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Engaging the ''Race Question'': Accountability and Equity in U.S. Higher Education

reviewed by Elsa Gonzalez & Stephen Luis - June 25, 2015

coverTitle: Engaging the ''Race Question'': Accountability and Equity in U.S. Higher Education
Author(s): Alicia C. Dowd & Estela Mara Bensimon
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756091, Pages: 224, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Racial segregation, as well as race and class inequality, are salient characteristics of schools in the United States 60 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared racial segregation unconstitutional (Orfield & Frankenberg, 2014).

Indeed, there have been numerous studies conducted as to the inequality between White students and African American and Latino students at the elementary and high school levels of education. However, this racial inequality also exists at the higher education level as well. In their book, Engaging the “Race Question”–Accountability and Equity in Higher Education, Dowd & Bensimon explain that the college completion rates between White students and African American and Latino students is a startling one. “Thirty percent of white students do not attend or complete college while the percentage for African Americans and Latinos is almost 50” (p. ix).

The United States as a country is currently undergoing significant demographic and cultural changes within its makeup. As new immigrants come into the country, the demographic makeup of the classrooms will change significantly. According to several scholars, in 2010-2011, students of color exceeded the number of White students in the District of Columbia, as well as the states of Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Delaware, and New York (Aud, Hussar, Johnson, Kena, Roth, Manning, Wang, & Zhang, 2012).

So, in essence, the higher educational system in the United States has an oncoming major problem. As the completion percentages of minority students at the higher education level continue to drop, and the completion gap between White students and African American and Latino students continues to grow, it creates an educational crisis that the country has yet to tackle. As more minority students continue to move into higher education from public schools, these achievement and completion gaps must be handled with a sense of extreme urgency in order to create an equitable higher education system.

This text, coauthored by Alicia C. Dowd and Estela Mara Bensimon, is a fascinating book that creates positive first steps in tackling the inequality among White, African-American, and Latino students at the higher education level. The book itself consists of an introduction, four core chapters, and a conclusion chapter, in which the authors provide recommendations for higher educational institutional action in achieving equity for minority students.

In their introduction, Dowd and Bensimon discuss the concept of what they refer to as the “race issue” in higher education. The authors discuss how racism and discrimination are not as overt as they were back in the years of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era. Instead, there is more of what is referred to as institutional racism within organizations of higher education. Discrimination is more subtle and more obscure.

For example, an African American or Latino might not be hired as a professor because he did not graduate from a prestigious Ivy League School. Perhaps, the minority applicant did not go to Harvard or Yale because of financial reasons, family reasons, or other more significant reasons such as inadequate counseling or insufficient knowledge about higher education options.

Dowd and Bensimon make the important point that despite the gains made by African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities since the Civil Rights era, minorities are not yet equal. The authors point out that the concept of colorblindness among Whites today has obscured what drives the inequality of educational opportunities for minorities. Dowd and Bensimon refer to this driving factor as White Privilege. White Privilege, in essence, is the fact that every person in the country—whether they be a person of color or not—has to adhere to rules and regulations made by the majority group. Adding to this, is what Dowd and Bensimon refer to as structural racism in our higher education institutions.

The authors state that structural racism is difficult to address, because it is incorporated into the core practices and organizational features of higher education, such as admissions and student assessment. Indeed, racism is such a normal fact of daily life in U.S. society and the “assumptions of White superiority are so ingrained in political, legal, and educational structures that they are almost unrecognizable” (Taylor, Gillborn, & Ladson-Billings, 2009, p. 4). In addition, many Whites in today’s society see the absence of overt discrimination as a sign that racism itself has ended.

As a result of this structural racism that exists at the higher education levels, Dowd and Bensimon introduce their Equity Scorecard, an action research process that has been implemented at over 40 colleges and universities in the United States. The scorecard, which was created by the authors, provides the important foundations that educators at higher educational institutions need in order to tackle the problem of inequality among minority students. Both Dowd and Bensimon are co-directors of the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education (CUE) and discuss their personal experiences of how university officials have used it as a tool to help them achieve racial equality on their campuses.

Dowd and Bensimon’s Equity Scorecard itself contains five phases that college practitioners need to use in order to help them to promote equity. These include laying the groundwork, defining the problem, assessing interventions, implementing solutions, and evaluating results. The authors illustrate how the Equity Scorecard is used by providing case studies of college administrators, faculty, and other school officials who have used these strategies on their own campuses.

