At one point, I had never heard of Ferguson. I do not quite remember that reality. In the same way that Selma and other places have become iconic in the American imaginary, Ferguson has come to carry an enormous amount of symbolic weight. Of course, there are more than symbolic issues at stake here. There are lives at stake just as there were in Selma and in the many other places that figure in our knowledge of race and racism in today’s world.
Among the places that do not figure in that landscape, or at least did not, are the many places detailed in a recent book entitled Ebony and Ivy. Subtitled Race,, Slavery and the Troubled History of American’s Universities, the book is authored by Craig Steven Wilder, professor of American history at MIT. What the book details, and details, is the ways that the history of places like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, are entangled with the history of American slavery and racism. (Obvious, I know, from the title and sub-title.) Each of these places made their current fortunes on the backs,, often quite literally, of native americans and enslaved blacks. Whether slaves accompanying the men and dollars that each institution pursued from the heart of the South, to enrich their college classrooms (often quite literally) or the root of the economies that underwrote scholarships, buildings and more, changing one name of a building (as some institutions have elsewhere) or creating one scholarship is not, the author implies enough. Racism, race, slavery, genocide, pervasively undergird the “best” of American universities.
Michael Brown, like many of his peers, never made it to college or to university whether a PWI (predominantly white institution) or an HBCU (historically black college or university) or even an HSI (hispanic serving institution). Black males continue to be missing from college campuses (See also this piece or see this for Tavis Smiley’s view.). Arriving at college, though, is not enough. Graduation rates matter, and are not tracked particularly well given that they only “count” first time in college students who graduate from the institution where they first arrived. . .
Juxtaposing Ferguson and Ebony and Ivy tells us several things: colleges require transformation. We have been changed by the legacy of civil rights and integration. We have been changed by title IX. We have been changed by the Lilly Ledbetter Act. We have been changed by the shifts in law around LGBTQ lives. And yet, Ferguson.
If we are the engine of social change rather than the engine of social conformity to a nation of racism and inequalities of many sorts, there is much work to be done. If we are both a private and a public good, there is much work to be done.