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Racial Lines Still Divide US Higher Education

Brooklyn College humanities and social sciences graduate Ameera Badamasi, center, from Nigeria, hugs a student after the college's commencement ceremony, where Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivered the keynote address, May 30, 2017.

Higher education continues to see racial divides, including in the earning power of graduates of different races and ethnicities.

When researchers looked at the earnings of white, black and Latino Americans who had earned a bachelor’s degree between 1991 and 2016, they saw that whites earned about $10,000 more a year than blacks and Latinos with the same education.

And in 2016, white college graduates held 77% of the good-paying jobs. These men and women represented 69% of available job holders nationwide.

However, over the same period, blacks and Latinos with a bachelor’s degree increased their likelihood of getting and keeping a good-paying job, defined by researchers as an annual salary of at least $35,000.

Anthony Carnavale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, describes these findings as another example of America’s history of treating minorities unequally. The center published its study in October 2019 about racial divides.

Carnavale said black Americans have been disadvantaged since they arrived in North America enslaved. Laws separated them practically, economically and in education. Many were barred from schools and fields of employment. While conditions for black Americans have improved over the years, Carnavale said whites have gotten greater advantages.

History of racial divide

Following World War II, many whites moved from major U.S. cities to suburbs, made possible because of government housing and mortgage aid in return for their military service. The majority white suburban communities built large tax bases, which financed strong public school systems, he said. From those schools, most students went on to colleges and universities.

Latinos, Carnavale said, faced similar discrimination and did not become a major part of the U.S. economy until the late 1980s. Higher education has reduced barriers to higher education for minorities. But access to elite schools has been elusive for those black, Latino and poor students who mostly attend two and four-year public colleges and universities.

Since the 1980s, state governments have given far less financial support to these public schools, noted Carnavale, meaning many of the schools struggle to support students as best they can.

“So, we’ve created more access to higher education in America, but we have not created much more success,” he said. “The success, the graduation rates are highest, by far, for affluent white kids.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 65 years ago that states could not prevent black students from attending the same schools as whites, a New Jersey judge agreed to consider a court case against the state’s public school system this year, said Victor Goode, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

The NAACP and other groups have accused the state of segregation based on race and earnings. The civil rights group has taken legal action to demand greater financial support for public schools from state governments in Maryland, Delaware and Minnesota.

“States … need to see how they can do a better job of providing an adequate, equitable education to all students,” noted Goode.

Kyriaki Topidi, a researcher with the European Center for Minority Issues, said inequality exists in many majority-white nations.

Topidi said that in Germany, many recent African and Middle Eastern immigrants lack access to high schools with advanced study programs. And studies showed that employers in Britain were 60% more likely to consider white candidates for employment than blacks or South Asians.

Topidi suggests one way to deal with this is by working with local governments to create anti-discrimination policies. Also, she said, leaders should try to get members of different races and economic levels to understand each other better through community-building events and training.

“This process should be based on the acceptance that people do not simply represent ‘ethnicities’ or ‘races,’ but rather are complex beings that also differ according to social status, interests, profession, beliefs,” she said.

Yet Carnavale said he is not hopeful that conditions for blacks and Latinos will improve in the United States any time soon. He says that unless wealthy white Americans are willing to spend much more in taxes to support public education, things will likely remain the same for the next 30 years.