By Lauren Victoria Burke and Freddie Allen
Congressional Democrats, led by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, recently hosted a forum on Capitol Hill titled “Affirmative Action, Inclusion, and Racial Climate on America’s Campuses.”
Conyers said that recent signals from the Justice Department hint at a change in administration policy and new attacks on affirmative action programs.
“This is not the time for the federal government to retreat from protecting equality in higher education,” said Conyers.
Student leaders, college diversity officials, and legal experts discussed the role of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in ensuring that students are welcomed to a safe, inclusive learning environment free of harassment and intimidation on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
Title VI, “was enacted as part of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance,” according to the Justice Department.
“Title VI remains a critical tool in eliminating discrimination in schools,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It was a tool that was originally shared by the Department of Justice and by private plaintiffs.”
Ifill continued: “Now, we’re faced with an administration that is hostile towards civil rights—hostile to the Office of Civil Rights, itself.”
Ifill said that even though the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the constitutionality of the merits of affirmative action, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is preparing a unit in the Department of Justice to challenge the law at colleges and universities across the nation.
In the wake of violent protests and the White nationalists’ rally in Charlottesville, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan testified at the forum on what the university has done in the past and is trying to do in the future to promote diversity. Sullivan referenced past acts of naming various locations on campus after African Americans.
On August 11, hundreds of torch-bearing White supremacists marched across the campus of the University of Virginia to protests the removal of a Confederate monument from a public park.
“Let me be perfectly clear,” said Sullivan. “We’re not interested in having those folks back.”
Sullivan, Mayor Michael Signer, and the Charlottesville City Council have been criticized for not being more prepared for the “Unite the Right” rally and violence and mayhem that erupted in the small college town. The gathering was billed, weeks beforehand online, as one of the largest gatherings of White supremacists in U.S. history. One protester was killed and two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash in Charlottesville over that weekend.
Taylor Dumpson, the student government president at American University and Weston “Wes” Gobar, the president of the Black Student Alliance at the University of Virginia also delivered remarks during the forum. Both student leaders documented specific incidents of racism on their campuses.
Dumpson was the target of a series of racist acts in May, when someone hung bananas in nooses around American University’s campus; some of the bananas were marked with “AKA,” the letters of Dumpson’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. The incident occurred a day after Dumpson was elected the first African American female student body president.
“In America we tend to think of racism and White supremacy in the most blatant and hateful individuals and forms of discrimination like the [Ku Klux Klan], Neo-Nazis, and the alt-right, while ignoring the more subtle and systemic forms,” said Gobar. “It is important to condemn the most visible elements of White supremacy, but we must further address these subtle and systemic forms.”
Gobar said that he’s heard racial slurs and racists comments that were yelled by White supremacists during the rally in August, repeated in hushed tones on campus; he has also seen anonymous posts written online calling Black students ‘monkeys’ and messages written in chalk on campus suggesting that Black people have lower IQs than White people.
“At a recent student council meeting, one student said that, ‘Thomas Jefferson raped Black women, but so did everyone else at the time,’” Gobar recalled.
Gobar continued: “Well, before August 11 and 12, this has been the climate for students of color at the University of Virginia and this climate has served as an unnecessary burden towards our learning experience.”
The student leader said that many incoming students of color now feel scared and unwelcomed at the University of Virginia after the events of August 12.
“To tell the truth, this is a nearly constant feeling on campus,” Gobar. “There are pervasive incidents of harassment like this every year and they are by no means isolated.”
Systemic problems require systematic solutions, said Gobar.
Gobar noted that Black student enrollment at the University of Virginia is only 6.4 percent and recommended more funding for existing scholarships, financial aid and fellowships that target underrepresented groups. He also advocated for increasing the funding for organizations that serve minority populations on campus.
“The status quo can longer be acceptable,” Gobar said.
Ifill recommended that congressional lawmakers conduct oversight hearings to ensure that the Justice Department properly enforces Title VI and that lawmakers exercise budget authority to fully fund the enforcement of civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, Title IX and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Ifill also recommended that Congress pass legislation that will provide vigorous civil rights protection, like Equity and Inclusion and Enforcement Act, (H.R. 2486), co-sponsored by Reps. Scott, Conyers, and Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-North Mariana Islands)
“LDF’s commitment to promoting equitable educational opportunities for America’s students has endured for decades,” said Ifill. “We have no intention of rolling back our commitment to that.”