Journalist Harris’s The State Must Provide (Ecco, Aug.), examines the legacy of racial discrimination in higher education.
Where did this book begin?
The seeds of the book began when I got to college at Alabama A&M University. I had fantastic professors and a really nurturing environment, but I noticed some things were fundamentally different from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, right down the street. UAH had newer facilities; potholes in the road were filled. The maintenance of the campus, the books in the library—everything seemed like it had been revamped. After I joined the staff at the Chronicle of Higher Education and really dug into higher education policy, I learned that my experience was not an anomaly but part of a broader reality for students at historically Black colleges and universities, which generally receive fewer resources.
How did you select which people and institutions to focus on?
I wanted the book to be comprehensive over a span of history, but I also didn’t want it to be a dry laundry list of facts. The book starts with the story of Berea College because of how different things were there, as the first interracial college established in the South [in 1855]. Some of the characters came naturally, as representatives of the efforts that were underway at the time. But the institutions become characters, too—Iowa State University, for example, which George Washington Carver attended in the 1890s. The selection was a matter of making sure the primary characters could carry the narrative I wanted to tell, which is how the current inequalities in higher education have evolved.
Which conversations left the biggest impression on you?
The people I spent the most time in conversation with were involved in more recent cases, like the case filed by Jake Ayers [against the state of Mississippi in 1975] and the Mary- land case [filed by the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Edu- cation in 2006]. My purpose was to show that these challenges aren’t just in the past; they have a current, present impact that we see playing out in cases that have yet to be decided.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
The knowledge that these inequities between institutions are not one-offs. There are structural reasons why these inequities exist across higher education; federal and state governments played an explicit role in shaping the system we have. I want readers to question. When we have institutions that have benefitted from or allowed inequality—like Georgetown, which profited from the sale of enslaved people—how do we deal with that? It’s up to the government to remedy that intentional century of discrimination. Policy created these inequities in the higher education system, and only policy will fix it.