According to the United States Department of Education and Agriculture, sixteen states have underfunded their state’s land-grant, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), by more than $13 billion over the last thirty years. A land grant college or university is an institution designated by the state legislature to receive benefits under the Morrill Acts of 1890 and 1994. The act’s passing was to ensure that higher education would be accessible to all and not only wealthy individuals, being that before 1892, many of the United States institutes for Higher Education were privately funded and selective of who they allowed. It gave states the power to sell federal land to establish Public Institutions.
If HBCUs do not receive equitable funding, it can perpetuate inequities in educational outcomes and opportunities for underrepresented minority students. Understanding the history of HBCUs is essential to appreciate the significance of addressing underfunding. Many of these institutions were founded to address historical injustices, and chronic underfunding perpetuates these disparities, reinforcing the notion that Black students deserve fewer resources and opportunities than their white counterparts.
The History of HBCUs
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a rich history of providing education to Black men and women in the United States. They emerged in the early 19th century, with institutions like Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1836 and Lincoln University in 1854 initially focusing on teacher training. Over time, these institutions broadened their curricula and became vital education centers for Black individuals, offering various academic programs.
During the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, racial segregation laws enforced strict separation of Black and White individuals in public facilities, including schools. Predominantly white institutions were often closed to Black students, and even if they were nominally open, they were often unwelcoming and discriminatory. HBCUs filled this void by providing Black students access to higher education when other options were limited or nonexistent. These institutions offered a safe and nurturing environment where Black individuals could pursue education and intellectual growth. However, these institutions have faced persistent challenges, including funding disparities that hinder their mission of providing equitable education. State funding policies that allocate resources to public higher education institutions are at the heart of these disparities.
Addressing the Disparities
In the letters sent to the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Department of Education highlights the importance of HBCUs. The underinvestment of these institutions should be addressed, given that these institutions generate close to $15 billion and have considerable impacts on the predominantly black communities they serve.
The letter addressed to Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, the Department of Education highlights the stark contrast between Alabama A&M University, the state’s first land-grant institution for African Americans, and Auburn University, the state’s first original land-grant institution, noting the differences in infrastructure and researching which Miguel Cardona, U.S Secretary of Education talks on saying that “Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, HBCUs have seen a massive enrollment increase despite a national decrease in college enrollments. During an interview with PBS News Hour, the President of Spelman College, an HBCU all-women’s college, Dr. Helene Gayle, attributed the increase in enrollment to an entire generation of young African Americans who have witnessed historic events. The inauguration of the first Black President of the United States, and the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter and numerous instances of social injustice have motivated and encouraged young people to seek higher education in environments where they are surrounded by their community.
The increase in enrollment has caused some issues for many HBCUS, one being the need for more housing spaces to accommodate the influx of students. Tennessee State University has the most known case, with the university having to rent out five hotels for the 2022-2023 academic year. This has caused the Tennessee State Comptroller to come in and audit the University and their financial practices. Their report found that TSU had a “lack of planning, management, and sound decision-making.” TSU’s financial decisions play a part in the case. Still, one cannot deny that Tennessee underfunding Tennessee State University $2,147,784,704, the most of any other state, plays a role in their shortcomings. The University of Tennessee, the state’s original land grant-funded institution, has sixteen housing halls in Comparison to Tennessee State’s eight housing halls, including one that just opened in August of 2022.
Why HBCUs Matter
HBCUs have a rich history of contributing to research and innovation, often focusing on underrepresented areas in mainstream academia. Unfortunately, underfunding hampers their ability to invest in research projects, labs, and faculty development, affecting their capacity to compete for research grants and produce groundbreaking work. This lack of funding also hurts equity by limiting the contributions of Black professionals and academics in research, innovation, and industries like STEM.
Adequate funding is crucial for maintaining high educational standards, hiring qualified faculty, and offering up-to-date resources and facilities. When HBCUs receive less funding, it can lead to overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, and limited course offerings. The disparity in educational quality can perpetuate inequities, particularly in the context of historically Black colleges and universities.
HBCUs have historically served as a pathway to higher education for Black students who were often excluded from predominantly white institutions due to racial segregation and discrimination. Inadequate funding can restrict their capacity to enroll and support students, limiting access to quality education. This impacts equity, making it harder for Black students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, to pursue higher education and achieve social mobility.
