Universities Are Not Colorblind—That’s a Big Problem

In a free society, there would be no strings attached to government funding for higher education because there would be no such funding in the first place. The reality, however, is that federal student loans will not be privatized anytime soon, and since almost every college in America uses them, such schools will continue to be subject to federal rules.

That means complying with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, is required not just as a matter of law, but also for any college that wants to keep using federal student aid programs. The problem is that a lot of colleges don’t comply, and they get away with it.

This is not just about affirmative action in admissions. We will find out soon from the Supreme Court whether that party’s over. The subject here is race-specific programs run or supported by American colleges. And they are everywhere.

In terms of equal access to college programs, colorblindness is the rule. That’s the opposite of what we see in these programs. Take a close look, for example, at Indiana University (IU) from the perspective of a graduate student in a STEM field.

IU runs the I CAN PERSIST STEM Initiative for “graduate women of color” (implicating not just Title VI but also Title IX due to discrimination on the basis of sex). This is part of a nationwide I CAN PERSIST initiative limited to “women and girls of color.” IU’s Department of Chemistry lists the program on its diversity programs page. If you’re, say, a white male, then none of the persistence program’s resources are open to you.

But that’s not all. A university also violates Title VI when it supports discriminatory student organizations. IU’s Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), like hundreds of similar organizations across academia, is dedicated to supporting “[b]lack graduate and professional students.” It’s clear that BGSA is just for black students: “we [are] dedicated to fostering community amongst ourselves,” BGSA says (emphasis added). It goes without saying that the university supports no equivalent club for white graduate students.

Sticking with chemistry, there’s also the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, which has an IU chapter. Many professional disciplines have a black-specific national organization with campus chapters everywhere.

[Related: “The Empress Wears No Clothes”]

IU’s Department of Chemistry also notifies students of the university’s Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, which provides a long list of black student organizations across campus. For instance, the IU chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists aims to “establish a strong union among black students pursuing degrees in journalism” (even though, technically, non-black students are allowed to join). Such organizations are extremely common across higher education, and for identity groups of all nonwhite races and ethnicities.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for the right combination of race/ethnicity and sex for your next chemistry event, the Department of Chemistry is happy to direct you to Diversify Chemistry. Here, chemists worldwide self-identify by ethnicity, sex, and sexuality (e.g., “A” is for “Asian”; “NB” is for “non-binary”). You can find a White Earth Nation descendant from the Pembina Band of Ojibwe (but if you need that chemist also to be female to achieve sex parity on your panel, sorry, you’re out of luck).

Indiana University also links to a helpful diversity glossary at IU Southeast. Here’s what it says about “colorblind,” quoting the Race Reporting Guide from The Center for Racial Justice Innovation:

A term used to describe a disregard of racial characteristics or lack of influence by racial prejudice. The concept of colorblindness is often promoted by those who dismiss the importance of race in order to proclaim the end of racism. It presents challenges when discussing diversity, which requires being racially aware, and equity that is focused on fairness for people of all races.

That is, choosing not to be influenced by racial prejudice “presents challenges” for those who define “equity” as, apparently, indulging racial prejudice. That makes sense in light of Indiana University’s preferences. Far from adhering to Title VI nondiscrimination, IU explicitly engages in racial prejudice in the name of equity, not just in the Department of Chemistry or among graduate students but all over the university.

Finally, a university violates Title VI when it offers fellowships or scholarships that discriminate on the basis of race, including third-party scholarships. At IU’s University Graduate School, the President’s Diversity Fellowship, the Graduate Scholars Fellowship, and the President’s Diversity Dissertation Fellowship are limited to “DOMESTIC African Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, or Pacific Islanders/Native Hawaiians” (all-caps in original). No white students qualify, unless they also happen to be disabled, ‘gender minorities,’ or first-generation college students. It is very common for colleges and universities to have such discriminatory scholarships.

[Related: “Enforcing the Coming Affirmative Action Bans: A Modest Proposal”]

Meanwhile, IU unlawfully advertises the Gates Scholarship, which is restricted to students who are “African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian & Pacific Islander American, and/or Hispanic American,” as well as various United Negro College Fund Scholarships that are limited, for example, to “Black/African American” students. Again, even notifying students that discriminatory third-party scholarships are available is a civil rights violation, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Indiana University is, in my experience, only a little worse than the average U.S. university when it comes to unlawful discrimination on the basis of race. Many universities advertise discriminatory scholarships, support discriminatory student clubs, and run discriminatory student programs—on the basis of sex, race, and other protected classes.

What makes IU stand out is explicitly defining “underrepresented,” whereas most other colleges just wink and know it when they see it; denouncing colorblindness in the name of equity; and insisting that “African Americans” must be “DOMESTIC.” On the whole, though, IU is just another discriminatory university.

Since IU has so many violations, I plan to file a federal civil rights complaint. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights permits anyone who knows of a violation to file a complaint, regardless of whether the complainant is a victim.

If you notice violations at a university you are watching, let me know, or ask me to show you how to file a complaint. Colorblindness is the right way to go, and far too many universities discriminate instead.


Image: Adobe Stock

Adam Kissel

Adam Kissel is a Life Member of the National Association of Scholars.

9 thoughts on “Universities Are Not Colorblind—That’s a Big Problem

  1. And surprise surprise, I, as a white woman, who is a single mother (not by choice, husband fell for a coworker) went back to graduate school and *gasp* didn’t qualify for ANY scholarship I applied for. So now, I have an ex who refuses to pay child support, that the court does nothing about, and $123K worth of student loans to pay because college isn’t free and someone has to pay for all these minorities. And at the end of the day, I can’t even have an organization with other white dental technicians because I would be a racist.

