Diversity and Democracy

Higher Education and Equity: Historical Narratives, Contemporary Debates

Many narratives of American history exist, but two have been particularly divisive over the last fifty years, setting popular understandings of race and ethnicity in opposition to each other and provoking resentment between majority and minority groups. The first of these narratives tells of a United States riven by racism since the colonial period, with racial minorities' claims to citizenship slowly gaining government protection over the course of the nation's history. The second, while recognizing racism's toxic legacies, focuses instead on ethnicity, pronouncing the United States a nation of nations: "E Pluribus Unum," or "Out of Many One."

The friction between these narratives lies at the heart of a debate that has raged in our polity since the 1950s. The debate focuses on the question of whether addressing racial injustices should take precedence over alleviating grievances based on ethnicity and nationality. In this essay, I map the contours of this debate from the birth of the Civil Rights movement to the widely proclaimed post-racial moment in which we putatively live today. In doing so, I aim to provide historical context for higher education's contested work to advance racial and other forms of equity and support our nation's democratic ideals.

Individual and Institutional Racism

Americans marched into battle during World War II to end fascism and establish democratic rule. Though all soldiers put their lives in harm's way, their rewards on returning home were apportioned by race. White veterans received government benefits, subsidized home loans, college tuition waivers, and well-paid jobs. African American and Mexican American veterans did not fare as well, returning to discriminatory practices prohibiting "colored" war heroes from being buried in white cemeteries and forcing even uniformed soldiers to use segregated facilities.

In 1944, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal took stock of these conditions in his Carnegie Corporation-funded report, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. In Myrdal's estimation, the "American dilemma" was whether citizens would choose their vaunted ideals of equality or yield to irrational prejudices. Like anthropologist Franz Boas before him, Myrdal described discrimination as rooted in social and cultural, not biological, distinctions—based largely on the superficial fact of skin color rather than on innate differences. He noted, "The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American…White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals" (1962, lxxi).

By the early 1960s, African Americans had organized a civil rights movement in response to these conditions. While some labor unionists advocated for radical economic transformation, they were quickly branded Communists and suppressed (Korstad and Lichtenstein 1988). More moderate reformers anchored in churches and middle-class organizations sought white liberal allies among government, business, educational, and religious elites. Led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., these reformers were instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as well as affirmative action programs that aimed to eradicate the country's history of racial subordination.

Just as the federal government began advancing these reforms in the late 1960s, race riots broke out in several American cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kenner, to explore the causes of the uprisings. Issued in February 1968, the Kenner Report boldly stated: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white—separate and unequal…Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American." The report explained that the race riots were rooted in segregation, inadequate housing, poor access to quality education, systematic police violence, and labor market exclusion. For these factors, the report concluded, "White racism is essentially responsible" (1–2).

The Kenner Report signaled a shift in American politics from an understanding of racism as based in individual acts of personal animus to a focus on institutional racism rooted in society's social and economic arrangements. Stokley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton's 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America was catalytic in this shift. Offering a framework for black political, economic, and psychological empowerment, Carmichael and Hamilton differentiated between individual and institutional racism, locating the foundation of the latter in a host of detrimental government policies meant to enforce racial subordination. If American blacks were to forge their own freedom, they would need to establish community sovereignty and self-determination as part of a global Black Power movement (Gutiérrez 2004).

Although Martin Luther King, Jr. was becoming more radical about issues of economic justice, he found the language of Black Power profoundly unsettling. King preferred "Black equality" or "Black consciousness," correctly predicting that the rhetoric of Black Power would unleash a torrent of white prejudice that up to that point had not been expressed openly (King 1968, 31).

Immigration and American Ethnicity

Since the end of World War II, both the Republican and Democratic parties had at least nominally endorsed the idea of racial equality. But in 1962, when John F. Kennedy's administration assigned federal troops to integrate schools and force James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi, southern whites' opposition to integration intensified. In July 1963, 54 percent of whites across the nation opined that President Kennedy was "pushing racial integration too fast" (Erskine 1968, 514).

In fact, the Kennedy administration was unable to advance any significant civil rights legislation, and Kennedy's writings helped launch a second narrative of American history that downplayed the role of race. In 1958, as a US Senator, Kennedy had penned A Nation of Immigrants, a pamphlet that called for immigration reform by chronicling the distinct contribution immigrants had made to America. Published posthumously in 1964, these writings reflected a shift in social science since World War II from understanding race as biological to emphasizing that people from distinct places were united by cultural practices and associational patterns—which, unlike bloodlines and physical appearance, could change. "Ethnicity" emerged as the word to describe this phenomenon.

Harvard sociology professors Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan helped lead this epistemic shift. Harking back to the idea of "cultural pluralism" first elaborated by philosopher Horace Kallen in 1915, Glazer and Moynihan explained in their book Beyond the Melting Pot that many differences evident among groups were ethnic, not racial; rooted in culture, not structure. According to Glazer and Moynihan, the home, family, and community—not institutional racism—were responsible for any failure to succeed in American education and society. As President Johnson's assistant secretary of labor for policy planning and research, Moynihan went on to author his infamous 1965 study The Negro Family, in which he decried the dysfunction of the black family, "its present tangle of pathology," as beyond repair (US Department of Labor 1965, 93).

