Some 50 years ago Stokely Carmichael first made the distinction between overt racism and institutional racism. While the former is more reprehensible, the latter is more pernicious. We would like to believe that the past half century has brought about substantial changes for the better. Surely in progressive Minnesota advances have been made. And no doubt the University of Minnesota, as a land grant college dedicated to the education of the “industrial classes,” as the Morrill Act quaintly puts it, has led the way in promoting the intergenerational advancement of African Americans in our state. We would like to believe all of these things, but they are simply not true.
In 1970 the median income of a Black family in Minnesota was 70% of its white neighbors’. Today it is only half. An explanation of the causes of this state of affairs would involve a complex web of socioeconomic factors. But we can separate out one strand that is both significant and relatively straightforward. Over the last several decades changes in technology and the globalization of the economy have led to a widening gap between the earnings of college graduates and those without a degree. Today it is difficult for someone without this credential to make it in our society.
Contrary to its land grant mission, policies put in place at the University of Minnesota have made it harder for African Americans to enroll at the university, harder for them to graduate, and if they do graduate the university’s policies make it more likely that their future earnings will be lower than their classmates’.
African Americans make up about 10% of Minnesota’s high school graduates, but less than 5% of the university’s enrollment.
An increasing number of colleges (most recently the University of Chicago and the University of California system) have dropped the requirement for SAT/ACT scores because they act as barriers to the admission of qualified Black students. Several years ago the University of Minnesota decided to increase the impact of these tests by raising its average ACT target. From 2010 to 2015, while the new standard was being imposed, the number of students from households in the lowest income quintile enrolled at the university was slashed by 12%.
The graduation rate for lower income students (Pell grant recipients) on the Twin Cities campus is 13% less than for more affluent students.
Studies have shown that one of the most effective ways of improving graduation rates for low income students is by reducing college costs. If students from families with $35,000 in income enroll at the university they have two options: They can graduate in four to five years with unmanageable levels of debt for them and their family ($35,000 to $45,000), or they can work so many hours that graduation becomes unlikely.
The U budgets about $28 million for need based aid. While hardly adequate, not all of this money even goes to low income students. Much of it goes to students whose families earn well above the state’s median income. The university provides so-called need based aid for families with incomes up to $120,000.
The earnings of the university’s graduates vary significantly depending on their major. For instance, students at the university with a degree in engineering are earning on average close to $70,000 three years after graduation. Those with a psychology degree are barely making $30,000. Black graduates at the university are disproportionately enrolled in low earning majors and underrepresented in most higher earning fields. Access to these majors is controlled by setting standardized test hurdles that funnel African American students into lower paying majors.
I suspect that most, if not all, members of the university’s administration would love to see more Blacks succeeding at this school. But in order for this to happen there would need to be significant changes to the status quo. The university would have to operate with much less income. There could no longer be more than 30 highly paid vice presidents. The ratio of one university employee for every three students would need to be lowered. Faculty would need to spend more of their time teaching. And middle class families would need to forgo subsidies for their children’s education. The entire complexion of the university would need to change. Unless they are forced to, this is something the powers that be will simply not allow. And this is what institutional racism looks like.
Though Stokely Carmichael never visited Minnesota, he did say something that is an eerily apt response to the Minnesota Myth; it is also something that many who have joined in protests seeking a more equitable society might echo: “We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: Come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.”
Robert Katz works in the University of Minnesota Libraries Research and Learning Division.
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