Small moments of triumph

The fact is, America has not been the most socially mobile place during the past 20 years.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Members of the student government executive team meet at Louisiana State University on March 13.

Louisiana State University does not immediately suggest itself as a model for racial and ethnic diversity. As recently as 1974, the U.S. Department of Justice accused Louisiana of operating separate higher education systems for black and white students. Today, that legacy lingers. LSU is the second most disproportionately white flagship university in the country compared with the demographics of its state.

Yet the beginning of this week’s cover story tells of a moment of no small triumph. It’s a smile, and it comes when Stewart Lockett, a black student at LSU, considers how far the school has come in just the past few years.

Yes, the numbers behind his smile are worth noting. Mr. Lockett himself was part of the first class in school history with at least 3,000 black students. And the number of minority students at LSU is increasing even as the numbers at many other flagship universities in other states are falling.

But the deeper significance of that smile is something beyond what numbers can convey. When Mr. Lockett looks around at the campus, he feels a sense of belonging. 

Recent years have seen college admissions across the United States subjected to intense scrutiny. Last month, the “Varsity Blues” scandal showed how the rich have at times cheated the system to get undeserved access for their children. In courtrooms, admissions policies that seek to promote racial and ethnic diversity have been repeatedly challenged. The process of trying to gain entry into America’s top colleges has become a blood sport.

Sometimes lost amid the controversy is the human picture of why these issues are so important. As writer Casey Parks says in this week’s cover story, flagship universities are important barometers of progress. For much of the 20th century, resistance to integration in places like Louisiana spoke to a lack of progress and a need for a deeper commitment to justice and equality. Today hardly marks a finish line, but the smile of pride that flits across Mr. Lockett’s face when he considers his university is significant. To feel a sense of belonging at LSU is a step toward feeling included in society more broadly.

The fact is, America has not been the most socially mobile place during the past 20 years. The ability of Americans to move up the social and economic ladder has stagnated, numerous studies show. More than in previous generations, birth is destiny; Americans stay in the class into which they were born.

And that upward mobility is even harder for African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. The opportunity that fueled the American dream is increasingly the province of those who are born with opportunity. 

“There are very high, structural barriers to social mobility in the U.S.,” says one Brookings report from January. But “these barriers are not insurmountable,” it adds. And Mr. Lockett’s smile is evidence of that. LSU has committed to breaking down barriers that would maintain the state’s racially stratified educational past, and students like Mr. Lockett are stepping in to take advantage of the change.

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