates.
For those who do graduate, racial inequities follow them into the job market. A 2019 study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that white workers, as compared to Black and Latinx workers, are more likely to have good jobs, increased their share of good jobs between 1991 and 2016, and have a disproportionate share of good jobs relative to their levels of employment. Among Black, Latinx and white workers with good jobs, the researchers found that white workers are paid more at every level of education. The racial inequities in representation and earnings shifted $554 billion from Black and Latinx workers to white workers in 2016 alone.
The outlook is bleak: American institutions have already ensured immense generational advantages for whites and disadvantages for people of color. And this will continue if we do nothing.
The time for all social institutions to become antiracist and sever all ties with systemic racism is long overdue. As Beverly D. Tatum, a scholar of race in America, reminds us, we are in an active cycle of racism. Being passive will only ensure that we will still have racial inequities far into the future.
I mourn in fury because our country failed to protect Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other precious lives while continuing to disenfranchise many more. Taking inspiration from organizations addressing the criminal justice system like the Movement for Black Lives and Civil Rights Corps, and drawing upon my experiences in higher education, I envision colleges and universities as antiracist institutions that participate fully in restoring the dignity, sanctity and empowerment of communities of color through policies and practices that produce and sustain racial equity.
Three Tiers of Recommendations
In the rest of this essay, I will suggest various practices and policies to help leaders of higher education institutions close the racial gaps. I’ve divided my recommendations into three tiers that progressively unfold toward a greater embodiment of antiracist positions for higher education.
First, however, if the reforms are to be effective, these four overarching principles must prevail, as well:
- All reforms must be committed to reinstating civil rights, restorative justice, dignity and respect to the communities that have been the targets of systemic racism.
- All reforms must be holistic, recognizing that racism is a pervasive system that holds a tight iron fist on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. They must not just be a haphazard menu of options but be part of a cohesive approach.
- All reforms must be participatory, enabling BIPOC communities and independent civil rights organizations to share decision making. In particular, local communities must be empowered to influence priorities and offer meaningful oversight.
- All reforms must be intersectional, acknowledging the great diversity among BIPOC communities, including but not limited to economic status, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, religion, disability, HIV status and ethnicity -- which, when intertwined, can deepen the inequalities in our societies.
Within the context of those four principles, leaders of colleges and universities should consider the following.
Tier 1 -- Novice: ensuring responsibility and accountability. You are responsible for educating and providing knowledge about BIPOC histories of racism and implicit bias training to your communities. You are holding yourself and your institution accountable for ensuring that racism does not continue within your institution. You work to ensure that those who represent or attend your institution are prepared and empowered to be allies in fighting racism. This is about breaking institutional silence and becoming a responsible social organization. You:
- Publicly take responsibility for your college or university’s historical participation in racism and discrimination, and you acknowledge who has benefited and who has been disadvantaged or harmed.
- Develop funded, mandatory antiracism workshops, reading groups and teach-ins for department faculty, university staff and students led by experts in their respective disciplines that include BIPOC histories of racism.
- Advance campus debate about racial justice by inviting antiracist and BIPOC history speakers to hold discussions in and outside classrooms.
- Publicly denounce all racism, hate, discrimination and bias -- both before and after all incidents.
- Follow transparent procedures for removing faculty, staff and students who are found to be perpetuating discrimination, hate and/or bias on and off campus.
- Implement a universitywide hate and bias incident reporting system with safeguards for victims and transparent methods for addressing all reports effectively. You ensure that collected data on incidents is disseminated for analysis, policy improvements and prevention.
- Fund semester-long and winter, spring and summer break trips for students to historical sites to learn the histories of racism and colonialism. You also reform service programs so that they do not re-enact colonialist exchanges with communities of color.
Tier 2 -- Intermediate: countering and redressing a legacy of racism. Having acknowledged that your institution is embedded in a society that has systematically targeted and disempowered BIPOC communities through racist and discriminatory policies, practices and laws, your institution begins to redress and dismantle centuries of racism embedded in the fabric and culture of society. This is done by supporting internal and external community efforts dedicated to those actions. You:
- Increase funding for departments, centers and faculty that offer social justice, critical race, queer, ethnic and gender studies classes and workshops.
- Incentivize departments to hire researchers and educators who do critical race, ethnic and gender studies work.
- Dedicate alternating years of your institution’s work contracts to local Black- and brown-owned businesses or guarantee that 50 percent of all contracts go to BIPOC-owned businesses.
- Build and fund student internship opportunities with organizations fighting against systemic racism.
- Divest from police departments and redirect funding to local restorative justice services.
- Create visible, well-funded and continuing partnerships with HBCUs.
- Eliminate legacy and donor considerations in applications.
- Create a campuswide antiracism campaign.
- Create or reinvest in comprehensive antiracist policy institutes on the campus to fight institutionalized racism in partnership with local, regional and national organizations. Publicly report goals and progress.
- Support graduate student workers and adjunct faculty unions rather than opposing the collective bargaining power of your graduate students and adjuncts.
Tier 3 -- Advanced: enacting an equitable antiracist society. Desiring to live in a just world, your institution enacts policies that create and maintain equity among racial groups, despite ongoing racism in our society. You:
- Divest from prisons, parole and bail corporations, and prison vendors.
- Build local food system infrastructures in communities that are historically the target of systemic racism.
- Invest in affordable housing infrastructure in communities that are historically the target of systemic racism.
- Create low-interest loan programs for Black, Indigenous, immigrant, queer, working-class and POC small business owners.
- Divest from banks that have a record of racially inequitable lending practices.
- Offer free or low-cost community education programs in BIPOC communities.
- Build accessible pathways to enter your institution for BIPOC communities (for example, by changing advertising practices and sending representatives to BIPOC communities).
- Invest in programs that support K-12 education in communities that are historically disadvantaged by racism.
- Create dual-enrollment programs in partnership with high schools that serve BIPOC and working-class communities.
- Lower tuition fees and create sliding-scale tuition structures.
- Eliminate the use of standardized test scores in college admissions.
- Make all on-campus housing, meal plans and extracurricular institutional activities optional and affordable.
- Pay all staff, graduate workers and faculty members a living wage with health care, paid sick leave and paid maternity leave.
- Eliminate all conflict-of-interest contracts and enact policies to fight internal corruption and discriminatory hiring, firing and promoting practices.
- Reduce adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty positions at your institution to 20 percent or lower, and increase tenure or tenure-track faculty positions to 80 percent or higher.
This work should not wait for legal mandates, nor should an institution self-regulate its progress. Rather, higher education institutions should build strategic initiatives with research-based advocacy centers (e.g., the Poverty and Race Research Action Council), institutional evaluation and consulting organizations (e.g., Beloved Community and Achieving the Dream), and similar independent national and local groups dedicated to enacting an antiracist society.
And this work should begin now. As Martin Luther King Jr. aptly wrote, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”