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'Separate And Unequal': Racial Divides In Higher Ed


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, many doctors despaired that children born to crack addicts were doomed to grim lives as adults, if they managed to grow up all. But, now there's new research that's challenging that assumption. We'll hear more about that just ahead. First, though, we want to talk about a new study that challenges other assumptions about the opportunities extended to African-American and Latino students.

We've talked many times on this program about how a college education can be the first step up the economic ladder for many people of color, but there's also new evidence that the kind of college you attend matters. Anthony Carnevale is one of the authors of a new report on the issue. It's called "Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege." He's the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and he's with us now. Anthony Carnevale, welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Thank you for having me here.

MARTIN: What's the main nugget of what you were investigating here and tell us why it matters?

CARNEVALE: In the end, what we were trying to figure out was the impact of going to more or less selective colleges on the future income and economic success of young people. We found, as others have before us, that, in fact, that while more and more minorities are going on to college, that the system itself was becoming even more unequal. That is, we were getting more and more access, and access was bringing more and more inequality, and the inequality mattered.

MARTIN: So the good news is that African-Americans and Hispanics scored big gains in their access to post-secondary education overall. The bad news, according to the report, is that both groups are losing ground in moving to the most selective colleges relative to their growing population. You know, a lot of people would say that that's because these students are just not as well prepared. Is that true?

CARNEVALE: It is in many cases. The reality that the economic and educational mechanisms, while colorblind in the United States, at least in theory, we're very clear that they have a very disparate, negative impact on African-American and Latino and low-income students. So they're not race-neutral or class-neutral. But one of the other myths is that there aren't young people out there, African-American and Latino, for example, who are perfectly qualified and never get to go to selective colleges.

We found 111,000 African-American and Latinos who had scored above the median in the SAT or the ACT and never got to go to one of these schools. And at least, within eight years, had not achieved a bachelor's degree.

MARTIN: Let me read the relevant piece from the report in case people are wondering how this plays out. According to the report, many African-Americans and Hispanics are unprepared for college, but whites who are equally unprepared still get more post-secondary opportunities.

Why is that? Is it because their parents can pay their way? Is that student likely to go to a school with better advising, so that the advisor maybe, perhaps knows and has relationships with a full range of schools that would be likely to take that student? I mean, how does it work?

CARNEVALE: It's all of those things and more. There's some subtle features to this, which is the messages you get in life. And if you're a white kid, especially if you're a white male, you get some very positive messages, can-do messages, I guess. If you're a minority or low-income, you don't get those messages.

So part of what goes on here, in addition to the obvious differences and resources, associations, is the fact that you're told over and over again that you're not going to make it, and after a while, while we like to think it's not true, we all believe what we're told.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I was speaking with Anthony Carnevale. He's the director of the Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. His institute has issued a new report about how higher education reinforces the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege. That's the title of the report. It's called "Separate and Unequal." So what's the answer here?

CARNEVALE: The difficult piece to all of this is that, arguably, bigotry is a thing of the past in America, and to some extent, it certainly is. There's still evidence of discrimination, both by class and by race - more by race, actually. But what we're living through is a period - we've come to a point where the basic economic and educational mechanisms, while they're race and class blind, they have very disparate negative impacts on African-Americans, Latinos and low-income kids. The - in a sense, it sort of sanitizes those effects because they are not about Bull Connor or George Wallace, they're about the basic economic and educational mechanisms in the society.

MARTIN: What about Asian-Americans, though? What's the situation there?

CARNEVALE: There is a supposition, often, that Asian-Americans strive more, relative to their social class, but social class is not just about earnings. It's about family and family history. And when you look at Asian-Americans, what you discover almost immediately is if they're not middle-class, they're very close to it, and they have very much lived through the generations as successful families, perhaps not here, but elsewhere.

The new Asians are not doing quite so well, as we start looking towards India, Pakistan and some other places. And one of the things we did find is that fully 50 percent of Asians end up in much the same places as African-Americans, Latinos and low-income kids in America, in this bottom tier of nonselective, underfunded, overcrowded, two-year and four-year colleges.

MARTIN: Well, what is your prescription here?

CARNEVALE: In the final analysis, this problem has grown far too big for affirmative-action. It's helpful, but in many respects, it's a Band-Aid over a gaping wound that is becoming more and more serious. And what is essentially occurring is that we're getting more and more racial and economic disparity in American society. Those kinds of inequalities never result from any one difficulty, whether it's education, whether it's your neighborhood, whether it's your parents' jobs and your family income, your housing.

In the end, the only way to get at this multiple set of interconnecting forces that produce disadvantage is to come at them all at once, which is to say, we need decent housing programs, decent programs to produce upward mobility in schools. From my own biases as an economist, I think the first thing we need is jobs for the parents, 'cause that produces intergenerational effects that are undeniable.

MARTIN: What reaction are you getting to this report? And I say this as a person who's done a lot of these kinds of stories, talking about white racial privilege tends to be almost radioactive outside of academic confines. And I'm just - I'm curious about what kind of reaction you get or what kind of reaction you think you're going to get to this.

CARNEVALE: The reaction we get is very negative in some cases. People would rather not talk about race. In fact, it's a lot easier to talk about economic inequality. That has become acceptable since the 1980s. It's grown a lot. People are tired of race. They're weary of struggling with race.

And there is a tendency now, in all our public dialogue, to talk about class, about economic opportunity - the middle class, by which mostly we mean the working class, in political dialogue - where, in a sense, there's something of a move to sweep race under the rug. The people who oppose affirmative action, for the most part, are not opposed to income class-based affirmative action programs. But I do think that the data here is undeniable.

That is, we had some difficulty with the title because we kept seeing intergenerational effects where advantage was passed from one generation to the next by race. And so, initially said that this was about the intergenerational transmission of privilege, and then people kept saying, well, you mean what your data says is white racial privilege. I must say, it took me a while to be able to write that title down.

MARTIN: Anthony Carnevale is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That center has issued a new report. It's called "Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege." It was released today. Professor Carnevale, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARNEVALE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.