Advocates for black students have long turned to social scientists for help. Think of Kenneth Clark's experiments with children and black and white dolls, work that was cited in Brown v. Board of Education. More recently, social scientists were mobilized to file briefs (with some success) on behalf of landmark Supreme Court decisions in 2003 that upheld affirmative action in public college admissions in some circumstances and (without success) in this year's Supreme Court decision  rejecting two school districts' use of race in school assignments.
With voters and the courts increasingly skeptical of affirmative action in college admissions, scholars gathered at the annual meeting Sunday of the American Sociological Association presented new research designed to shift the debate. The scholars, all supporters of affirmative action, said that they recognized that arguments were being shot down if based only on the lack of diversity that would result from the elimination of affirmative action. If voters are warned that ending affirmative action will result in sharp drops in black and Latino enrollments, voters (or at least white voters) will go ahead and abolish affirmative action, speakers said.
As a result, the research presented was less about the fact that eliminating affirmative action results in such enrollment shifts, but that such drops do not mean that black students (the focus of much of the discussion) have not demonstrated "merit." Robert T. Teranishi, assistant professor of higher education at New York University, said that his research was designed to counter the "blaming the victim" mentality in which he said people assume black enrollment declines suggest a lack of merit by black students.
The reality, he said, is that a new form of school segregation has taken hold in which in post-affirmative action California, the best way for a black or Latino student to get into a University of California campus is to attend a "white" high school.
Teranishi's research focuses on California high schools and the relationship between attending high schools with certain characteristics and enrolling at a University of California campus. He started by noting that while California is famous for its ethnic and racial diversity (in statewide totals), 88 percent of high schools have a racial majority of one group. Of those schools, he said, 44.7 percent have a white majority, while 43.4 percent have a black or Latino majority. But among new University of California students, 65.3 percent come from white majority schools and only 21.7 percent come from black or Latino majority schools.
From there, Teranishi presented data showing educational inequities in the different kinds of schools, such as studies showing that the greater the proportion of black and Latino students in a high school, the fewer Advanced Placement courses that are likely to be offered.
The cumulative impact of these inequities is such that minority students who are admitted to top University of California campuses are more likely to have attended white majority schools than other schools. At Berkeley, for example, 48.9 percent of the underrepresented minority students admitted attended white majority high schools, while 33.6 percent attended high schools that were black or Latino majority and 17.5 percent attended high schools without a racial majority. At the University of California at San Diego, the percentage of new black and Latino students coming from white majority high schools is 52.6 percent.
Teranishi said that such data should shake up people who think that some pure idea of merit is at play in selecting the best students for top colleges. Is it fair to tell black and Latino students, he asked, that to have a good chance at getting into UCLA or Berkeley, "they need to attend a white school"?
Walter Allen, professor of higher education at UCLA, said that what the data suggest are that admissions systems supposedly designed to favor merit are in fact systems that "protect privilege" and end up ripping off black and Latino people generally -- either as would-be students or as taxpayers. "The poor folks are subsidizing the educations of wealthy people," he said.
Another research program presented at the meeting is the Educational Diversity Project,  which involves surveys of students at 50 law schools nationwide in a new effort to determine the educational impact of having (or not having) a diverse student body in law school. Students are taking a series of surveys on demographics, educational achievement, and their path to law school and researchers are now following up with focus group interviews on their law school experience.
Early data in the project show that white law students are significantly more likely than minority students to have been raised by two parents and to have had English spoken as the primary language at home, while minority students are more likely to have experienced discrimination in college and to expect to work more hours in law school than their classmates just to keep up. Much more analysis -- especially on the experience in law school -- is expected in the next few years.
There was some disagreement about the role social scientists may play in reshaping public attitudes about affirmative action. These projects suggest a belief that the right studies can have an impact, and several audience members encouraged more such work.
But Ellis Cose, a columnist for Newsweek who has written extensively about affirmative action and race, said that it may take both good research and a new Supreme Court to change the direction of thinking about affirmative action. He noted that a who's who of prominent social scientists had backed a brief in this year's Supreme Court case, arguing that their research supported the actions of the school districts in using race to assign students to schools.
Effectively what the Supreme Court said, according to Cose, was "we don't care what social scientists think."