Dowd and Bensimon also introduce three important theories of justice in achieving equity among minority students at the higher education institutional level. They introduce justice as fairness, which was influenced by the work of philosopher John Rawls, who stated that “social and economic inequalities” such as they are introduced through policy, “are to be arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged” (Rawls, 1971, p. 302). In other words, everyone should have the same opportunities to achieve in life. The playing field must be leveled, so that those who are at an historical disadvantage (through years of racial and ethnic discrimination and racism) have the tools they need to compete with their more privileged White counterparts in achieving educational equity.

Dowd and Bensimon also introduce the theory of justice as care. Care theorists such as Noddings address the issue that policies created and implemented do not always have the care for those most affected. Dowd and Bensimon use the example of students of color being bused to all White schools. Dowd and Bensimon state that caring for these minority students means they are first and foremost the main focus of the caretakers, who should strive to give those students a sense of self-respect.

Finally, the authors introduce the theory of justice as transformation. Critical race scholars view persistent racial inequalities in educational participation and outcomes as evidence of institutional and structural racism. Justice as transformation occurs, as the authors note, when institutional officials in higher education organizations acquire a critical consciousness and use their positional authority, resources, and networks to create change from within and become what Stanton-Salazar refers to as empowerment agents (Stanton-Salazar, 2011). Justice as transformation, according to the authors, calls for all higher education officials to use their positions to create the necessary changes from within, in order to end the structural racism and discrimination that exists within their organizations.

Dowd and Bensimon conclude their book by introducing three cornerstone principles that must inform a racial equality agenda in higher education institutions: (a) the racial inequalities of student outcomes are not the failure of the student, but the failure of society and higher education institutions, which have embedded in policies historical practices of racial discrimination; (b) all students have the right to be free from oppression at the higher education institutions that they attend; and (c) the accountability field in education has a moral obligation to provide incentives for higher education institutions to reconstruct themselves in order to achieve true racial equality.

In conclusion, Dowd and Bensimon's book is a fascinating read for those higher education professionals who want to know how they can make the necessary changes to achieve racial equality in their organizations. Dowd and Bensimon provide an important step-by-step process and introduce new and innovative strategies on how to tackle this ever-growing problem. This book should be in all educators’ libraries, and will no doubt serve as a catalyst for important institutional changes in achieving true racial equity in our higher education intuitions. It is a problem we simply cannot ignore, and Dowd and Bensimon show us the pathway to begin to solve it.


Aud, S., Hussar, W., Johnson, F., Kena, G., Roth, E., Manning, E., Wang, X., & Zhang, J. (2012). The condition of education 2012 (NCES 2012-045). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Orfield, G., & Frankenberg, E. (2014). Brown at 60: Great progress, a long retreat, and an uncertain future. Los Angeles, CA: University of California, The Civil Rights Project (Proyecto Derechos Civiles).

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (2011). A social capital framework for the study of institutional agents and their role in the empowerment of low-status youth. Youth & Society, 43(3), 1066–1109.

Taylor, E., Gillborn, D., & Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). Foundations of critical race theory in education. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 25, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18006, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:18:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Elsa Gonzalez
    Texas A&M
    E-mail Author
    ELSA GONZALEZ, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Curriculum and Instruction since September 2014 in Texas A&M Corpus Christi; previously she was a Visiting Assistant Professor and Senior Research Associate in the department of EAHR in Texas A&M University and worked in the College of Education and Human Development since 1998. She teaches doctoral courses in qualitative research and educational leadership. Dr. Gonzalez is author of 13 journal articles, seven book chapters, and 33 conference papers. Her research interests include higher education leadership, methodological issues in cross-language qualitative data analysis, women in higher education, and access and retention of underrepresented women and Latina students and faculty in STEM fields.
  • Stephen Luis
    Texas A&M
    E-mail Author
    STEPHEN LUIS is a native of the Corpus Christi area. He graduated from the University of Houston, graduating with a B.A. in Political Science. He attended graduate school at UH and was a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Office of Political Science. He received his Master Degree in Public Administration from UH. Mr. Luis is currently the center manager for the Coastal Compass Education and Career Resource Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. He assists high school students in applying for college, financial aid, and scholarships. Mr. Luis is currently in his first year of Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. His areas of research interests include social justice in education, affordability of college for minority students, and the crisis facing minority male students in achieving and graduating from higher education institutions.
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