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Affirmative on Affirmative Action
With key Supreme Court case in the offing, social scientists defend college admissions policies that consider race.
Race-blind admissions policies would harm students from all racial and ethnic groups, a group of scholars who support affirmative action argued Thursday, less than two weeks before the Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could change the landscape of admissions dramatically.
“Race-neutral policies simply do not work at the same level affirmative action does,” said Stella Flores, an assistant professor in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Leadership, Policy & Organizations.
Flores spoke as part of a briefing by the American Educational Research Association, held to discuss the science behind its amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in college admissions in the Fisher v. University of Texas case.
All of that science can be found on AERA’s website, where publishers have provided free access to the numerous studies that back AERA’s brief. In past affirmative action cases -- and in cases involving race and education going back to Brown v. Board of Education – social science research has played an important role, and AERA hopes that will once again be the case. Of course, the other side has research to back its argument, too, some of which was presented last week at the Brookings Institution.
The case, which the Supreme Court will hear next month, was filed in 2008 by a white woman, Abigail Fisher, who was rejected from the University of Texas at Austin. In her lawsuit against the university, Fisher asserts that the university’s use of race in its admissions decisions is unconstitutional.
There are two major questions the court will have to consider, according to Angelo Ancheta, the lead lawyer on the AERA amicus brief and an associate clinical professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law. The first is whether promoting diversity on campus is a compelling government issue -- Thursday’s speakers all believe it is -- and the second is whether Texas’ policy is narrowly tailored to achieve a specific end.
In the most recent case challenging the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the Supreme Court decided that the University of Michigan’s law school, the defendant, did have a narrowly tailored policy designed to address a compelling government interest, and so was allowed to consider race in admissions. (The court ruled against Michigan in a parallel case involving the university's main undergraduate college.) Diversity on campus, the court ruled, was of critical importance, and as long as the school’s admissions policy considered race as one of many aspects of a student’s application, without quotas or hard-line decisions based strictly on race, the process was constitutional.
The Texas case is slightly different, however, because Texas has a program that guarantees university admission to all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Some argue that that policy is sufficient to create a diverse student body. If the court decides that is the case, the University of Texas will have a tough time arguing that affirmative action in admissions is necessary.
But AERA and the brief’s co-signers – the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Sociological Association, the American Statistical Association, the Association for the Study of Higher Education, the Law and Society Association, the Linguistic Society of America, and the National Academy of Engineering -- say the 10-percent program does not create adequate diversity on campus, and they are turning to social science to back their view.
Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles and a professor of education, law and political science, said Texas has the ideal conditions for a percent plan: high schools that are largely segregated because of neighborhood demographics, graduates who generally stay in-state for college, and universities that are made up mostly of in-state students. Still, he said, the minority representation numbers were not the same at Texas during the period when it was using race-blind admissions policies. For example, during that time, Latino students made up 15 percent, on average, of UT-Austin’s entering class, while 31 percent of the state’s high school graduates were Latino.
If Texas cannot make it work, Orfield said, it would be difficult for other universities, not to mention graduate and professional schools, to enroll diverse student bodies without considering race. He warned about the potential implications of a court decision favoring Fisher.
“We’re going to be making decisions about the whole country based on the application of one white woman to one campus,” he said.
The speakers repeatedly cited California’s major public universities, which have seen a significant drop in minority enrollment since the state banned race-conscious admissions policies. Between 1997 and 1998, for example, the number of African-American freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley fell by 53 percent, while Latino enrollment fell 45 percent. The president and chancellors of the University of California have also filed an amicus brief on behalf of the defendant, which can be found, along with all the other amicus briefs, on the University of Texas website.
Those who side with the plaintiff argue that there are other ways of ensuring diversity, like looking at income and other socioeconomic factors. Many also argue that affirmative action marginalizes the groups it is meant to serve, by stigmatizing them or putting them in situations where they might not be prepared to succeed.
Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which is handling the suit on Fisher's behalf, writes: “Since they were introduced, racial and ethnic preferences have been divisive: They stigmatize recipients, unfairly punish better-qualified individuals, and pit Americans against one another. With this kind of affirmative action, it is not possible that one group can be preferred without another being disadvantaged.”
The focus, Blum says, should be on ensuring equal opportunity, not on creating “parity between the races.” He also points to research that shows that students admitted to universities because of their racial background don’t succeed at the same rates as other students.
But Thursday’s speakers emphasized that most of the research is on the side of affirmative action, and said revoking the policy would not allow for equal opportunity.
“Race matters in America,” said UC Riverside Assistant Provost William Kidder. “At the end of the day, that’s an unavoidable fact.”
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