Underfunded HBCUs may receive a different education and preparation for future opportunities than students at well-funded institutions. Therefore, providing adequate funding to HBCUs is essential for promoting equity and ensuring Black students have access to quality education and opportunities.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the pride and tradition of HBCUs. Being a native of Birmingham, Alabama, I have had the pleasure of experiencing the biggest HBCU football game, The Magic City Classic, every year. The way the community comes together to support their teams, regardless of the weather, is truly a unique and unforgettable experience.
Funding HBCUs appropriately not only demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and solidarity with marginalized communities. These institutions are essential to a more just and prosperous future for all, as they continue to play a vital role in American education and culture. By recognizing the pivotal role of state funding policies, we can work towards a more equitable future where HBCUs receive the resources they need to provide quality education and continue their legacy of empowerment and opportunity. Public policy decisions at the state and federal levels directly impact HBCUs funding, support, and overall well-being. Advocacy, engagement with policymakers, and developing equitable policies are essential to addressing funding disparities and promoting equity in higher education for HBCUs.
Here is the list of every federal government-recognized HBCU in the United States. If there is one close to you, I encourage you to support one in any way you can, whether going to a sporting event or donating.
Note from the Author: This blog was written to accompany the Social Justice Café Transitional Justice: Here & Now hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00pm CST. At this event we will discuss a brief history of Transitional Justice in the United States and hold an open discussion about what it could look like in the home city of the Institute, Birmingham Alabama. You can find out more information and join the virtual event here. In this post, we will explore transitional justice in the United States. We will have another post on the international context of transitional justice.
Transitional justice is a field of international justice that “aims to provide recognition to victims, enhance the trust of individuals in State institutions, reinforce respect for human rights and promote the rule of law, as a step towards reconciliation and the prevention of new violations” (OHCHR). Often referred to as TJ, transitional justice is a system of multiple mechanisms and processes that attempt to create stability and ensure justice and remedies for victims of oppression and human rights transgressions. Some of the most commonly used mechanisms of TJ are truth commissions (TCs), reparations, and trials of perpetrators.
In practice, transitional justice has often been restricted to nations following active conflict or repressive authoritarian regimes, otherwise known as transitional time periods. This traditional understanding of transitional justice is beginning to evolve as stable, established democracies like Canada and South Korea implement TJ mechanisms such as truth commissions and reparations to address and amend state-sponsored abuses of certain groups. As it evolves the international gaze has once again turned to the United States and the uncomfortable discussion about the historical and ongoing oppressions. This article intends to establish the historical basis of transitional justice in the United States and recent developments to encourage a conversation about acknowledgement, fact-finding, reparations, and justice in the land of the free.
Section 1: Historical Examples of Transitional Justice in the United States
With an international spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States in 2020 came an increase in conversations about reparations to African Americans for the abuses of slavery, segregation, police brutality, prison labor, exclusion from housing and education and other forms of state-sponsored oppression that have proliferated for centuries. The discussion about the harms the American government has caused to Indigenous tribes, Alaskan Natives and people of Hawai’i, and other marginalized groups has been a matter of public discourse for decades. While the word reparations saturated international media, little attention was given to what reparations would truly look like, could look like, and examples of when the United States have provided reparations before.
While the spotlight of this discussion about reparations is often on monetary forms, such as property, cash or pensions, transitional justice recognizes that reparations can and should come in many different guises in order to provide a more holistic and healing process for victims. Reparations are deeply context-specific, and should be tailored to the needs of the victim, nation, and individual circumstance. However, examples of other forms of reparations and TJ include official acknowledgements and apologies, funding of research to uncover facts and educate the public on the truth, providing education and/or healthcare to victims and their families, and preserving historical sights and monuments. Ultimately, they should be determined by and catered to the people involved.
I have included both a brief infographic timeline and a more detailed look at a few examples of government-led transitional justice mechanisms in the United States below. It is important to note that, as many of these instances occurred prior to our modern definitions of transitional justice and reparations, this timeline encompasses cases of compensation which, under similar circumstances today, would likely be considered reparations, but were not explicitly intended as such at the time. The same goes for fact finding commissions that are analogous modern Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, though they lack that title. I have excluded instances of payments or acknowledgements being issued following a lawsuit through our judicial system, as well as instances of TJ being led by non-governmental entities like community organizations, charities or other non-governmental institutions.
