A History of Exclusion for Students of Color

A History of Exclusion for Students of Color

July 16, 2021

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, current racial minorities are projected to comprise 57% of the United States population in 2060. This increase in racial and ethnic diversity has implications for our nation's colleges and universities. Nearly half of undergraduates are now students of color, according to the American Council on Education — less than two decades ago, students of color made up less than 30% of the undergraduate population.

While the diversification of students on college campuses is a notable accomplishment, it does not erase the centuries of historical prejudice against students of color.

While the diversification of students on college campuses is a notable accomplishment, it does not erase the centuries of historical prejudice against students of color. The remnants of racist laws and the continued use of discriminatory admission policies disproportionately exclude students of color.

This culture of exclusion can create an unwelcoming environment for students of color, leading to disengagement and attrition. These factors are partially responsible for the college attainment gap between students of color and white students.

How History Has Impacted Students of Color

For centuries, federal educational policies ensured that people of color were prohibited from achieving high-quality education. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in public institutions, so long as these institutions remained equal in quality. However, ensuring equality in learning environments is challenging when racism and the systemic exclusion of racial minorities is pervasive.

For example, in 1954, Southern Black schools received only 60% of the per-pupil funding of Southern white schools. Black students lacked access to basic necessities and facilities like running water, electricity, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and libraries.

Inequities in access and amenities meant Black students received a substandard education. In the early 1950s, the NAACP and civil rights activists fought hard to challenge segregation laws in public schools. In 1954, the "separate but equal" doctrine was struck down in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Supreme Court ruled that laws enforcing segregation in public schools were unconstitutional.

Throughout history, racial and ethnic minorities have also had their lived experiences decentered and excluded from college curricula and within campus life. Indigenous American students were forced to attend predominantly white boarding schools, and children were not permitted to speak their native languages or participate in ceremonies or cultural activities. This forced assimilation led to the systemic erasure of Indigenous culture and traditions.

Students of color have had their lived experiences decentered and excluded from college curricula and within campus life.

Historically, students of color have been barred from participating in campus life at predominantly white institutions. The formation of organizations centering and celebrating the experiences of students of color has been critical, providing spaces for these learners to congregate, socialize, and seek respite from the harsh realities of attending a predominantly white institution.

Organizations like the Black Student Union and Phi Iota Alpha, a predominantly Latino fraternity, developed out of a need for safe spaces for people of color. In these groups, students can deal with the erasure of their culture and traditions in predominantly white settings and engage in activities that center and validate their racial identity.

Discriminatory admission policies have also disadvantaged students of color and low-income students. Common standardized assessments like the SAT, first introduced in 1962, have played a part in disqualifying many students of color during the admissions process.

Recent studies have demonstrated that the SAT is not the best predictor of college success. For example, a study by Harvard University showed that the SAT verbal section favored Eurocentric culture and the language used by white students from affluent backgrounds.

How Exclusion Creates Barriers for Students of Color Today

Even after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, racism and racial segregation are still prevalent at many colleges and universities. For example, many students of color attend predominantly white campuses with buildings or schools that are or were named after white men who endorsed beliefs of slavery, genocide, and the inferority of people of color.

Hate crimes continue to be a problem on many college campuses.

Additionally, hate crimes remain common on many campuses. In 2019, Syracuse University students experienced 12 different incidents of racism and anti-Semitic graffiti, which led to increased student protests and an FBI investigation. And in June 2021, a noose was found on the Princeton University campus.

These incidents are not isolated. Many students of color report not feeling included or valued by fellow students, faculty, and administrators.

Exclusion is also present within college curricula. Programs focused on the history and significance of ethnic and racial minorities remain largely underfunded and under-resourced at predominantly white institutions. This lack of resources sends an implicit message that institutions undervalue the relevance of critical race studies.

Instead, schools should prioritize hiring faculty of color with expertise related to this subject matter and ensure that the historical and cultural identities of students of color are embedded in campus life.

How Higher Education Should Respond to History

The exclusionary practices in school settings throughout history have ramifications on the current experiences of students of color. Racism is still prevalent in our educational institutions, and while diversity in numbers is a worthwhile goal, it does little to alleviate the institutional barriers that impede access and opportunity for students of color.

Higher education institutions need to understand ongoing inequities in access and opportunity, as well as how these create disadvantages for historically marginalized college student populations.

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