“The Walls Around Opportunity: The Failure of the Colorblind Policy for Higher Education” by Gary Orfield. Princeton University Press. 365 pages, $29.95.
In the 21st century, a college degree makes a huge difference in jobs, health, wealth, political and civic engagement. Nevertheless, recalls Gary Orfield, there is a huge gap in college completion between black and Latino Americans and whites and Asians.
In “The Walls Around Opportunity,” Orfield — professor of education, law, political science, and urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project — documents how abandonment racially sensitive educational policies over the past 40 years (in the name of colorblind and meritocratic ideals that ignore the privileges given to children of affluent white parents) perpetuate and deepen stratification and inequality.
Orfield, author among other books, “Educational Delusions?” and “Dismantling Desegregation”, lays out an ambitious reform agenda for high schools and colleges to overcome the obstacles imposed by the long history, legacy and current realities of racial discrimination, opportunity hoarding and exclusion in the United States.
In the 1960s and 1970s, says Orfield, Head Start preschool programs, government assistance to elementary and secondary schools in low-income neighborhoods.
cowls, scholarships and loans for tuition and affirmative action support expanded access and opportunity for poor and non-white students.
In the 1970s, the cost of a college education rose only modestly, and black enrollment in colleges and universities nearly doubled to more than one million students. For a brief period, the gap between the percentage of black and white high school graduates attending two- and four-year colleges nearly disappeared.
From the 1980s, these gains were gutted. Maximum Pell Grants – by far the biggest source of aid for low-income students, which covered almost 80% of tuition, room and board at a public four-year college in 1981 – have fallen to 40 % in 1999 and 28% in 2019 Tuition fees in public and private institutions have skyrocketed. The gap between black and white college completion has widened again.
With the withdrawal of support for affirmative action from the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, public schools segregated again. Black and Latino students were forced to accept inferior facilities, less experienced teachers, and a limited curriculum.
Orfield convincingly demonstrates that the colorblind approaches to education touted by conservatives operate in an alternate reality.
He argues, somewhat less convincingly, that applying affirmative action to all students from low-income families, a more politically palatable approach, will not adequately address the unique challenges facing children. blacks and latins. There is no good substitute, Orfield insists, for race-conscious initiatives that focus on results, not process.
Organization, editing defects
“The Walls Around Opportunity” is not without flaws. The book is poorly organized and repetitive. More importantly, Orfield’s decision to spend so much time outlining a comprehensive reform agenda, including policy changes “unlikely to enact in the foreseeable future,” may well fail to engage or energize his readers. .
Along with proposals for more magnet high schools, diverse teachers, and comprehensive counseling services, Orfield supports much higher government financial aid expenditures to cover tuition, room, food, books, and supplies, transport, health care and child care.
To counter the corrosive impact of high-poverty, crime-ridden neighborhoods, he advocates moving entire families to homes near good schools, “where students will be placed in a radically different setting, not as as foreigners but as residents”.
Orfield argues that his primary responsibility as a researcher is to tell the truth, “no matter how overwhelming the resistance to a solution may seem.” There are “rare historical moments, he recalls, when society recognizes that something has to be done and then the improbable becomes possible”. Fair enough.
When the problems are big and daunting, the solutions are costly and uncertain, and the forces committed to the status quo are powerful, it helps to think big about what it will take to reverse deep-seated racial inequalities and ensure the access to a high quality education for all Americans. . To get there, however, it is essential to understand what is politically feasible and to prioritize.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.