President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, otherwise known as the Kerner Commission, in 1967. It was established to serve the purpose of a fact-finding mechanism akin to a Truth Commission today. The goal of the commission was to identify the causes of the violent race riots of 1967. While widely ignored, the Kerner Commission found that the root of the unrest were unequal economic opportunities, racism, and police brutality against minority racial groups in America.
Following concentrated efforts from interest groups and international attention, the United States federal government committed to two massive examples of explicit transitional justice mechanisms in the 1980s for Japanese Americans that were interned by Executive Order 9066 during World War II. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) into law, establishing a clear transitional justice mechanism (truth commission) at the national level. The CWRIC published the full report of their findings in February of 1983, and momentum from the commission persisted with the recommendations which were published in June 1983. The recommendations included an official apology, pardons for those convicted of violations of the executive order or during detainment, and the establishment of a federally funded foundation for research and education on the incident.
Shortly after the results of the CWRIC circulated across the nation, the United States Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided all eligible interned individuals with a one time payment of $20,000 in reparations as well as official acknowledgement and apology from the United States. In addition, all individuals who were convicted of disobeying the executive order or violating rules while interned were officially pardoned.
In response to the massive Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, many subnational level truth commissions and reparations programs were initiated, including those in the State of California, Evanston, Illinois, and Asheville, North Carolina. As the national conversation continues, we may see an increase of examples of transitional justice at work in United States communities.
Section 2: You, us, and the future of transitional justice in the United States
Whether in Europe, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, or the Americas, civil society plays a key role in the transitional justice sphere. Civil society actors are civilian organizations which can be activist groups, media, charities, non-profit organizations, educational groups and schools, or just citizens interacting with policy. Most recent transitional justice measures that have been implemented in the past few years in the United States have been on the subnational level. They are occurring as a result of citizens’ calls for action, constant attention on the need for transitional justice, and the everyday acts of discussing transitional justice.
Birmingham, Alabama is a historic city for human rights, civil rights and civic action. Civil society here, in this city, has influenced national change through the Civil Rights Movement as well as citywide changes like the removal of confederate statues in public parks and the preservation of historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement like the Greyhound Bus Station and 16th Street Baptist Church.
The Institute of Human Rights at UAB fosters an educational environment where you can see civil society at work, and hosts Social Justice Cafes on the second Wednesday of every month during the school year at 4:00pm CST. We will be hosting our last Social Justice Café of the semester, Transitional Justice: Here & Nowon Wednesday, November 30th to discuss what transitional justice should look like in American cities like Birmingham. You can find out how to join these open discussions, and become a civil society actor yourself, and attend more free educational events from the Institute of Human Rightshere.
Over the summer, I had the chance to be part of an amazing program, a program that at first, I believed would be a way for me to serve my community, but instead, I found community within. This program, known as Breakthrough Birmingham, is one of many Breakthroughs located in various cities across the country, serving communities with a mission and vision to bridge the academic gap produced by the pandemic and the larger systemic inequalities that exist in educational systems nationwide. Breakthrough is a nonprofit organization that commits to ensuring that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have a chance to pursue higher education and find a passion for learning along the way. They aim to do this while also mentoring future leaders and teachers to be better prepared for their teaching careers and leadership roles. With 24 different locations around the nation, Breakthrough is slowly trying to bridge the opportunity gap in America while retraining future educators to teach through the lens of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Before diving into Breakthrough and its many accomplishments, it is important to understand the purpose that nonprofit organizations like Breakthrough serve in their communities and why they are necessary in the first place.
Background About the American Education System and Breakthrough as a Whole
So, what is a nonprofit organization, and why are they important to have? Nonprofit organizations are created with a specific goal, or mission in mind, which aims to address a specific need in the community. The public sector (the government and its agencies) aims to address the needs of the majority voters, leaving behind many issues that impact minority voters. The private (business) sector, on the other hand, focuses primarily on its bottom line, which is making a profit. As a result, the private sector caters to those who are deemed customers, leaving behind those who cannot afford their goods and services. This is where nonprofit organizations come into play. Nonprofits stick to a vision, form a mission statement, and have a double-bottom line of staying true to their mission while also making a profit to put back into the organization. While they may be focused on a single issue, each nonprofit organization aims to address a particular issue being neglected by the public sector and left behind by the private sector. Nonprofits are – by law – non partisan and non-political. This means they are inclusive in their services and do not deny service based on the ability to pay. Breakthrough is one such organization addressing the shortcomings of our country’s education system, which provides endless opportunities to those who can afford them, and leaves behind the rest with the equivalent of the bare minimum in education.
