What’s behind the assault against affirmative action, race-based scholarships, educational loans and other programs designed to enhance opportunities and access for blacks, Latinos and other minorities in higher education? What’s at stake is the implicit “writing off” or elimination of millions of black, brown and poor young people from a college degree.

The vast majority of black and Hispanic students continue to function under a kind of educational apartheid, more than a generation after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The apartheid begins in the public schools, with the underfunding of urban education. Advanced placement (AP) and honors courses are widely available at private and suburban schools, but frequently unavailable in mostly black and brown public high schools. The so-called “racial achievement gap” in most standardized tests that determine admission to colleges is more than anything else a measurement of “unequal treatment.”

Even when minority students do attend schools that offer large numbers of AP and honors courses, educational researchers Pedro Noguera and Antwi Akom wrote recently in The Nation that, “they are more likely to be actively discouraged from taking them by teachers and counselors . . . And with the rollback of affirmative action at colleges and universities, there is little doubt that students who possess entertainment value to universities, who can slam-dunk or score touchdowns, will be admitted regardless of their academic performance, even as aspiring doctors and lawyers are turned away.

At working class, public universities like the City University in New York, rules barring students needing remediation form gaining admission to the system’s 11 senior colleges may reduce the overall number of black and Hispanic undergraduates by one third or more. In the aftermaths of the passage of California Proposition 209 in 1996, the number of black, Hispanic and American Indian freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley this fall 2000 will drop from 1,778 admissions in 1997 to 1,169 admissions this fall. At the University of California at Los Angeles, racial minority admissions declined from 2,010 to 1,449 between fall 1997 and 2000. In the same way, since the 1998 passage of Initiative 200 in Washington State outlawing affirmative action, racialized minority enrollments have fallen across the board. In the fall of 1999, the University of Washington enrolled one third fewer Latino and African-American freshmen, and nearly one-quarter fewer American Indian freshmen.

How do we reverse the patterns of educational apartheid and class inequality in higher education? How can we achieve the ideal that access to advance learning should be an entitlement in a democratic society? Colleges and universities can have a critical role to play in this regard, in fostering the values of hope and opportunity.

A college committed to liberal values should address in a thoughtful and creative manner American society’s growing racial divide. This requires more than concerted efforts to recruit and retain racialized minorities within its student body. It should also initiate proactive measures to diversify its faculty and administrative staff. It could, for example, establish exchange programs with students and faculty at historically black colleges and universities, or predominantly Hispanic institutions. It could reach out to nearby urban communities and, working with public school officials, create mentorship programs, encouraging minority students to pursue secondary education. Administrators should set clear guidelines and expectations for the implementation of diversity policies within their institutions.

A more challenging task for higher education is the deconstruction of the intricate patterns of social privilege, which are obscured from critical scrutiny by the phony ideology of meritocracy. Part of the historic difficulty in uprooting racial and gender inequality in the United States is that whites generally, and especially white middle and upper class males, must be taught to recognize how the omnipresent structures of white privilege perpetuate inequality for millions of Americans. As anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen, in Culture of Intolerance, eloquently states: “If, historically, any working-class or middle-class group has received affirmative action it has been white males with their defacto monopoly of jobs and education. In their world, competition has clearly been limited and quality has suffered as a result. White men . . . have benefited from the fact that women and minorities could not compete on equal footing for a job.” The classic liberal ideal of free and fair competition in the marketplace has always been a lie. Private colleges “privilege” the children of their alumni through the admission policies of legacies, preserving traditional class and racial hierarchies.

Knowledge, from the vantage point of the oppressed, must not only inform, but transform, the real condition of daily life in which people live. A humanistic, higher education must do the same thing. It must provide new perspectives and insights for young people, usually of privileged backgrounds, to understand the meaning and reality of hunger and poverty in contemporary America and the world. It should create and nourish a commitment to a society committed to social justice and a culture of human rights, which has the potential for including all of us. It should foster an impatience with all forms of human inequality and intolerance, whether based on gender, sexual orientation, religion or race. The knowledge to help to empower those without power, to bridge our social divisions, to define and to enrich our definitions of democracy, should be the central aim of a higher education for the twenty-first century. Instead of imprisoning the minds of black, brown and other oppressed young people, we must struggle to liberate them.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. Dr. Marable’s column is also available on the Internet at