New York Times Room for Debate: The Supreme Court’s Decision to Hear Fisher v. Texas

We Still Have Far to Go

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/02/22/beyond-race-in-affirmative-action/we-still-have-far-to-go-in-the-quest-for-diversity-on-campus

FEBRUARY 22, 2012

Does anyone really believe that we have “moved past race” considering that American schools are more segregated along the black-white divide than when Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954? Yes, there are new categories of the historically disenfranchised, like Hispanics and Native Americans — who ought to be more visibly integrated in the quest for “diversity.” But the recognition that we need to expand the number of groups who ought to be on the playing field — or ought to have been included long ago — does not mean that underlying impediments to full citizenship have been resolved.

Fisher v. Texas is the latest in the long series of cases in which underrepresented minorities seek quality education as key to the achievement of the American dream. Consider the demographics of Texas: its population is 45 percent white, and about 40 percent black or Hispanic. Yet the University of Texas has a combined black and Hispanic population well below that of its population. While there need be no firm correlation between race and representation in institutions of higher learning, it’s also true that this de facto disparity is rooted in the long history of segregation, limited opportunity and resultant poverty. (It was only in 2010, for example, that U.T.’s Simkin dormitory, named for a Klansman, was finally rechristened.)

There is no question that the Top Ten Percent Plan has increased the numbers of black and Hispanic students, and that this has been unequivocally positive for U.T. Graduation rates have never been higher, admissions and graduation scores have never been better, and the 80 percent of students admitted under the program are, by all measures, the strongest the university has ever had.

So why should race still be something to watch and be concerned about in the admissions process? First, despite the gains, the underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics at U.T. has led to deep concern about leadership opportunities for these communities in the future.

Secondly, we need to acknowledge the race-conscious biases and anxieties lying in plain sight: the Top Ten Percent plan, while supposedly a “race blind” metric, is nevertheless being interrogated for its having worked “too well.” Larry Faulkner, former president of U.T., repeatedly expressed a desire to cap the plan at 50 percent of any incoming class, seemingly agreeing with some critics who have said the plan has delivered “enough” or even “too many” members of certain races to campus. Indeed, the supposed race-neutrality of the plan has been repeatedly evaluated for its success or failure precisely by counting the number of brown noses.

Finally, from its inception, the plan was opposed by some parents’ groups who feel that their school’s top ten percent is better than the top ten percent of students at poorer (i.e., mostly black and Hispanic) schools. Rather than that being framed as an incentive to equalize funding for all public schools, the concern has resulted in a counterproductive backlash that echoes the plaints of “reverse racism.”

In our society, class and race are interwoven so that class in this circumstance as in so many, is a fairly reliable cipher for race. For all the disingenuous hoopla, in other words, the “raceless” metrics of the Top Ten Percent Plan have never been assessed by anything less than race- as well as class-based filters.

Race matters in this culture: if we don’t learn to take it into account in sensible and fair ways, it will continue to operate insidiously within a veil of denial — whether we are dealing with a “colorblind” system like the Top Ten Plan or a more general admissions process. It permeates our lives in statistically documented ways whether we “speak it” or not. To argue that race doesn’t matter or shouldn’t be considered at all in admissions processes that are taking place in an echo-chambered world blaring with explicitly racialized competition is not merely hypocritical but foolish.

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Filed under affirmative action, education, fisher v. texas

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