Slowly the critiques of institutional racism produced by the Black Power movement (and later by the Chicano, Red, and Yellow Power movements) were displaced by an understanding of inequalities as based in ethnicity and culture. While the Black Power movement's notions of racial pride and self-assertion had a powerful impact on minority groups, they simultaneously helped spark a white immigrant ethnic revival. In 1970, for example, the New Jersey based Ukrainian Weekly reported: "The notion of 'Ukrainian Power'—a borrowing to be sure, from America's black community—is passing in Ukrainian circles from a mere phrase to a workable and quite feasible concept" (Jacobson 2006, 20).

By recuperating their immigrant roots and positioning themselves as ethnic minorities, white Americans were able to distance themselves from the benefits of white privilege and the legacies of colonial conquest, genocide, and slavery. In time, the white ethnic immigrant revival yielded the language of reverse discrimination, and with it, the push for a color-blind society.

Pressing Legacies and Present Challenges

These competing narratives of American history have formed the backdrop for higher education's contested work to advance racial equity. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, colleges and universities recruited racial minorities and created black, Chicano, Native American, and Asian American centers, programs, and departments. After the 1965 Immigration Act abolished national quotas, more immigrants from historically excluded regions—including Asia, Africa, and Latin America—also enrolled in higher education, thus transforming the culture of institutions. In the 1980s and 1990s, many colleges and universities embraced broader notions of diversity and critical multiculturalism focused not only on numeric representation, but also on curricular transformation and the creation of campus climates that were conducive to a diverse student body, faculty, and staff.

But these progressive changes have been accompanied by significant legal challenges, beginning with the Supreme Court's 1978 ruling on Allan Bakke's admission to the medical school at the University of California–Davis. In its decision, the court upheld the use of race in admissions in principle but concluded that the medical school's practice of reserving sixteen of its one hundred admission slots for black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American applicants was tantamount to a quota system that discriminated against whites. Questions about affirmative action in higher education persist in Abigail Fisher's case, now before the Supreme Court. Fisher applied to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, but was not among the top tier of graduating high school seniors automatically guaranteed admission. When Fisher failed to gain admission based on a secondary review of her talents and familial circumstances (such as race or immigrant status), she filed suit on the basis of racial discrimination. Whether the Supreme Court's forthcoming decision will allow colleges and universities to craft admissions criteria where race is one of many factors considered necessary to create diverse learning environments remains to be seen.

The court's decision may have significant impacts at a time when the fissures in America's racial and ethnic tapestry not only persist, but are deeply riven by inequalities based in socioeconomic class and immigrant status. Today, the top 0.1 percent of the American population—that is, sixteen thousand families—controls 5 percent of the country's total wealth, while the bottom 40 percent controls only 0.3 percent (The Economist 2012, 13). While a high-end workforce populated by educated and skilled workers earns handsome wages, a low-end labor market occupied largely by poorly paid immigrants is scapegoated for the country's economic woes and increasingly subjected to xenophobic behaviors and draconian laws.

The defunding of public education has intensified the challenge of responding to these realities. Many public institutions are abandoning their commitment to their citizens, increasing tuition and enrolling higher proportions of foreign and out-of-state students to meet their budgetary shortfalls. These changes virtually guarantee that the talented poor—including many racial minorities and recent immigrants—will be denied access to higher education and the opportunities it presents.

Today, much as when Myrdal wrote An American Dilemma in 1944, America's moral dilemma is arguably whether its citizens will choose their democratic ideals of equality or will succumb to irrational prejudices. Will higher education become further stratified into private schools serving the wealthy elite and public schools serving a few of the poor? Will Americans continue to think of ourselves as a nation of immigrants, or will we become a nation hunting down unauthorized and racialized immigrants? As citizens of a democracy seeking a more perfect union, will we succumb to the myth of a post-racial society, or will we strive to ameliorate the toxic legacies of our segregated past? These are the challenges higher education faces as it works to creatively engage our country's racial, ethnic, social, sexual, and political differences.


Carmichael, Stokley, and Charles Hamilton. 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House.

The Economist. 2012. "True Progressivism." October 13, 13.

Erskine, Hazel. 1968. "The Polls: The Speed of Racial Integration." Public Opinion Quarterly 32 (Fall): 514.

Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 1963. Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 49–50.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. 2004. "Internal Colonialism: The History of a Theory." Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1 (Summer): 281–96.

Jacobson, Matthew Fry. 2006. Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kennedy, John F. 1964. A Nation of Immigrants. Revised and expanded by Robert F. Kennedy. New York: Harper & Row.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1968. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press.

Korstad, Robert, and Nelson Lichtenstein. 1988. "Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement." Journal of American History 75 (December): 786–811.

Moynihan, Daniel P. 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1962. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Twentieth Century Edition. New York: Harper & Row.

National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. 1968. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

United States Department of Labor. 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Ramón A. Gutiérrez is Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor of American History at the University of Chicago.

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