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Arizona State Claims Segregation Never Happened—But Evidence Says Differently

Yesterday, FIRE publicly exposed a racially segregated freshman composition class for “Native Americans only” at Arizona State University (ASU). The “Rainbow Sections” of English 101 and 102, taught by Professor G. Lynn Nelson, were listed in at least two places on ASU’s website as “for Native Americans only.” FIRE pointed out that these mentions of the racial restrictions on enrollment had silently vanished from their website, but we hadn’t heard any disavowal of the requirements from ASU, so we took the case public. Today, FIRE finally received a response from Arizona State in the mail (dated September 29, postmarked October 3, and not received until today—never faxed). ASU states, in pertinent part:

Please be assured these courses are not limited to Native American students. The website of the faculty member who teaches these courses has been changed to reflect the long-standing practice of admitting any student who seeks admittance into these courses…. Again, I want to assure you that ASU does afford equal opportunity to all students and assures that all courses are open to students regardless of race, sex, age, disability, and the other categories protected by law and ASU policy.

Hooray! A happy ending, right? Ah, if only we could believe them. First of all, this doesn’t make much logical sense. ASU’s website informed people in at least two different places that the “Rainbow Sections” were exclusively for Native American students, and while the flyer for the class doesn’t come right out and say it (unlike the websites), it’s hard to read it any other way. In order to believe ASU’s story, one must believe that Professor Nelson, who taught the classes, didn’t know that his class enrollment wasn’t actually restricted to Native Americans, and that no fellow faculty member or administrator noticed this on his website. This seems unlikely in the extreme. As usual, though, you don’t have to take FIRE’s word for it—we have the documents to back it up. FIRE was curious about how long Professor Nelson had been teaching a racially segregated class at ASU, and the first thing we did was use the search function of ASU’s own website. It took all of ten seconds to come up with this article from the Summer 1997 newsletter of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center at ASU. Here’s what we found:

First Year Comp - For Native Americans Only At the beginning of each semester, G. Lynn Nelson, Associate Professor of English at Arizona State University, brings his students to the Labriola Center for an orientation to the library and introduction to the variety of material available to help them with their assignments. This is not a typical English class, however. Nelson has designed a unique program exclusively for Native Americans. He calls it the “Rainbow Section.”…

“For Native Americans Only”? “[E]xclusively for Native Americans”? In 1997? How long has this been going on? We decided to do some more checking, this time courtesy of the Internet Archive’s invaluable “Wayback Machine.” You can’t search through the text of every page in the Wayback Machine, but you can look at specific web pages from the past. We searched for a certain webpage of the English Education department at ASU and found class descriptions for the “Rainbow Sections” of English 101 and 102. What did we find?

  • 2001: ENG 101, 102 (For Native Americans only)
  • 2002: ENG 101, 102 (For Native Americans only)
  • 2003: ENG 101, 102 (For Native Americans only)
  • 2004: ENG 101, 102 (For Native Americans only)

The formatting of the page changed significantly during this period, so it’s clear that the page wasn’t just left up as an afterthought (you can check the results for yourself at the Internet Archive here; just click on the page links and then click “Native Images” or on the faculty page for G. Lynn Nelson). FIRE leaves the reader to determine whether this can be reconciled with ASU’s claim of a “long-standing practice of admitting any student who seeks admittance into these courses.” In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the racial restriction on that class hasn’t existed for at least eight years. And unless ASU is a university at which students sign up for a class directly with the professor (which would be truly unusual), ASU’s administration had to be part of the effort to enforce the racial restriction. So why didn’t ASU tell the truth in its letter to FIRE, especially if it was planning to abandon the racial restriction anyway (once it got caught, of course)? Probably because its administration didn’t believe that anyone would really do the research and find out that legal segregation has flourished on its campus for at least the last eight years. This brazenness is shocking, especially considering that a 2002 letter from FIRE got ASU to drop racial restrictions on a Navajo history class. Are there other classes with similar restrictions just waiting to be discovered? Arizona’s students and taxpayers not only deserve but are guaranteed better respect for their fundamental rights from Arizona State University. This is truly a scandal, but, so far at least, ASU doesn’t even seem to understand that.

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