Oregon civil rights group offers scholarships to white students

The Oregon League of Minority Voters is trying a new civil rights tactic: offering scholarships to white students to take classes in race relations.

By , Staff writer

In a unique twist to the notion of using educational scholarships to improve minority representation, an Oregon civil rights group says it will offer a $2,000 scholarship to encourage white college students to pursue studies in race relations.

The initiative by the Oregon League of Minority Voters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Portland, Ore., may well be the first of its kind. College scholarships have long been seen as a vehicle – albeit a controversial one – for improving the condition of minorities, but this appears to be the first time that white students have been singled out for assistance in the name of promoting civil rights.

“We lack white participation in the racial conversation in this state, so we are trying to do something about it,” says Promise King, executive director of the Oregon group. “When we talk about race relations, most of the time in Oregon, most white people are not at the table.”

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The focus of his organization remains on empowering minorities, but the group also feels it’s important to have non-minority allies in a state where about 90 percent of the population is white, Mr. King says.

“I’m trying to push for solutions. And that’s what is driving this vision, to really seek out white students who will in the future be at the forefront of civil rights,” he says.

Historically, the civil rights movement has sought out white allies, says Kenneth Nunn, a law professor at the University of Florida who teaches a course in African-American history and the law. “We have all understood that nothing is going to change in America unless the majority feels it is the right thing to do,” says Professor Nunn.

One reason the Oregon group can undertake this initiative, he says, is because they are a private group. “When you are talking about public institutions, it’s very difficult to do anything that is racially targeted,” he says.

Minority programs disappearing

Over the past decade, colleges and universities have backed away from scholarships specifically aimed at minority students to avoid claims of discrimination or legal challenges.

“At least in name, minority programs are rapidly disappearing from college campuses,” according to a 2004 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.“Colleges are dropping the word ‘minority’ from the titles of scholarships and fellowships … and opening them to populations that they had excluded.”

“Any public policy that said ‘no minority need apply’ would certainly be challenged,” says Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

While Professor Orfield sees a benefit in encouraging white students to pursue civil rights studies, he says that students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds are taking his classes at UCLA.

“There's a lot of interest in the younger generation – across the board – in this kind of work," he says. And it's coming at a time, he says, when there is a greater need for academic inquiry in the field of civil rights or racial equality than even at the height of the civil rights movement. At that time, he says, discussion about race dominated headlines while today it has largely vanished from public discourse.

Initiative criticized

Since King's group is not a public institution, it may not draw the same legal scrutiny as many universities did for singling out specific racial groups in admission or for scholarships in the name of affirmative action. Still, the effort is attracting some criticism.

"Promise's group should not just focus on whites being good allies, but ensuring those people use their power and influence to give up their spot for a person of color," Nichole Maher, executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center told The Oregonian. "The most courageous thing a white ally can do is truly share power."

But, says King, minorities in Oregon don't have the political power to advance their issues without powerful white allies. "We don’t have enough black or brown leaders who can mount a formidable advocacy around this issue," he says.

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