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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

How the 2006 Election Will Affect Black Opportunities in Higher Education

Now that Democrats have taken control of Congress the party has vowed to offer legislation that will enable more blacks and low-income students to afford a college education. With the ever-looming threat of a presidential veto, the prospects for significant reform remain in doubt.

On November 7 the Democratic Party swept the midterm elections to regain control of both houses of Congress and a majority of the nation’s governorships.

As a result of the election, the black vote should be energized. A Wall Street Journal postelection poll found that blacks and other minority groups in effect provided the Democrats with the margin of victory. The poll found that 49 percent of all white voters nationwide cast their ballots for Republican candidates and 48 percent of whites voted for the Democrats. The key point is that 87 percent of blacks, 72 percent of Hispanics, and 61 percent of Asian-American voters preferred the Democrats, thus handing control of Congress to the Democratic Party.

Democratic leaders have vowed to move swiftly on several education measures that would greatly benefit many blacks and low-income students. After the election, Democratic Congressman George Miller of California, the new chair of the House Education Committee, promised, “We will invest in our schools, colleges, and students so that every child has an opportunity to succeed.”

Here are some of the legislative initiatives that are likely to be pursued by the Democratic Congress:

  • The Democrats propose to legislate a cut in interest rates for Stafford loans for low-income students from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. This would significantly reduce the debt load incurred by many hundreds of thousands of black students.

  • Democrats have vowed to raise the maximum Pell Grant award from $4,050 to $5,100. President Bush also said he wanted to increase the maximum Pell Grant but few took him seriously. The GOP always ducked the issue, claiming that it never found a way to finance the increase in Pell Grant awards.

  • Democrats aim to replace the tuition tax deduction and replace it with a $3,000 tax credit. The tax credit, which would be a dollar-for-dollar savings, would be equivalent to a $12,000 tax deduction. Unlike a tax deduction which is skewed to higher income taxpayers, this would put real money in the pocket of millions of blacks with children in college.

  • Leaders of the Democratic Party are determined to renew efforts to raise the federal minimum wage. If the change is enacted, the higher minimum wage will add billions of dollars to the incomes of black families. This will provide more funds for college if they so choose.

While it is encouraging that the new congressional leadership hopes to move on important legislation that would help most blacks and low-income college students, this optimism is tempered by the fact that any legislative initiatives passed by the new Congress face the hurdle of a possible veto by President Bush. Despite pledges of bipartisanship from both sides of the political aisle, it is unlikely that the president will be inclined to permit the Democrats in Congress to achieve significant victories. If the Democrats pass meaningful educational reforms, voters would likely reward them at the polls in 2008, a prospect that obviously does not sit well with the White House or the GOP.

Of major importance, too, was the Democrats taking control of the United States Senate. The Senate must approve all judicial nominations made by the president. Therefore, with liberal Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont now chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, it will be extremely difficult for President Bush to win confirmation of any judge who is a staunch opponent of affirmative action or of other initiatives designed to help blacks. This will be of critical importance should a new vacancy occur on the Supreme Court.

Black Elected Officials

Surprisingly, there was no net gain in the number of blacks in Congress. There will be 42 black representatives and one black U.S. senator in the newly elected 110th Congress, the same count that prevailed in the previous Congress.

African-American Democratic candidates for the United States Senate in Tennessee and Mississippi went down to defeat. Erik Fleming lost by a landslide to a racialist GOP Senator Trent Lott in Mississippi. Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee was victimized by a racial smear campaign that raised voters’ fears about interracial dating. Michael Steele, a black Republican for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, ran a strong race but still was defeated.

African-American GOP candidates for governor of Ohio and Pennsylvania lost by large margins as black voters overwhelmingly supported their white Democratic opponents. In an important election, one black did win statewide office. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts is the second African American to be elected governor of any state.

In other notable news regarding black candidates, Keith Ellison was elected in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District. He is that state’s first black congressman and the first Muslim ever elected to Congress.

Angela Paccione narrowly lost to GOP incumbent Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado’s Fourth Congressional District. Paccione fell about 7,500 votes short of becoming Colorado’s first black U.S. representative. The Fourth District is less than one percent black.

Black Committee Chairs:  A Huge Increase in African-American Political Influence

While the number of blacks in Congress remains unchanged, there will be a significant increase in the political power of black representatives. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina will be the new House whip, the third-highest-ranking leadership position. Charles Rangel of New York City is the new chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where all tax legislation originates. Rangel has said that President Bush’s plan to privatize social security and to give more tax cuts to the rich do not stand a chance of passing his committee.

Congressman John Conyers of Michigan is now chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Congressman Benny Thompson is the new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Finally, Juanita Millender-McDonald of California  heads the House Administration Committee. With four blacks chairing House committees and blacks leading a large number of key subcommittees in the House, black political power in the legislative branch of the federal government is at an all-time high.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that when the GOP took control of the House after the 1994 elections, they scuttled funding of the Congressional Black Caucus. It is expected that the CBC will once again be funded at a level where its activities can have a far greater impact. The Black Caucus has always been a strong advocate of initiatives improving opportunities for African Americans in higher education.