    Gotta love the US.

  2. Only “DOMESTIC” African Americans qualify? Elon Musk will be so disappointed.

    While we condemn the racial discrimination at work, as we should, we should consider the implications for religious affinity programs. Can a college require a Christian student group to welcome non-Christians, and allow them to serve as officers, thereby taking over the group? I know this is currently a subject of litigation, and there are legal differences between racial and religious discrimination, but the subjects appear related. If a group of black chemistry students cannot legitimately form a club for black chemistry students, by what principle can students form a group just for members of their religion? One can argue that race is fixed, and hence racial discrimination is more invidious; or, alternately, that race is irrelevant, so racial discrimination can only reflect bigotry. Can either of these approaches, or any other, coexist with allowing students to form religious groups?

  3. The Texas A&M medical school removed the photos of all white male alumni at the entrance to the school. And then bragged about doing so.

  4. ” It’s clear that BGSA is just for black students: “we [are] dedicated to fostering community amongst ourselves,” BGSA says (emphasis added). It goes without saying that the university supports no equivalent club for white graduate students.”

    Do not forget that this discrimination is enforced with the implicit (sometimes explicit) threat of university tolerated violence.

    For example, there was a White student from a racially integrated working-class community in suburban Boston — and for some reason, he liked Rap music. (Personally, I think it sounds like a diesel engine about to throw a piston rod through the side of the engine block, but musical tastes differ.)

    His first weekend on campus he went by the “Malcolm X Cultural Center” — it looked like a fun event so he went in only to be told “get out of here, White boy, or we’ll f*cking knife you.” Things like that are common at UMass.

    Do not underestimate the “amongst ourselves” — or what would happen to any White graduate student who attempted to form a competing organization — even a racially integrated one.

    One more thing about the “amongst ourselves” — a different UMass story from when they (illegally) created the Asian-only dormitory. After having told me that she’d demand to see the student’s birth certificate, I asked the Director of Housing Assignments what she would do in a case where a student was adopted, as the names (and hence race) of the birth parent(s) is sealed, with only the names (and hence race(s)) of the adoptive parents being available.

    She said that she’d initially accept the student’s claim to be Asian — but if the student “didn’t meet Asian cultural standards”, she’d then remove the student from the building. When I then asked what were “Asian cultural standards” and that “the other Asian students in the building will know if he is meeting them or not.”

    Now I knew a little bit more Asian history than Thea, including the fact that there is no singular Asian culture (these are peoples with visceral hatreds going back thousands of years) but I had my quote and in the surreal alternate dimension of reality known as Planet UMass, there often was nothing more to say.

    The untold aspect of all of this is not merely the actual discrimination — as bad as that is — but the extent to which the liberty & freedom of students benefiting from these programs is being curtailed. They are being told what they must think, and that’s truly fascist.

  5. “No white students qualify, unless they also happen to be disabled, ‘gender minorities,’ or first-generation college students.”

    I’d like to know how many of these students qualify — if any.

    The ‘gender minorities’ I can see — but I would be very surprised if there were any White students with disabilities, or White first-generation college students qualify.

    My experience is that this is mere windowdressing, added to address the issue that (illegality notwithstanding) if the goal is to assist the disadvantaged, the practice should be to assist all the disadvantaged.

    Oh, they’ll list the students with disabilities and first generation students they assist — without mentioning that they are all members of the designated racial groups — White students, particularly White males, need not apply….

    I’d make sure to make this point in my OCR complaint — that the exception is moot because they still aren’t going to give a fellowship to a White male.

    And as to the ‘gender minorities’, now that OCR has defined Title IX to protect them from discrimination, doesn’t that also define Title IX to preclude discrimination that benefits them? In other words, if it is a violation of Title IX to have a female-only programs, now that Title IX has been defined to include ‘gender minorities’, wouldn’t it be a Title IX violation to award fellowships on this basis?

    1. Harvard was founded in 1636 — American higher education existed for 310 years before Federal financial aid started with the GI bill.

      And while you can argue, correctly, that the Normal Schools were state-supported and the Land Grant Colleges were state supported with additional Federal grants, there was no individual Federal student aid. (It was the Congregational Church of Great Barrington that financed WEB DuBois’ Harvard education.)

      Almost all of the private colleges in America, including Harvard, were founded by religious orders — either to educate children of that religion or (in the case of some HBCUs) as Christian outreach. (The other HBCUs were founded as part of the 3rd Morrill Act.)

      Jonathan, you need to remember that the Higher Education Act didn’t exist before 1965, and that it was relatively modest by today’s standards. The Federal largess really didn’t arrive until about 40 years ago — with then-US Secretary of Education Bill Bennett warning that the vast increase in Federal money would just inflate the cost of higher education, which it has done.

      But this is all fairly recent — and before that, if the Congregational Church of Great Barrington wanted to negotiate with a Congregational university (which Harvard was back then) for a specific young man to attend for free, it could do so. It didn’t have to do the same thing for the Irish Catholic kid — which is part of why Holy Cross & Boston College were founded.

      Billy Bulger once stated that while he had planned to go into the Army as his older brother “Whitey” had done — and it was the Jesuits offering him a free freshman year at BC that “made all the difference.”

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