WASHINGTON – A crowd of hundreds gathered at the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning, chanting in response to Karen Narasaki, vice chair for of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights:
“What do we want?”
“When are we going to get it?”
As the audience erupted into applause, one listener mumbled, “hopefully.”
Such tepid optimism characterized the rally outside the courthouse Wednesday, while the Supreme Court heard arguments in what could be a landmark case for affirmative action.
The crowd was diverse, both in race and in age, but it seemed just about everyone -- aside from each side's lawyers, who spoke more formally to reporters -- was there to defend the University of Texas at Austin and affirmative action. High school students held signs reading “Diversity equals success,” and speakers, including Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington Bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, roused the audience by proclaiming the importance of diversity and of equal access to education.
“If opportunity is jeopardized for anyone, it is jeopardized for everyone,” Saunders said.
Shelton called the movement against affirmative action an attempt to “move us backward.”
“If you think affirmative action leads to reverse discrimination, you obviously listen to Fox News a little too often,” he said, to laughter from the crowd.
A number of speakers, including students from Howard University, Western Michigan University, and the University of Texas at Austin, discussed their personal experiences with affirmative action. Sophia Zaman, vice president of the United States Student Association, talked about growing up in Cleveland and attending a predominantly white school where “no one looked like me," and then going to college in New England. Initially, Zaman was afraid to speak up in class, but she slowly began to grow comfortable interacting with a diverse group.
“We need this kind of learning environment,” she said. “We need diversity in our classrooms.”
“You see every different color possible, every different type of person,” said Alexandria Lappas, a third-year law student at Georgetown University, excited by the turnout to the rally. “It’s good that there are so many students here, too.”
Lappas and Shane Poole, a third-year law student at Howard University, attended the rally because they believe having a diverse classroom enhances the educational experience, and is better training for life. Affirmative action, they said, affects white students such as themselves just as much as students of all other racial groups. “It’s important for white students to show support,” Lappas said.
Poole reflected on his experience at Howard, a historically black university. “It’s helped me realize people are people, no matter what,” he said.
The buzz around the rally grew when arguments had wrapped up and those involved in the case began filing out of the courthouse. Curious observers moved to get a glimpse of Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff, and to hear William Powers Jr., president of UT Austin, make a statement. He said that the Texas law that lets in the top 10 percent of high school graduates doesn't do enough to diversify the student body. "You’re basically telling high school students, ‘You stumble for a second in your sophomore year … and you have no chance at getting into the University of Texas.’ ”
Fisher, who was smiling as she walked out of the Supreme Court, spoke only briefly, thanking the court for hearing her case and expressing her hope that the court will rule against affirmative action in college admissions.
Brandon Greene, a third-year law student at Boston University, was not moved by Fisher’s case. Greene, who had to miss three classes and line up at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night to hear Wednesday’s arguments, said he does not think Fisher can claim any damages from being denied admission. If affirmative action weren’t such a hot-button issue, Greene said, he does not think a case of denied college admission would ever have reached the Supreme Court.
For his part, Greene thinks affirmative action is necessary. “I represent 33 percent of the black male population in the class graduating this year,” Greene said.
He was also interested in the court’s discussion of intra-racial diversity, an argument that affirmative action supporters often make in response to calls for class-based affirmative action, which would advantage students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of race.
“I’m from the inner city,” Greene said, “so law school was the first time I encountered black people from an affluent background. That diversity was challenging at first.”
He pauses, then adds, “But the court seemed to gloss over it.”