Officials of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights now say that if Maryland's desegregation efforts fail to attract white students to historically black campuses, the state will not necessarily be in violation of federal regulations.
"We are not forcing anybody to go anywhere," said Wendella P. Fox, the civil rights official who is working with the state on its desegregation plan.
"We just want to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to go where they want to go," she said. "It's not about numbers, it's more about access for all students."
Maryland education officials say this is a change from what they have been told in talks with the Office of Civil Rights about the state's desegregation plans. As a state with a formerly segregated system of higher education, Maryland's public colleges and universities remain under federal scrutiny.
"That's not the message we've been getting," Patricia S. Florestano, the state's outgoing secretary of higher education, said of the change. "All along, they have said diversity is good and that diversity means more blacks at the traditionally white institutions and more whites at the historically black colleges and universities."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings said he specifically asked the federal officials at a meeting last week if they expected to see more whites at historically black schools and was told that was the case. "Mainly because I raised the question, they made it clear that was their intent," the Baltimore Democrat said. "It's always been their policy."
The issue was raised in a column by Raymond C. Pierce, the deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Civil Rights, in a recent issue of the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education. "I am often asked whether or not the racial balance of students at an [historically black college] is the standard of compliance in OCR's cases," he wrote. "The answer is no."
Pierce added that if all the "segregation-promoting vestiges of the previous system" - including course duplication between white and black schools and inequities in funding - are eliminated and schools remain racially segregated, there is no violation of federal regulations, specifically Title VI of the 1964 civil rights law.
Rawlings disagreed with Pierce's analysis. "That's not legal, because it doesn't eliminate the vestiges of segregation," he said of a campus that would voluntarily remain segregated.
Florestano said the federal officials used the term "black enclave" - taken from the 1992 Supreme Court decision, known as United States vs. Fordice, that called for the elimination of segregation in Mississippi's system of public higher education - when she discussed the possibility of the historically black schools' remaining almost entirely black despite the best efforts of the state to make them attractive to white students.
"They said [Fordice] does not allow 'black enclaves,'" Florestano said. "You can only follow that logic to one conclusion," that the federal officials expect the state's schools that remain almost all black to have more white students.
Fox said that if the desegregation plan is put into effect and historically black schools are given high-quality, demanding programs that are not duplicated at traditionally white schools, she would expect to see white enrollment rise at the black colleges.
Fox emphasized that part of the challenge will be to get the historically black schools to recruit white students and to get everyone in the state's higher education system involved in making sure high school students know that programs at the historically black schools are of high quality.
"Everybody has to be saying that, not just the historically black colleges and universities, in order for this to work for real," she said.