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In ‘The State Must Provide,’ Adam Harris Explores Racial Disparities In Higher Education

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Tim Coburn
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Adam Harris' new book draws on his time at Alabama A&M University, a historically Black institution in Normal, Alabama.

In 1936, Lloyd Gaines filed a lawsuit against the University of Missouri. Gaines was an honor student and a longtime state resident. But he’d been denied admission to the University of Missouri’s School of Law based on a single fact: He was Black. And the law school, while state funded, refused to enroll Black pupils.

Plessy v. Ferguson was still the law of the land, so “separate vs. equal” was perfectly acceptable, legally speaking. The legal problem for Missouri was that it had no state-funded law school for Black students. Instead, it paid to enroll qualified Black students in out-of-state schools — a true impediment to someone, like Gaines, who hoped to practice law in Missouri courts.

Gaines sued. He won. But it was a narrow victory. Not only did the state decide to set up a separate law school for Gaines rather than let him into Mizzou, but he disappeared before he could taste the fruit of his victory. His disappearance remains an unsolved mystery.

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And his case failed to establish a wider precedent, said Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris, who researched the desegregation of higher education for his new book “The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — And How to Set Them Right.”

“The way that the state of Missouri interpreted this was to say that this wasn't a case that was the end all, be all,” Harris explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “This wasn't, they have to admit every Black student or they have to create a law school and a journalism program and a veterinary science program. They were saying that we can just create this law school, and then everyone else is going to have to subsequently sue.”

And that, Harris explained, is how segregation in colleges throughout the South crumbled — case by case, with each painstakingly proving the lie inherent in “separate but equal.” “Eventually, it becomes a sort of cascade where the NAACP sues and states are forced to admit Black students,” he said.

Separate But Unequal
Listen to Adam Harris discuss his book, and propose a solution, on St. Louis on the Air

In America, people talk a lot about the battles over desegregation — and the ongoing de facto segregation — in the nation’s public schools.

But in most circles, there’s little attention, if any, given to how the same battles took place in higher education. There’s also little talk about how perniciously the segregation that flourished in America’s institutions of higher learning persists today. Harris’ book tackles both.

As Harris details, historically Black colleges and universities (also known as HBCUs) educate 80% of Black judges, 50% of Black lawyers and doctors, and 25% of Black science, technology, math and engineering graduates.

“Even though HBCUs don't have a monopoly on Black education anymore, they're still punching above their weight,” Harris said. “When you think about the role that these institutions are still playing, they're still playing that very important role of educating students who other institutions are not.”

Yet even beyond the significantly smaller endowments that speak to historic inequities, many remain comparatively woefully underfunded in the present day — to the point that some have successfully challenged disparities between themselves and other state-funded institutions in court.

Harris makes a provocative argument in his book: that the higher education institutions that benefited from slavery might atone for their actions by dipping into their endowments and giving to their HBCU brethren.

He said he’s found some interest.

“As you can imagine, people haven't jumped on board with the idea,” Harris said. “But it is interesting that the conversation has started. It's happening in a pretty robust way where people have started thinking about things like, ‘OK, what if for an institution that can make $1 billion a year just on its endowment earnings ... what if they gave some of those endowment earnings to a historically Black college? And I think that the more that people can start thinking outside of the box to start driving at those higher ideals that higher education professes, the better off HBCUs will be and the better off the sector will be as a whole.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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