Black College Rights

THE Mississippi college desegregation case before the US Supreme Court highlights the complex political and economic tensions generated by civil rights issues in the 1990s.US vs. Mabus presents a vexing problem for the court: Should a state be required to provide more funds for historically (and still almost exclusively) black public colleges that have fewer programs and poorer facilities than predominantly white universities now open to blacks? Behind the case, brought by lawyers for three historically black Mississippi public colleges, is a concern that such black institutions will, ironically, fall victim to the successes of desegregation. Black-college leaders correctly argue that not enough progress has been made either in the general culture or in the black community to allow these institutions to be closed or "set to fail" by budget-cutting state legislatures. This is notably true in the South and border states. Black-college advocates want to set a precedent with the Mississippi case. Reversing an earlier position, the Bush Justice Department is arguing with the plaintiffs that Mississippi still retains residual segregation and must proffer "additional support" for the historically black schools. Mississippi's lawyers argue that a district-court decision that the state's schools are providing fair access to all students should be upheld. Underlying the state's case is the problem of money. Mississippi is financially strapped and, understandably, does not want to be forced to duplicate expensive science and technical programs at black schools when students are free to attend any school they choose. It is not clear that Mississippi's five predominantly white colleges really do represent a form of "apartheid," as Alvin Chambliss, a lawyer representing the black colleges, says. The rhetoric is overblown given the statistics: A third of the black college students in Mississippi attend integrated schools, a third go to the black flagship college, Jackson State, and a third go to the other two black colleges. State records for 1990 show that per-student cost for Mississippi Valley State, 100 percent blac k, is higher than for the University of Mississippi. Historically black colleges, as traditional places of support for blacks, should remain, however. The court should set some minimum standards. Blacks should have both equal access and recourse to tradition. Some form of parity for infrastructure and existing programs is reasonable. Yet it is less clear that the court should mandate major expenditures for financially strapped states that have made good-faith efforts at enforcing desegregation.

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