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A powerful ruling on race in UNC admissions can’t be read in Johnston County schools

·3 min read

In a much-anticipated ruling, last week federal judge Loretta Biggs upheld UNC-Chapel Hill’s admissions program against constitutional challenge. Biggs determined UNC’s “highly individualized, holistic” admissions process, using race as a factor in decision-making, closely adheres to Supreme Court precedent and doesn’t impermissibly burden white and Asian-American applicants.

The court found further “the University’s efforts in pursuing the educational benefits of diversity are substantial and ongoing.” Still, “both minority students and faculty are notably underrepresented” – leading to feelings of “isolation, loneliness and tokenism.” Professors “observe a lack of students of color in certain classes, fields and areas of campus, limiting opportunities for learning and exposure.” As former Vice-Provost Steve Farmer testified, “the University is working hard but it is not where it needs to be.”

Judge Biggs concluded that “ensuring our public institutions of higher learning are open and available to all segments of our citizenry is not a gift to be sparingly given only to select populations, but rather is an institutional obligation to be broadly and equitably administered.” While the current admissions program complies with the Supreme Court’s Grutter decision, she wrote in closing, “UNC continues to have much work to do.”

Such was the central framework of Biggs’ comprehensive opinion. Still, given the challenges of life today in North Carolina, I was drawn powerfully to another of her “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law”. Biggs wrote:

“Southern historian Dr. David Cecelski, provided the Court with credible evidence that UNC ‘has been a strong and active promoter of white supremacy and racist exclusion for most of its history. Over the centuries, the University’s leaders have included the State’s largest slaveholders, the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, the central figures of the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900, and many of the State’s most ardent defenders of Jim Crow in the twentieth century.’ Dr. Cecelski’s expert report is an ‘important contribution to the Court’s understanding of the context of this case.’ He provided ‘administrative and legislative findings that illuminate the educational disparities historically sanctioned by the State, concluding that, though recent (officials) have made important strides to reform the institution’s racial outlook and policies, efforts have fallen short of repairing a deep-seated legacy of racial hostility and disrespect for people of color.”

Cecelski’s report provided “context” for the decision. Context.

Reading Biggs’ opinion, it became impossible not to remember that a few weeks earlier the Johnston County school board, under direct threat from the county’s Board of Commissioners, did much to outlaw the teaching of “context” in Johnston County.

Seeking to expel the examination of our racial history, the school board amended the district’s code of ethics to demand that “all people who contributed to American Society be recognized as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture.” Failure to comply with the absurd, dishonest, and incomprehensible policy “will result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.” No Cecelski in Johnston County – they’ll have your head.

That means, I’d guess, that any teacher or librarian in Johnston County who asked, or allowed, Judge Biggs’ thoughtful and dead-on accurate opinion to be read by students could be fired. If past is prologue, lots of Johnston County students will decide this year whether they’ll attend Chapel Hill. If a counselor helps them understand what that entails – what Carolina is and has been – she’d better not direct them to Biggs’ challenging phrases. Too risky.

Johnston County’s out to deceive its kids, not teach them. North Carolina can’t be far behind.

Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is a law professor at the UNC School of Law.

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