MAXWELL:  Solving the problem of race-based scholarships

11/6/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


America’s colleges and universities should be so dedicated to the life of the mind that they are beyond the reach of societal problems. Obviously, that sentiment is a pipe dream because our schools of higher learning reflect society’s ills more acutely than most other institutions. And one of our ugliest traits _ racism _ still compromises the moral fabric of many campuses.

This fact of American life is being played out at the University of Maryland, where a federal appeals court has struck down as unconstitutional a scholarship program exclusively for African-Americans. The program, named in honor of the 19th century black scientist and inventor Benjamin Banneker, was established in 1978 to redress the legacy of a policy that barred blacks from the university until 1954.

Each year, between 200 and 300 academically superior black students compete for 30 four-year scholarships that cover tuition, room and board, books and fees. Although the race-based Banneker scholarships account for only 1 percent of the comprehensive financial aid in the university’s budget and although the ruling is binding only in the court’s jurisdiction, the case has become the new cause celebre of affirmative action. Trouble began for the program in 1989, when a Hispanic student was denied a Banneker. He sued. A lower court sided with the university, contending that the tax-funded scholarships were necessary to promote diversity, to compensate for past discrimination and to improve the university’s reputation among blacks.

A panel of Republican-appointed judges, however, ordered the university to reconsider the student’s application without regard to race. The court argues that the university has not proved that these single-race scholarships remediate “present effects of past discrimination” or eliminate society’s broader racism. The university is expected to appeal.

Hardly anyone claims that such scholarships hurt many whites. Most arguments are driven by a weariness of minority set-asides in general and by an incurable resentment of tax-funded affirmative action programs for blacks in particular. Most blacks, believing that skin color is still the defining force of their lives, see this new round of conservative complaining as recycled racism. For them, government-sponsored, race-based scholarships are a moral imperative.

Conservative whites, however, ask a basic question that blacks, in all good conscience, must address some day soon: Why should the government give scholarships to upper-middle-class, academically gifted blacks, while working-class white students _ who had nothing to do with slavery or Jim Crow _ must work and borrow to attend school? For me, this is a legitimate question. But unlike white opponents of affirmative action, I’m not so naive as to believe that racism and its residual effects have disappeared or can be ignored. In many ways, racism is more insidious now than it was 40 years ago. Ironically, though, a lot of today’s racial strife is directly attributable to affirmative action. Instead of solving problems, either practically or morally, affirmative action has prolonged an ethnic war in which whites and blacks have generally lined up on opposite sides of the issue.

How, then, can universities make up for past segregation without being unfair to guiltless white students? By taking government out of the dubious business of using tax dollars to finance race-based scholarships. We should use private funds for such minority-only scholastic awards.

Although this approach sounds harsh at first blush, it is workingquite well for the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. Several years ago, Ralph Lowenstein, then-dean of the college, initiated a drive to raise money specifically for minorities. Today the college has $2.1-million in endowed minority scholarships. Private media foundations, such as those of Gannett News Service, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Knight-Ridder, Scripps-Howard News Service and the St. Petersburg Times, donated the money. The program produced immediate results. In 1985, for example, the journalism school had a 4 percent minority enrollment. Now minority enrollment is 17 percent, 7.5 percent of which is black. Each year 35 to 40 black students receive the privately endowed scholarships.

An unforeseen benefit of the minority drive was that donors contributed an equal amount, $2.1-million, to the general scholarship fund. In other words, whites benefited as much as blacks. The beauty of this approach is that affirmative action is occurring without government largess, without widespread rancor.

Lowenstein, always the pragmatist, said that the media firms do not donate for purely altruistic reasons. They do so because bringing minorities into the industry is simply good business. But the larger lesson to be learned from the University of Florida’s experience is this: When officials have an alternative to using tax money for a minority scholarship fund, they should take advantage of it.

Such a move is good for everyone involved: Affirmative action goals are fulfilled; whites are treated fairly; blacks do not feel the stigma of being on the federal dole. And, above all else, universities, free of endless, compliance-related paperwork, needless controversy and expensive litigation, can dedicate themselves to their mission of cultivating minds and turning out citizens eager to advance real democratic ideals.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.

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