Sociological perspective on Education with Regards to Race
Race relations in the United States have seemingly gotten better over the past five decades due to the efforts of civil rights legislation and a public that is more attuned to the issue. However, there remain pockets in where problems still occur and inequities still remain. One of these problem areas is the higher education system. It is difficult to pinpoint a single reason why minorities continue to be underrepresented at colleges and universities, and especially as graduates, but the gap exists and will continue to exist until equitable solutions are determined. This paper looks at race and education from a sociological perspective paying close attention to the theories of symbolic interactionism, social conflict and structural functionalism to try and determine the root causes of the issue.
Background (from Articles)
Desegregation began for American education with the "landmark" Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954 (Lark). Oliver Brown challenged the Topeka Board of Education because there were separate schools for Blacks and Whites. The Court found that though schools could easily be segregated, they could not be, and had not been, kept equal. This court case caused furor, especially in the traditional South that engendered a multitude of protests and problems over the years to come. This is also a case that helped promote the civil rights efforts of those who were trying to end many race-based inequities across the United States.
Though this case made it possible for minorities to receive an equal education in primary and secondary schools across the United States, a similar decision had already been made with regard to higher education. Gregory Swanson, who had already finished his undergraduate classes at Brown University with an "exemplary" record, needed to pursue a graduate law degree to further his ambitions (Lark). In 1950, that law precedent of the United States Supreme Court, set in Plessy vs. Ferguson, had not yet be overturned. So, Swanson was denied admission to the University of Virginia Law School based on Virginia statute and Supreme Court precedent. Swanson's case made the Supreme Court docket, and he won admission based on the justices favorable, for him, ruling (Lark).
The Swanson case and others like it set the tone for the desegregation of higher education, but they did little other than allow small pockets of over qualified minority applicants to achieve the dream of an equal education in a prestigious school. Part of the message of the civil rights marches and other non-violent protests was that Whites and Blacks should not have separate lives Ledfors). All people deserved the equal treatment under the law, and it was necessary for America to begin living by the words of Declaration of Independence. The laws that proceeded from the civil rights legislation have been called many things by supporters and detractors, but the common name is affirmative action laws (Lark).
The courts have determined on several different occasions that colleges and universities can use race as a determining factor in admissions decisions. However, those have to be fair and equitable, and race can generally only apply if the applicants are on equal footing as far as every other criteria is concerned (Lark). This caused a great deal of problems when these types of policies were first implemented because White students believed that they were being discriminated against because of their race (Lark). The courts, both state and federal, generally agreed with the institutions that it was desirable for student bodies to resemble the population at large, so these types of programs were upheld. However, the court cases continued, and in 2002 a White student challenged the admissions criteria at Michigan Law School and won the decision (Lark). It was determined that the diversity statutes still had to be fair. Just because there was a race-based criteria, it could not be the primary criteria for a decision of acceptance or rejection.
The affirmative action statutes have shown the ability to even out the disparity to some extent, but they have not had the impact that many wish had happened. Proponents believe that since there have been hundreds of years of oppression, it is going to take more than just 40 years to right what has been done previously. This thought is shared by the courts and many liberal institutions (Storrs & Clott), but it is easy to seen the point of those who have made the grades and have fallen victim to the affirmative action policies which do not require a student of a different race to receive the same level of grades or reach the heights of extracurricular achievement.
The argument from the White students seems to be a valid one, but in light of the students who do not have the advantages from the time they first enter elementary school, it is difficult to see that they are gaining at all when race and poor primary and secondary schools are counted in their favor (Storrs & Clott). This is the basis of the argument for race-based preferences. From the time a student enters his or her public or private school education, White students have an advantage in level of school, quality of teachers (as graded by national standards) and facilities. These facts make it easier for them to achieve, but that is not the only issue. A minority student is also much more likely to come from a poor socioeconomic background and s/he is also more likely to be the member of a single parent home. This last is significant because it often determines the amount of time that a parent is able to spend with the child while they are completing school work, and a dual parent household also has better ability to attend school functions and provide support for a greater multitude of school activities (Pichette, et al.). This is a determining factor regardless the underserved race or ethnicity of the child. American Indian children also have issue with absentee parents, financially poor households, and inadequate schools. The issues that face American education because of race may be thought of as primarily a Black and White issue, but it includes all races and ethnicities. Hispanics also have a much lower percentage of college age students able to complete college and they are also much less likely to be admitted into the top level schools despite quotas (Pichette, et al.). The question that researchers ask, is why is this happening and what is an effective way to stop it. Research has shown that schools are more diverse than they were 20 years ago, but the progress has been slow, and it is still more difficult for a person of color to gain entrance to a top level school (Lark).
One suggestion is that the United States needs to stop its current model and follow one that has shown success in other countries. France has only recently been trying to implement affirmative action policies into its schools, and they have gone about this transition in a much different way than the United States did. Reformers in the U.S. believed that the answer to the problem was to set race-based quotas that would allow a more diverse population into schools. Unfortunately, the undeserved are not only found within the minority, they are found within the low middle class and poor who are White. France understood that the problem was more based on socioeconomic status than race, and they have taken strides to develop a program that addresses all of these problems simultaneously.
The reason that France is such a great test case for the United States is that "Much like the underprivileged areas in the United States, the banlieues are plagued with a toxic concentration of social problems: joblessness, poverty, illegal immigration, organized crime, family breakdown and a lack of parental authority" (Ledford). These areas though are populated with North African Muslim poor who have emigrated to France for a better life. Unfortunately they have not found it and the government has come up with a unique solution which seems to be working, at least in miniature. The program that they have instituted is based on serving underprivileged areas where "educational priority zones" (Ledford) were created. Contests were held within these zones and students from the schools were allowed to apply to Sciences Po (an elite French university). If they were accepted they would be required to handle the same difficult course load of any other student, but "To aid in the transition to such an elite institution with its own unique educational environment, the students would be given the option to receive special tutoring, and would be offered financial aid to help defray the cost" (Ledford). So far the experiment, which has been operating since 2002, is having a great level of success. The model they have chosen, to help students based on socioeconomic status vs. simple racial or ethnic characteristics, is allowing underprivileged and underserved students from any background to achieve…