This of course has to be looked at through a historical framework, and as we know all too well, Birmingham’s educational system has historically been one of the most segregated and underfunded school systems in the nation. Even when the rest of the nation began desegregating their school systems after Brown v. Board of Education was passed, Birmingham was one of those cities that resisted and refused to comply. As Birmingham finally began desegregating, the school systems had to deal with funding issues, and in response, local officials began to redraw district lines to ensure that certain well-to-do (white) families were positioned inside well-funded school districts. A topic that can be a blog in and of itself, because of racially inspired redlining efforts that were supported by the federal government during the 1930s, to this day, the funding that school systems receive is directly impacted by the housing values in America. As a result, students from lower-income households are zoned to attend schools with low funding, while students from higher-income households attend schools with higher funding. Due to the inequalities brought about by this phenomenon, there exists an educational gap between the students from low-income families and those from high-income families, and this opportunity gap further impacts the students’ decision to pursue higher education or not. To get a better understanding of the legacies of racial segregation on our education system, read this article by Nekole Hannah Jones.
While Breakthrough’s mission was a necessity, to begin with, its need has amplified due to the chaotic school years brought about as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the education gap between low-income students and those who come from high-income families. Many students who didn’t have the resources to access the online modules were neglected as a result of switching to online classrooms. Research showed that by the end of the school year in 2021, many students across the nation were behind on math and reading skills by several months. Additionally, trauma and instability can be discouraging academically and can severely impact the students’ development process.
As such, Breakthrough is an organization that aims to bridge the opportunity gap in vulnerable cities across the nation. After conducting tremendous research and tailoring programs to fit the community’s needs, Breakthrough Birmingham became one of their local branches, serving the Birmingham City Schools (BCS) District and partnering with local universities to empower the future educators of tomorrow with a holistic approach to teaching the next generations. Breakthrough offers year-long academic services to underprivileged scholars in their community, and their summer programs specifically aim to slow the “summer slide,” (which is the tendency of scholars to lose some of their academic skills from the lack of academic practice over the summer). Interestingly, Breakthrough serves a specific age group, mainly middle schoolers, and even employs a specific academic group during the summer, undergraduate students.
Breakthrough as an organization focuses on its middle school age group for many reasons. Middle school can be a very stressful time for a young student, and researchers wanted to understand why. Upon further inspection, scholars at Portland State University found that young adolescents between the ages of 10-15, experience many waves of development during this period of their lives. They develop physically, both externally in terms of height and weight, and internally, in terms of muscular and skeletal structures, but also chemically, in the form of changes in hormone levels. This can lead to a lot of discomfort in body image/self-esteem issues, as well as uncertainty around their sexuality. Additionally, students develop emotionally, meaning that they may need more guidance on processing certain emotions and feelings. Furthermore, students in this age group are developing morally, and as such, are beginning to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. This can have lasting impacts on their ability to ethically judge situations. Students are also developing socially, meaning that they can sometimes be socially awkward until they find a peer group they fit into. While all these developments are taking place, students at this age also undergo developments in their intellect and depending on the guidance they receive, this characteristic can determine their interest in higher learning. This can mean that without proper mentorship, many students will fail to see the importance of higher education, or, students who come from families where they are first-generation scholars, may not even be aware of the opportunities at hand if they are never introduced to them. Recognizing these factors, Breakthrough created a summer program particularly aimed at ensuring middle schoolers in the community can have a safe, fun-filled learning environment that can guide their scholars through the various developments they experience in this age range.
