NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris about his new book, The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — And How To Set Them Right.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the midst of all the turmoil in higher education in recent years, historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have had some good news to report – eye-popping donations by philanthropists, like MacKenzie Scott, who personally donated $1.7 billion dollars mainly to HBCUs as well attention-getting hires to teach or advise, everybody from former FBI director James Comey to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But a new book by Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris argues that these developments, welcome as they are, are not nearly enough to overcome the generations of inequities these institutions have experienced, including consistent underfunding compared to segregated historically white institutions, which then use their failings to curtail or even shut them down. The book is called “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal – And How To Set Them Right.” And Adam Harris is with us now to tell us more about it.
Adam Harris, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
ADAM HARRIS: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: So this is one of those stories that I always say is hiding in plain sight. I mean, anybody who’s been to, say, South Carolina or Alabama or Maryland, for that matter, and has been to a so-called flagship campus of a state university and then heads across town and sees the facilities at a publicly funded HBCU knows the difference.
So I’m wondering what it is that you hope to accomplish with this book. Was it just to sort of lay the case out and – about why this is the way it is and why it doesn’t have to be that way? Like, what was your goal?
HARRIS: I had been reporting on higher education for a while. And this was one of the consistent themes that had come up, the way that Black students experienced higher education in a different way than white students did, not only at HBCUs but also at community colleges and elsewhere. And so I had known for my own experience attending Alabama A&M, an HBCU in Huntsville, Ala., the sort of difference – right? – just driving 10 minutes down the road, where there’s a predominantly white institution. And there’s a large difference between the institutional resources that those schools have. And so I really wanted to understand why that was, what the sort of policy underpinnings of the system that we recognize today were and how we got to this point and really looking at ways to address it from there.
MARTIN: You just tell some really heartbreaking stories about, you know, the humiliations that people suffered and just how hard people fought to get their education, to get education that their tax dollars should have been insuring for them. You tell the story of a man named Lloyd Gaines, whose story is kind of a little bit lost to history, you know, but for your efforts. And he’s – he wanted to go to study law in Missouri. And it’s a long, complicated story, which is why it’s an entire chapter of your book. But could you just tell us a little bit – as briefly as you can, like, tell us his story and why it matters.
HARRIS: Yeah, so Lloyd Gaines, you know, was born in Mississippi and moved up to Missouri with his family when he was young. And as you mentioned, he attended the HBCU in the state, and he wanted to attend a law school. He wanted to become a lawyer in Missouri. And there was no law school for Black students in Missouri. And so the NAACP ultimately ends up taking up his case to, you know, try to get him into the University of Missouri’s law school and/or if not, at least, you know, create a separate, you know, law school for Black students in the state so that he could attend it, right? If you want to practice law in a state, it’s probably best to attend a law school in the state where you can learn that state’s laws.
And so, you know, it works its way through the court, gets all the way up to the Supreme Court, where they say, hey, well, Missouri, you actually do have to at least create the separate option because Missouri was one of a handful of states that had this scheme where instead of having the graduate program for Black students in the state, they would just pay to send them out of state. But after the Supreme Court decision, the NAACP and Gaines are still pushing for his enrollment at the University of Missouri.
And the tragedy of his case and one of the reasons why he’s such an important figure – and it’s really sad that he’s been lost to history – is that he actually went missing. And so he has this letter that he writes to his mom just before he is – you know, goes missing, that says, you know, I’m just a man, not a man who has fought for the cause, not a man who’s kind of dedicated his life to this. No, I’m just a man who’s trying to do the best he can. And it really speaks to the sort of humanity, that these were just people who wanted the same things that students these days want. And at every turn, they were stymied by state and federal actors.
MARTIN: That’s so sad. And no one ever figured out what happened to him.
HARRIS: A former professor said that, oh, you know, I’ve been in contact with him. And he’s in Mexico. But the more likely story – it’s probably equally as likely that he was taken, right? He was receiving threats time and time again over the course of these years that he was working to enroll at the University of Missouri. And so, you know, with – you know, that fact that he has gone missing and, you know, his family had been searching for him for years and years. And they were never able to find, you know, their family member.
MARTIN: I think the argument would be now for many people to say, well, now that legal segregation is no longer permitted, that, you know, people can go wherever they can go, regardless of race. You know, what’s the argument for that – the kind of – I don’t – I can’t think of any other way to put it than reparations that you talk about?
HARRIS: The case for HBCUs and the case for higher education more broadly at this moment is that it is a place where people can learn the arts and the sciences and critical thinking skills that allow them to perform better as citizens. And, you know, really, if that were – that sort of public good aspect of higher education of HBCUs, et cetera were highlighted more, then I think that, you know, the case for higher education becomes a more – an easier one to make, right?
It’s the same reason why people don’t like higher ed when there are surveys. Like, what do you think of colleges? They don’t like it. But then when you ask them, what do you think of your local colleges, they love their local colleges because they can see the good that they’re doing in the community. And I think, you know, when you think of HBCUs, people can understand the good that they are still doing. And what I try to lay out is the good that the institutions are still doing and why that should be a case enough for the ongoing and sustainable support for these institutions.
MARTIN: That is Adam Harris. He’s a staff writer for The Atlantic. His latest book, “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal – And How To Set Them Right” is out now. Adam Harris, thank you so much for joining us.
HARRIS: Thank you so much for having me.
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