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In August of 1933, a 65-year-old, heavy-hearted W.E.B. Du Bois, Class of 1890, founder and editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s magazine, “the Crisis,” published an article titled “The Negro College.” In it, Du Bois expressed a radical commitment to exclusively-Black education in the face of Jim Crow, a fierce declaration that would get him into a lot of trouble, both with his readers and the NAACP’s leadership.
In fact, the following summer, the conflict would lead to his resignation.
Du Bois begins the essay by criticizing Black educators who insist that a Black college is “nothing more and nothing less than a university.” No, Du Bois, writes. Stop assimilating. They are Black universities. For Du Bois, to advocate against race-consciousness in historically Black institutions of learning naively assumed an inevitable racial progress in the Jim Crow Era. Instead, America needed these colleges to prepare Black students for the real world, such that they could learn “exactly how and where…to establish a reasonable Life in the United States.”
Du Bois’ readers correctly understood him to be advocating for segregation. At this point in his life, he had begun to cope with racism’s permanence in the industrial system. Du Bois had his share of education, graduating from Fisk University in 1888, earning a second bachelor’s from Harvard in 1890, and five years later, in 1895, becoming the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard. He spent the majority of his adult life fighting for integration through both academia and journalism, trying to convince whites that Blacks were worthy of their support. And still, it seemed like segregation in the educational system was only solidifying.
The only viable alternative was to pivot inwards. Black people, through “voluntary determined cooperative effort,” would have to establish their own Black institutions in their own communities. With great time and effort, they would fight their way back into a diverse American public sphere.
Du Bois’ dreary vision of racial separation in 1933 is darkly prophetic, perhaps. It is the world Students for Fair Admissions wants.
This October, the Supreme Court took up Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, a landmark case challenging Harvard’s race-conscious admissions. Using the classic white supremacist move — pitting minorities against one another — SFFA asserts that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions “penalizes Asian Americans” for the undue benefit of African American and Latinx applicants. Such a conniving conservative argument (“race-conscious admissions are reverse racism!”) is just another instance of white supremacy wagging its unwieldy head, calling discriminatory a measure designed to correct the discrimination that white supremacists themselves have perpetuated.
If affirmative action is overturned, Harvard’s percentage of Black and Latinx students may shrink into non-existence, particularly impacting Generational African Americans, who are already estimated to be severely underrepresented at the University. Institutional bias will go unchecked and the admissions office’s preference for legacy students will only strengthen. Harvard admissions, the so-called colorblind institution SFFA dreams of, will increasingly shatter the dreams of Black and Latinx high school applicants.
If SFFA gets what it wants, what Du Bois called the “Color Line” in education will only sharpen. Black and Latinx students will be forced to become increasingly conscious of their racial identities as they watch Harvard retrogress to its white racial status.
A few weeks ago, a large group of Black Harvard students traveled to Washington D.C. to celebrate an annual football game at “The Mecca,” that is, the illustrious Howard University. To be in an oasis of knowledge beyond the white gaze was a little taste of heaven. When we asked students about their experience, they had their trifles with administrative processes, as most of us do. But when it came to their racial identity, one thing was abundantly clear: at Howard, it felt easier to be authentic, to explore the intellectual and social world around you without having to be overly conscious of your skin color.
I didn’t apply to Howard in high school because I wasn’t aware of its importance. The alienation I have experienced on Harvard’s campus has made that importance abundantly clear. Black students on this campus are tired of being looked at sideways when we self-congregate. We are tired of the fact that there is no physical space for us on campus. We are tired of the fact that to fit in, we must assimilate into white final clubs. We are tired of so-called “progressive” answers in the classroom that sound woke but lack substance.
Almost 90 years after “The Negro College” was published, we wrestle with the temptation to retrogress to separate schooling: a dystopian America where droves of Black students stop applying to white schools and turn to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Where elite institutions are further deprived of the gift that is diversity.
I would hope that the onset of such a segregated world is unlikely. But if that is the world that Students for Fair Admissions want, then so be it.
Howard, here we come!
Sterling Bland ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and African and African American Studies in Quincy House.
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