Additionally, Breakthrough employs undergraduate teaching fellows during their summer program to provide their middle school scholars with mentors who are closer in the age group to the middle schoolers than their traditional teachers at school. This helps scholars build meaningful relationships with teaching fellows, and as such, scholars are more receptive to information and direction. Furthermore, representation is key, and employing undergraduate teaching fellows provides middle schoolers with adults who look like them, and who share commonalities with them. Studies show that there is an overwhelming number of teachers who are predominantly from one particular race, and gender, (white, women) teaching primary education. Seeing someone that looks like them in a teaching position is powerful in encouraging younger scholars to pursue their academic dreams. This includes the fact that throughout history, the teaching occupation has been held by mostly women. Being able to see male teachers can additionally empower young boys to perhaps pursue teaching careers in their future. Finally, Breakthrough ensures that teaching fellows approach the scholars from anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoints, making sure to provide weeks-long training sessions to familiarize teaching fellows with the local history and major concepts of anti-racist teachings, as well as introduce teaching fellows to multiple professional speakers for further guidance on such topics. Teaching fellows are also expected to understand the social, economic, political, and environmental context from which their scholars come, so as to be aware of some of the outside forces at play that influences the scholars’ behaviors. Operating under a “high expectations, high support” system, Breakthrough expects nothing but the best from its teaching fellows, while providing resources and a strong support system to teaching fellows to ensure that no scholar is left behind.
The Three Pillars: Exposure, Relationships, and Growth Exposure
One of the three pillars that Breakthrough Birmingham is founded upon is the pillar of Exposure. This exposure piece applies to scholars and teaching fellows alike, and at times, because of the dynamic of the working environment found at Breakthrough Birmingham, it also applies to the staff and administration as well. During the summer program, scholars are exposed to students that come from various parts of the BCS district and meet as one cohort, sharing similar experiences. Having friends from different backgrounds can expose students to different cultures and lifestyles, and as such, can be a healthy addition to their development. This also fosters a sense of belonging among the Breakthrough community, and as such, encourages a safe environment for the scholars to learn and grow.
Additionally, scholars are exposed to information regarding their future, including preparing for high school, visiting college campuses, and even learning about various career fields and interview etiquette at a career day fair. Scholars are also exposed to the community around them, and learn about topics through an inclusive lens, focusing on equity, diversity, and anti-racism. With daily advisory classes that focus on culture building, elective lessons three days a week that give scholars a chance to explore new areas of interest, and all school and/or all-grade meetings held daily in an attempt to strengthen the newly formed friendships and relationships, every activity at Breakthrough is intentionally crafted to expose scholars and teaching fellows alike to new experiences.
Furthermore, teaching fellows also benefit from this exposure pillar in many ways. Teaching fellows (TFs) are hired from all over America, so TFs are provided with the opportunity to work closely with students that come from various backgrounds, and who share a common work environment. TFs go through various training sessions together, where they are exposed to inspiring community leaders, and get the chance to explore the local community’s history together. The TFs are therefore exposed to different ideas, people, and cultures, and are given the opportunity to form friendships that can last a lifetime. TFs are also exposed to roles of leadership and are expected to work in committees that teach teamwork and communication skills.
The working environment at Breakthrough fosters a sense of community, as staff and administration work alongside the TFs on a daily basis to ensure the smooth and effective operation of the day. This model emboldens the relationship between TFs, scholars, and staff, and strengthens the sense of trust within the organization. This, in essence, embodies the second pillar of Breakthrough: Relationships. TFs get to build lifelong connections and relationships with each other and the management team. With a healthy work environment that encourages TFs to “exhale from school” and prioritize self-care, Breakthrough is a workplace with high expectations and high support. Scholars are also able to make meaningful relationships with each other as well as with other TFs. Many scholars find lifelong mentors in teaching fellows, and as a result, can have a positive role model to look up to.
Breakthrough’s third pillar, Growth, provides the results of the hard work exerted by scholars, TFs, and management alike. Breakthrough has some serious results. Not only can scholars improve their academic skills tremendously, but they are also able to weave through various social, emotional, and cultural experiences by learning how to approach situations holistically. These socio-emotional improvements are just as important as the academic ones and can actually have a positive impact on their academic abilities.
From my own experience at Breakthrough Birmingham, my scholars in my writing class were able to improve their writing skills from novice to proficient, and some were even distinguished. This was determined by providing pre-assessments before the start of the summer program and post-assessments towards the end and comparing the results from the two assessments. While many of my eighth-grade scholars came into my class with a bare-minimum understanding of what an essay was, by the time they took their post-assessments almost a month later, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge of the different parts of an essay, were able to write decent thesis statements, and many were even able to craft a standard five paragraph essay, even though they were only required to write three. As for the socio-emotional improvements, I witnessed the scholars growing more confident in their self-image and in their ability to present the knowledge they had gained. I witnessed their improvements in maturity and helped them exercise their patience. Even though the program lasted a month, I could see measurable improvements from my scholars.
