The American Dream offers each new generation the opportunity to build on the successes of previous ones. However, if you are African-American, the nation’s history of enslavement and legal bigotry consistently requires each generation to start anew. Inclusive admissions in our nation’s colleges and universities level the playing field for those who would otherwise be denied a point of entry.
Enslaved Africans built America for free. They provided America its greatest economic foundation, yet were denied access to any of the fruits of their hard work. Others benefited financially from their toil to create security for themselves and their future generations because they belonged to a privileged group favored by our Constitution in the birth of this nation.
In an effort to secure economic standing, this same faction categorized people, favoring white indentured servants over Native Americans and enslaved Africans as a way to build a permanent divide. Starting in Jamestown, Va., in the 1700s, this division is the foundation on which modern day racism thrives.
Instead of owning responsibility for the sin of slavery, America continued to exploit the labor of African-Americans by consistently manipulating outcomes that positioned them to work for free. Sharecropping followed involuntary servitude, and the people promised 40 acres and a mule by General Sherman’s Field Order 15 never received one cent.
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Black Codes created customs of legal inequality based on whites’ desire to keep “law and order” so that their economic standing would not be jeopardized. The citizenship promised by the 14th Amendment to blacks was never realized. Here in North Carolina, the 1898 coup d’état in the city of Wilmington was evidence that white supremacy is the law of the land, signaling that the inhumane inferiority perpetrated on enslaved Africans by whites would be permanently branded on blacks.
As a result, Jim Crow’s “separate and unequal” allowed systemic exclusion of African-Americans from mainstream avenues of opportunity, including education. African-Americans built their own ecosystems of advancement but were required by law to pay taxes that funded progress for the very same whites who denied them equal treatment. The University of North Carolina is the state’s most prestigious taxpayer-funded university, and it did not allow its first black students in until 1955, this notwithstanding its being built by the formerly enslaved and “Negro workmen” in 1797. Today, African-American student enrollment at the university is only 11 percent, even though Blacks constitute 22 percent of North Carolina’s citizenry.
African-Americans must not be denied access to the educational institutions. We made significant contributions in building that have sustained opportunity for others. Evidence shows that white women have benefited most from affirmative action programs and that these programs have been effective at making colleges and universities more representative of our society. A diverse, well-educated generation of Americans is crucial to our success as a nation. The U.S. Justice Department must enforce inclusive educational polices as they open the doors of opportunity for all.
Nikitra Bailey is executive vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending. She is a fifth generation descendant of an enslaved family from Stokes County.