Arguments in a recent Supreme Court hearing on a Mississippi lawsuit echo the debate over Maryland's historically black colleges. U.S. v. Mabus was originally begun in 1975 by Jake Ayers of Glen Allen, Mississippi, whose children wanted to attend mostly black Mississippi Valley State, but found the school woefully under-supported. As his lawyer said: ''Jake Ayers decided, 'if I'm a taxpayer in the state of Mississippi, why aren't black institutions getting equal resources?' ''
Good question. Mississippi, like other Southern states, barred blacks from its public ''mainstream'' campuses until James Meredith's dramatic desegregation of Old Miss. The state provided little funding for the black colleges founded after the Civil War before the first three decades of the 20th century. Even then, its support badly lagged behind funds given white schools.
In 1960, Mississippi gave $1,351 per student to white colleges, but only $718 per student to black schools. By 1986, support had grown to $8,516 per student at white schools, but $6,038 at black schools. Moreover, Mississippi's three historically black institutions, Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley, found their academic programs sharply limited by state policy.
Sound familiar, Morgan State? Heard it before, Coppin? Ring any bells at Bowie State, Maryland-Eastern Shore?
It should surprise no one that white students in Mississippi continued to choose Old Miss, Mississippi State and other predominantly white campuses over the three black schools, even if these were nearer to their homes and even though their tuition was more affordable. Meanwhile, Mississippi's educators focused admission standards at the white campuses toward performance on standardized tests. Grade reports, secondary-school recommendations and other indicators, often cited by black educators as better predictors of collegiate performance, were de-emphasized.
The results were predictable. Whites go almost exclusively to predominantly white campuses. Blacks, 50 percent of Mississippi public-school students, go mostly to black campuses. Mississippi now says this is merely a matter of choice the students, going where they are most comfortable.
Comfort zones are major factors in student decisions, to be sure. But discrimination against an institution, going back over decades and working to disenfranchise an entire state's minority population, surely must be as remediable as discrimination against an individual. That's the rationale behind the ''enhancement agreements'' made part of the consent decrees flowing from the federal lawsuits filed against segregated state college systems across the country during the 1970s.
Maryland's consent decree required major upgrading at Morgan State and the other black campuses as well as special programs for blacks who choose its ''mainstream'' campuses. Mr. Ayers' lawsuit demands similar upgrading at black colleges and enhancement programs at Mississippi's larger state institutions. Officials in Mississippi, and some in Maryland, now seem to feel those enhancements are no longer necessary. Having opened the doors at formerly all-white campuses and banished overt segregation, they feel that's all that is necessary. Numbers of black students at Maryland's mainstream campuses now make it unnecessary to continue redress of the grievance it took six decades of the 20th century to address, although blacks make up far smaller percentages on those campuses than their almost one-quarter slice of the state's population might suggest.
Mississippi made so bold as to advance such arguments before the high court, saying in addition that it simply cannot afford to finance its black colleges at the budgetary level enjoyed by its white colleges. Maryland has not been so bold, although it has failed to fulfill the enhancement proposals it agreed to in settling its federal discrimination complaint, and it periodically floats proposals to merge or curtail further the programs at its black colleges.
Should Mississippi win at court, or should Maryland and other states succeed in cutting back or closing their black colleges, the fallout in black America would be horrendous. Black schools number only 106 of the 3,000 U.S. colleges, and most are small. But the 35 historically black public colleges enroll 160,000 students, 76 percent of the total student body at historically black colleges, and have seen their enrollments rise more than 10 percent in recent years. Add that to the 50,000 or so students at the private, United Negro College Fund schools, and it's clear black institutions educate nearly a fifth of the 1.1 million black college students.
Moreover, by some estimates these schools graduate more than 40 percent of the blacks taking baccalaureate degrees. And don't forget, graduates of historically black institutions are far more likely to pursue graduate degrees than their sisters and brothers at ''mainstream'' schools. So closing them out would hurt even more when the search begins for a new generation of black researchers, college professors, doctors, lawyers and other highly educated personnel. After all, eradicating discrimination is supposed to benefit those who press the complaint, not deprive them of major pillars of enfranchisement.
Think they are listening over at the Supreme Court? Are they paying attention in Annapolis?