I also witnessed some growth within myself. Breakthrough’s structure emphasizes the importance of reflection, and this is practiced starting from the pre-work that TFs are required to complete as part of the orientation process and continues to the very last day of closing. From daily reflections to interpretations of norms, to admin check-ins periodically, to the end-of-summer presentations of learning, reflection and review are a big part of Breakthrough’s culture. This practice ensures that ideas and actions remain mindful and intentional, and places importance on the growth mindset. TFs can truly see for themselves just how much they have grown over the summer. Also, Breakthrough introduces a network of resources and opportunities for TFs to pursue, including opportunities to be employed by Teach For America for those pursuing a future in education.
How to get involved
For those of you who may be interested in the scholar programs at Breakthrough Birmingham, they offer various year-round programs for 7th-10th grade scholars, and during the summer, they offer a six-week summer program for rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Additionally, those who want to support the organization can do so through donations, volunteer work, or simply spreading awareness of the program to others who may benefit from a program like Breakthrough, both scholars and teaching fellows alike. The right to an education is one of the fundamental rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one that should apply to all children everywhere. Furthermore, education can be a powerful tool for ending oppression. Students’ ability to think critically and ask questions empowers them with the necessary tools to question unlawful or immoral behavior, recognize corruption, lies, and deceit, and provide holistic solutions to complex problems. Without these tools, students will continue to live in poverty and under oppressive conditions, not knowing how to change the world around them for the better.
Every four years, the US Department of the Interior releases a strategic plan highlighting their mission and future goals to best serve the American people. As the current plan spanning the 2014-2018 cycle is now drawing to a close, the updated 2018-2022 strategic plan has been created, but was leaked early online. Outside Magazine drilled deep into its content, and on November 2nd published an article addressing the fact that while there were significant changes in terms of National Park fees and regulations, “few took notice that the new administration has deleted the entire diversity, equity, and inclusion mandate from its plan.”
Political discussions about the outdoors usually focuses on the health of the environment or land usage rights, but a movement has been growing to confront what has been described as “The Adventure Gap“, or the underrepresentation of people of color in outdoor spaces. Grassroots efforts have been established to try and address this, such as the organization GirlTrek to get black women outside and walking to increase the health of their communities, but with many state and national parks being located outside of a city’s public transportation network and the entrance prices for popular parks being on the rise, the government for the last several years has been developing ways to extend access to those who would not have had the opportunity to participate in the park system through programs like Every Kid in A Park, an initiative that offers free admission to all fourth grade students across the country. Yet by excluding the mandate on diversity, “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation”, equity, “freedom from bias or favoritism”, and inclusion, “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure”, it is unlikely that initiatives to promote participation by minority groups within America’s public lands will be supported.
This is the latest in a string of decisions in which previous protections, mandates, and initiatives concerning diversity have been deconstructed or removed under the current administration. For example, in January following the inauguration of President Trump the new whitehouse.gov website was found to not only have dropped the page on climate change but to have also discarded the Obama-era page affirming the executive branch’s commitment to supporting the LGBTQ community. This was followed in October by an announcement from the Justice Department that protections from discrimination in the workplace under Title VII (“prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin”) would no longer apply to transgender workers. An easy argument to latch onto is that it is not the government’s place to be forced to affirm the identify of various groups, but after the January ban on refugees, the July ban on transgender military service personnel, and the September announcement of the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it is no longer assumed that the government will issue protections for those who have been historically marginalized. However, the United States has wrestled with similar moral and legal debates over the last 200 years, and as preached by 19th century minister Theodore Parker and echoed later by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Since the establishment of the United States, there has a been constant tension concerning who is allowed to claim certain rights. In 1868, a first step of progress was made by introducing the 14th Amendment into the constitution, granting US citizenship to former slaves and declaring that all people are to be seen as equal under the law. At the time this amendment was a revolutionary statement, and throughout the country’s history this amendment has been the foundation for many of the most well-known civil rights cases the United States’ court system has ever seen.
