A Delta twist on desegregation

As a 1970s lawsuit draws to an end, Mississippi's black colleges must enroll whites.

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David Shoup is a real stand-out at Jackson State University.

It's not Mr. Shoup's academic wiles or athletic prowess that set him apart. It's that he's a white student on a Mississippi campus that is 95 percent black. Standing out is a small price to pay, though, for this father of two: He landed a "diversity scholarship" and attends Jackson State for free.

His school and two other black state-funded colleges are at the center of the longest-running racial-bias case in US education - one that after 26 years is about to be settled in a way that satisfies almost no one, and may even threaten the existence of at least one black college.

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The lawsuit, originally brought to force Mississippi to spend on black colleges what it spent on colleges attended primarily by whites, has evolved over the years into something resembling a reverse-discrimination case. Indeed, as part of a forthcoming settlement - in which the three black colleges are expected to get $500 million in compensation for past inequity - the black campuses must agree to diversify their student bodies.

But here on the waterlogged country of the Mississippi Delta, where racial stigmas can still run deep, many expect the schools to have a tough time attracting enough whites to meet the court's requirements.

"To put the onus on black schools to meet quotas in order to get these endowments is a slap in the face of what the lawsuit was all about," says Erik Fleming, a state legislator and a Jackson State alum.

Ultimately, the case may set a precedent - and prompt more than 50 other black colleges in 19 states to review their own enrollment rules.

"What you have going on in Mississippi right now is the endgame of desegregation," says Robert Kronley, a consultant for the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta. "People all over the country are watching this very carefully."

In an ironic twist, the pending settlement, which could come as soon as this week, may set racial quotas at black state colleges - even as colleges elsewhere are backing away from race-sensitive admission standards.

If US District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. approves the deal, Mississippi will hold onto $100 million of the total award until the black colleges meet a 10 percent "other race" enrollment. In addition, they must uphold the state's admission standards for new students.

The settlement stems from a 1992 US Supreme Court ruling on the case, which ordered Judge Biggers to remove "all vestiges of segregation" from state schools, while recompensing the three historically black schools - Jackson State, Alcorn State, and Mississippi Valley - for past funding inequities.

By shortchanging black schools over 70 years, some say, Mississippi has been able to build the reputations of predominantly white schools such as Ole Miss in Oxford. Indeed, the original suit, filed in 1975 by the late Jake Ayers Sr., a Jackson State parent, was brought to end the perceived inequity.

From the schools' view, the requirement to raise enrollment standards is just as worrisome as quotas. Imposing those standards could close Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, which draws students from poor Delta towns with some of the worst schools in the country. In the past, black colleges could admit students whose academic performances were substandard if they excelled at other activities, such as sports or music.

In the state Legislature, a majority of the black caucus has lifted its opposition to the settlement in an effort to finally put an end to the case. They fell in behind three of the state's most powerful black leaders, including US Rep. Bennie Thompson (D).

"We need to move forward," says an employee of Alcorn State University.

Elsewhere, some historically black colleges are already taking steps to diversify. Tennessee State University in Nashville is trying to achieve a 50-50 racial balance on its campus - a goal many see as impossible. North Carolina Central University in Durham has increased its diversity by acquiring a law school. Today dozens of white law clerks and lawyers working in Raleigh have N.C. Central diplomas hanging on their office walls.

But on the Mississippi Delta, the going has been tougher. The three state schools spent $60 million in the past decade on diversity programs, but the results were so underwhelming that Judge Biggers punished the schools by withholding $3 million earmarked for other projects.

Years of underfunding have given the schools a bad name, turning them into "racial enclaves," says Mr. Kronley.

That can benefit black students, who say small classes and lots of individual attention help them catch up. Moreover, most of the faculty is African-American, many of them first-generation degree holders who understand the black community's struggles.

Some white students, especially immigrants, say the African-American social culture is refreshing. But many others are put off and intimidated by sharp differences in behavior and school rituals. On Jackson State's commons, fraternity brothers break down a bold beat, dancing and chanting. Caddies roll by, subwoofers in the trunk pumping out hip-hop rhythms loud enough to rattle the thick steel doors.

"In any given class, there might be one white student besides me," says Shoup. "I don't mind, but, true, it's a little weird."

On the other hand, freshman Antony Schwartz, from India, likes to learn about African-American culture. "They talk a lot about civil rights issues and show movies about slavery," he says. "A lot of it is very interesting."

So far, many "other race" students at Mississippi's black state schools come from Korea, India, or Russia. Most, in fact, are nontraditional students, not undergraduates fresh out of high school. At Alcorn State, the country's oldest black land-grant college, the state championship tennis team was led by an exchange student from Russia.

While Alcorn and Mississippi Valley struggle to find a core of white, rural students from which to draw, Jackson State has its own enrollment strait: The school is a neat oasis in a slowly crumbling combat zone. Nearly 12,000 people have left downtown Jackson in the past decade, leaving behind closed-up motels and dim lounges on nearly every corner.

The first time Shoup came to Jackson, to enroll, he heard the pop of gunfire from a block away as he walked back to his car. "The neighborhood is not only a problem for white parents, it scares black parents, too," says Mr. Fleming, the state lawmaker.

Still, many of the stigmas about Mississippi's black colleges are unwarranted. The three schools count nearly all of the state's black legislative caucus as alumni. Alcorn is a well-known producer of doctors, and Jackson is a top computer-science school. Football great Jerry Rice went to Mississippi Valley. The new Education secretary, Rod Paige, is a Jackson State grad.

Diversity is a demand black schools don't usually direct at themselves, but many say it may yet benefit students and the institutions. "It's good for white students to see how the other half lives and plays," says Lee Terry Moore, an Alcorn senior.

But Caleph Wilson, a junior, says it will be difficult for his college to get out from under segregation's long shadow.

"I don't have a problem with a black school trying to attract white kids," Mr. Wilson says. "But the fact is that our schools are still taboo to most white people."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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