The great Black American poet Langston Hughes called the 1920s the time “when the Negro was in Vogue.”  Harlem Renaissance art and culture were all the rage and rich white folks showed how woke they were by heading uptown to listen to Duke Ellington and Count Basie and then scooted back downtown to celebrate the likes of Hughes, Josephine Baker, and Zora Neale Hurston in Manhattan’s swankiest parlors.  “I was there,” Hughes wrote.  “I had a swell time while it lasted.”  But he added that “ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance.  And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.”

Hughes’s recognition of the way that power can on the one hand celebrate minority culture and on the other hand continue to perpetuate structural inequity has many parallels, most recently in the 2021-23 state budget proposal by Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Last Monday the Governor rolled out his “historic commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” complete with a new state holiday and a picture of the Governor with four young women of color.  This “bold and assertive package of proposals that address systemic racism” included 33 million new dollars for diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Washington’s community and technical colleges and our four regional universities (Central, Eastern, Evergreen, and Western).  This will be mostly money well spent, providing access and opportunity for students who have been historically excluded.

But then on Thursday the Governor dropped a budget proposal that cut $164.5 million from the base budgets of those same colleges and universities.  For those keeping score at home, that is a net $133.1 million cut to public higher education in Washington.  Figure in the additions and cuts that the Governor also made at UW and WSU and the hit to Washington students in public higher education rises to a cool $200 million.  These cuts are aimed directly at the college and university faculty and staff who are the core of public higher education and they come at exactly the worst time.  The economic rearrangements created by the COVID-19 pandemic have made public higher education even more crucial for Washington’s displaced and dispossessed.  And the pandemic-generated revenue losses in tuition and auxiliaries have made it harder and harder for the colleges and universities to provide the education that students, especially low-income students of color, need.  If someone were to set out to find a way to perpetuate and exacerbate inequality, they couldn’t find a much better way than cutting public higher education.

To be fair to Governor Inslee, this kind of structural racism has been part of the public higher education landscape for so long that it has become hard to even recognize any more.  But if we travel back a mere fifty years or so, we can see the roots of what happened last week.

In the 1950s and 60s, in the wake of the GI Bill, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s movement, students of diverse races, classes, and genders began showing up in public colleges in significant numbers for the first time.  They drove quite a bit of social change and began demanding respect and curricular change (Ethnic Studies Programs, Women’s Studies Programs) in ways that began to fundamentally change colleges and universities.  Up until this time, public higher education had been essentially free. But as soon as Black and Brown, first generation and working class students began arriving in numbers, states began the systematic disinvestment in public higher education.  As the percentage of white students in public higher education has declined over the decades so has state funding, at almost exactly the same rate.  Black, Brown, first-generation, and working class students are most likely to attend colleges with the fewest resources.  All of the researchers and policy makers who want to blame the “achievement gap” on K-12 teachers, single parents, or rap music would do well to look no further than the systematically racist defunding of public higher education that has created a structurally separate and unequal higher education landscape.

Thus, no doubt unconsciously, Governor Inslee’s higher education budget proposal participates in a long tradition of reinforcing inequality.  Cutting the core of higher ed is tried and true, and it can be made to seem even more palatable when you hang some colorful lights on the house you’ve gutted.  The skimpy funding that the Governor’s budget provides for diversity administrators, equity committees, ethnic studies, and Juneteenth celebrations will do some good, but it will also mask the continuing damage being done to a public higher education system that could be an engine of equality.

The Governor has bought a few tickets to see Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.  It’ll be swell for those who get them.  But for the majority of Washington students who need public higher education, it won’t do anything at all.