Ninety years after the 14th Amendment had been ratified, challenges on the nature of equality were still being debated and put to the test as measures such as Jim Crow laws were enacted. Separation between blacks and whites was enforced in many public spaces, and education, marriage, and healthcare for the black community were all impacted negatively as a result. Yet in 1954, these policies were brought to court under the title of Brown vs Board of Education. Through the success of the plaintiff’s argument, schools across the country would soon be desegregated over the following years.
Moving into the Civil Rights period of the 1960’s, the next phase of striving towards diversity, equity, and inclusion was the implementation of Affirmative Action in 1961. The history of the action is summarized on the National Conference of State Legislators website, recounting that
“In 1961, President Kennedy was the first to use the term ‘affirmative action’ in an Executive Order that directed government contractors to take ‘affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.’ The Executive Order also established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, now known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).”
Affirmative Action still stands today and has been joined by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but much like the decisions preceding them, these acts are still hotly contested. Critics argue that the actions lower standards and may force an employer to hire candidates unfit for the job, while supporters counter that the actions succeed at allowing underrepresented applicants such as ethnic minorities, women, those over age 40, racial minorities, and those who are disabled an equal chance to compete for white collar positions instead of being weeded out at the beginning of the process due to negative biases. Regardless of the controversy, Affirmative Action was another step in laying the groundwork for future actions, codes such Title IX (“prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”), and eventually the incorporation of diversity policies and statements into modern organizations.
After the implementation of Affirmative Action and Title IX, some organizations decided to go beyond the minimum and make diversity a core aspect of their operations. Through diversity statements, organizations and businesses make it clear that they stand for the promotion of a diverse workforce and that diversity in background, skills, and life experience breeds a healthy work environment. Universities have taken the lead on this front, and UAB has incorporated these ideals in two ways. First, any group who wants to become an official club on campus must make sure to include the UAB Nondiscrimination Clause within their constitution before being approved. Secondly, the university has created the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to specifically promote this cause. On the office’s website, a Statement on Diversity is included that reads
“Diversity is a defining feature of Birmingham’s past, present and future. At UAB, we are committed to capitalize on what makes Birmingham and the University trailblazers in moving inclusion forward. We are invigorating conversations, fostering civic engagement, widening perspectives, stimulating innovation and connecting people. Every day, we seek ways to actively promote and recognize principles of fairness and equity, in relation to, and across, intersections of race, age, color, disability, faith, religion, ancestry, national origin, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, social class, economic class, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, and all other identities represented among our diverse communities.”
These type of statements work as a positive sentiment, but it is important to note that by making an organization-wide commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion also serves as a protection for people underrepresented in certain industies. In August, Google faced an incident that sent waves through Silicon Valley as one of their employees, James Damore, sent out an “Anti-Diversity Manifesto” to other employees across the company. In it he stated that “Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership” followed by “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”
The response from those both inside and outside of Google was one of outrage and condemnation, although it should be noted that Damore did have supporters behind him and that these beliefs were not new development to the field. In the April 2017 Issue of The Atlantic, it was reported that within the tech industry most women have had to combat issues ranging from demeaning remarks to fending off repeated instances of inappropriate sexual advances. The article also referenced a number of studies reporting that women “are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.”
This put Google in a difficult situation, for if they kept Damore as an employee others would see that as condoning his points and continuing the cycle of discrimination against women, but if they fired him as a gut reaction Google would be confirming his “echo chamber” criticism of the company. However, because of Google’s proactive steps to address this type of issue should it arise, a statement rejecting the manifesto was issued by their Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown.
“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul… Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”
Through the embedding of diversity into their values, Google was able to swiftly respond by referencing their company policies and showing that those who disagree do so against the whole of the company’s standards and practices.
The Google incident is one of many demonstrating the importance of developing and including diversity statements and mandates within institutions and organizations. While used mainly to voice solidarity and commitment, the statements have the power to protect those who are underrepresented should a situation arise. The recent dismantling of these mandates and protections by the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department have left minority groups far more vulnerable to exclusion up through the highest levels of government; yet when viewing these decisions through the historical lens of diversity advocacy in the United States, the current blockages may only be temporary stumbling blocks on the road to further and deeper acceptance of inclusion across the nation.
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.