Some Very Bad News for Black Opportunities at Selective Colleges

While many African Americans were pleased with the election results, one huge disappointment was the landslide support for Proposal 2 in Michigan, which calls for the end of race-sensitive admissions at the University of Michigan and other public universities in the state. By a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, voters approved a public referendum in the state of Michigan that will ban the use of racial preferences by any agency of the state government. The referendum mandates that the University of Michigan and other state-operated colleges and universities abandon the use of race as a positive factor in the admissions process.

Jennifer Gratz was the executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. Gratz was denied admission to the University of Michigan in 1995 and later sued the university for reverse discrimination. The case, Gratz v. Bollinger, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the undergraduate admissions program at the University of Michigan went too far in giving a preference to black applicants solely because of their race. But in a companion case, Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court ruled that limited consideration of race could still be used by colleges and universities. The passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative will have the effect in Michigan of overturning the Grutter decision for admissions at public universities in the state.

This is of great importance because the University of Michigan enrolls more black students than any other academically high-ranking university in the nation. In 2006, before the election, there was a 25 percent drop in black first-year students at the University of Michigan. The number of black freshmen dropped from 430 in 2005 to 330 for the 2006-07 academic year. Blacks are 6.1 percent of the first-year class at the University of Michigan. With the passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, it is possible that black enrollments may drop even further, perhaps by 50 percent or more from this year’s level.

After the vote was counted, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, was defiant. She stated in an address to the community, “I will not allow this university to go down the path of mediocrity. Diversity makes us strong, and it is too critical to our mission, too critical to our excellence, and too critical to our future to simply abandon.”

While President Coleman’s commitment to racial diversity on the University of Michigan campus is admirable, she is obliged to comply with the new law of the state of Michigan. Indeed, the defiant rhetoric quickly subsided. Within a few weeks after the election, the university administration had refocused its efforts on ways to maintain diversity within the confines of the new law. Although legal wrangling over the new law may go on for some time, undoubtedly, new race-neutral admissions procedures will have to be established at the university. Under the new race-neutral policies it will be extremely difficult to maintain black enrollments even at the low levels that prevail today.

Also of major concern is the fact that race-neutral admissions will be imposed on graduate education in Michigan. This could have a major damaging effect on black enrollments at the law, business, medical, and other graduate schools at the University of Michigan.

Blacks are more than 6 percent of the enrollments at the University of Michigan School of Law. But JBHE research has shown that blacks are perhaps only 2 percent of the top scoring group on the Law School Admission Test. Most of the nation’s high-ranked law schools select their students from this pool of high scorers on the LSAT. This could lead to a 50 percent or more reduction in black enrollments at the Michigan law school.

A 2005 JBHE survey found that nearly 7 percent of the entering students at the University of Michigan business school were black. This was the second-highest percentage of black first-year students at all of the nation’s top-ranked business schools. Yet, under a strict race-neutral admissions policy, the business school will now be obliged to admit students with the highest grades and test scores on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Blacks make up a very small percentage of the students in the top scoring group on the GMAT test.

Robert Dolan, dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, is concerned that if the school becomes less racially diverse, corporations will be less likely to recruit the school’s graduates. Businesses are looking for managers with experience dealing with racial and ethnic minorities. Dean Dolan is concerned that business training in a nearly all-white environment may not prepare the school’s graduates for the real business world of today.

Ward Connerly Will Be Emboldened to Do Damage to Blacks in Other States

The fundraising to support the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative was led by Ward Connerly, the African-American businessman from California who led the successful effort in that state to end race-sensitive admissions at the University of California.

Most African Americans hoped that Michigan voters would put an end to the hypocritical political ambitions of this black man whose personal attainments in life are due to the financial benefits of affirmative action in government contracting. But his victory in Michigan will undoubtedly embolden him to take his crusade against race-sensitive admissions to other states. Indeed, before the election, Connerly said that he probably would not pursue such measures in other states. But after the huge margin of victory, Connerly appeared ready to fight another day. Jennifer Gratz promised, “We will continue this fight across America.”

There are 24 states that allow public referenda similar to those in Michigan. In mid-December, Ward Connerly announced nine other states where he might pursue ballot initiatives in 2008. The nine targeted states are Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. It is important to note that unlike Michigan and California where Connerly has achieved success before, there are very few college-bound blacks in most of these states. In addition, the state universities in these nine states are not highly selective as is the case in Michigan and California. Therefore, a ban on race-sensitive admissions in these nine states will have little impact on black educational opportunities.

Race-sensitive admissions in the state of Florida were abolished by an executive order of Governor Jeb Bush. Although it is not expected that newly elected GOP governor Charlie Crist will rescind this order, the next time a Democratic governor is elected in the state, he or she may choose to do so. If this occurs, a public referendum to ban affirmative action in this state is likely. In fact, Connerly was prepared to mount an initiative in Florida before Jeb Bush abolished race-sensitive admissions by executive order.

Prior to the election, there was a movement under way in California to mount a public referendum effort to overturn Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative which banned race-sensitive admissions in that state. However, the successful effort in Michigan to ban affirmative action will almost certainly put an end to efforts in California to roll back Proposition 209.

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