What the Outrage Over Blackface Overlooks

By Lorelle L. Espinosa

February 25, 2019

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Lorelle Espinosa looks at the disparity in higher education opportunities and outcomes for African Americans. For more on this issue, see ACE’s new report, Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education.

Like many people across the country, I have been appalled and angry about the newly revealed accounts of blackface and other outright racist incidents from both the distant and not-so-distant past. Each year uncovers a handful (or more) of these episodes—maybe from the 1970s or 80s, maybe from 2019—often on college campuses or from when the perpetrator was a college student.

But blackface is only scratching the surface of a larger problem. We are rightly taken aback by racist yearbook photos, chants, and spray-painted symbols on walls. But we talk much less about what these attitudes and acts represent: the longstanding, systemic racism that permeates the everyday, lived realities of people of color, including critical issues linked to college access and success.

race-and-ethnicity-in-higher-education-coverACE recently released a report and microsite on race and ethnicity in higher education. Our study covers over 200 quantitative indicators, examining who gains access to a variety of educational environments and experiences, and how these trajectories and their outcomes differ by race and ethnicity.

And they do differ.

Perhaps the most troubling narrative is that of educational opportunity and outcomes for African Americans. The encouraging gains we have seen for Black students over the past 20 years (for example, increases in secondary school completion and college enrollment) are nonetheless overshadowed by outcomes that stem from the systemic and structural barriers that can limit opportunity for Black students, families, and communities, as well as for our nation at large.

Consider the following. Black public high school graduation rates have been on the rise, but they were still the lowest of any group at 76.4 percent. GED® pass rates were also low: African Americans were the only group for whom less than half of all test takers passed the exam. Encouragingly, the majority of all bachelor’s degree-seeking students remain enrolled in college after their first year, but Black students’ first-year persistence rates were the lowest at 81.7 percent. While improving over time, the undergraduate completion rate for Black students is not increasing across the board. Moreover, Black students are also the most likely to drop out of college across all sectors of higher education.

Black graduates are leaving undergraduate and graduate programs with the greatest student loan debt of any group. Even when accounting for income, Black students consistently borrowed more than others. About one-third of African American bachelor’s degree recipients accumulated $40,000 or more in debt, compared with 18 percent of graduates overall. The percentage of Black master’s degree recipients having borrowed $75,000 or more was twice that of White graduates.

These are deeply disturbing trends given the well-documented disparities in Black home ownership and overall wealth, and the persistent income gaps between Black and White workers regardless of education level. All of these conditions make it harder for Black graduates to pay off their loans—which in turn compounds the inequities in home ownership and wealth accumulation.

A major driver of the debt among African Americans has to do with where they enroll. Black undergraduate students enrolled in for-profit institutions more than any other racial or ethnic group in 2015–16 (at 16 percent). The persistence rates from these schools are low compared with their nonprofit counterparts, and the accompanying debt is high. These trends extend to graduate education as well. For-profits enroll only 17 percent of all doctoral students but managed to enroll half of all Black doctoral students. What’s more, the vast majority (95 percent) of Black doctoral degree recipients borrowed an average of $128,000 for these degrees.

More debt does not equate to more earning power. While each level of educational attainment increases employment and median earnings across all racial and ethnic groups, Whites had lower rates of unemployment and earned more than African Americans, regardless of education level. For example, among adults ages 35 to 44, the unemployment rate for Whites with a bachelor’s degree is lower (2.7 percent) than for Blacks with the same degree (5.1 percent). Among all adults 25 and older, Blacks have a median income that is over $10,000 less than Whites, and about $7,000 less than the combined median income of all racial and ethnic groups.

Higher education is undoubtedly the mobility engine of the United States. Not only does it result in individual benefits—more pay, better health, a longer lifespan—it also has a substantial impact on the greater good. As I wrote in an earlier post, higher education can lead the way to a more tolerant society; in fact, it may very well be the primary societal good higher education has to offer. But in order reap the rewards of higher education, all must have an equal opportunity to succeed in it, and in life.

Racial equity gaps are indeed opportunity gaps, and as our data show, our country’s systems are perpetuating lost opportunity for Black students. This should come as a wake-up call for everyone—policymakers, K–12 and higher education leaders, private sector employers, and others with the power to help reverse these trends. And reverse them we must.

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About the Author

Lorelle L. Espinosa


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