Voters in Michigan in November approved a proposal to ban affirmative action in the admissions process at state universities. Similar bans have previously won approval in California and Washington State. Various student groups opposed to the ban have filed suit; critics of affirmative action are looking to mount challenges in other states. Affirmative action has always been a politically sensitive issue but it is not the only issue in achieving equality in higher education. As the legal challenges to the Michigan ban work their way through the courts and spread to other states, now is a good time to address another sensitive, and maybe even more important issue: equality in college performance.
Most colleges provide the public with very little information about racial and ethnic differences in students’ grades and graduation rates. Nor do they provide much information about the effectiveness of their diversity programs. So what should prospective minority students and their parents expect after being accepted? Unfortunately, the answer is that race and ethnicity are important predictors of college performance. Recent research confirms that white and Asian students not only enjoy pre-college advantages in family income and school quality, but on average, they also benefit throughout their college experience in ways that black and Latino students do not.
For example, in the 2001 Duke University entering class, freshman grades were on average lower among blacks and Latinos than they were for whites and Asian Americans. Black-white differences narrowed, but remained significant, even among students with similar family structures, social class backgrounds, middle and high school characteristics, and SAT scores.
Why do these racial and ethnic disparities continue? One explanation is stereotype threat; when race or ethnicity is emphasized in academic situations, minority academic performance declines. The core argument is that minority students underperform because they are trying so hard to avoid confirming pernicious stereotypes. However, when excellence is emphasized, the stereotype threat is deactivated and racial and ethnic performance differences fade or disappear. (An excellent "Frontline" interview with Claude Steele explores this issue.)
In addition, there is also evidence that racial and ethnic disparities in college success are due to differences in students’ social and information networks. From parents, peers, staff, and faculty, students get a range of information, such as which courses to take, and the best path to a desired career. They also learn behaviors, such as how to balance social and academic demands on their time. Students who have families with a long history of college attendance are more likely to have access to information about college, and to relevant role models. Due to historical racial disparities, differences in access to these social and information resources tend to correlate with race and ethnicity.
Although these findings may be surprising to many people, they are not news to many in higher education. We have long known that we cannot simply admit diverse cohorts and expect that there will be no group differences in college performance. For decades, colleges have conducted a range of programs designed to increase comfort, skills, and connections among minority students, and to make campuses more receptive to traditionally underrepresented groups.
At Colgate University, Breaking Bread requires members of disparate student groups to plan, prepare, and eat a meal together. By the end of the meal, the groups must have identified a collaborative campus event. Last year, the College Republicans and the Rainbow Alliance combined to bring Andrew Sullivan, a conservative gay-rights advocate, to campus. A strength of Breaking Bread is that it uses everyday activities -- preparing and eating a meal, as an opportunity to build bridges between groups that tend to have very little to do with one another.
Another noteworthy program is the Summer Institute for Diversity and Unity at Hamilton College, where faculty members spend three days off campus engaged in discussion groups about diversity. Participants use the experience to create new course syllabi, or to revise syllabi for existing courses. Over the past three summers, nearly 20 percent of the full-time faculty at Hamilton have participated in the program. This initiative promises a substantial impact on the campus climate because diversity discussions now appear throughout the curriculum, not just in a few courses.
However, these innovative and successful diversity programs are the exception rather than the rule. One reason that colleges don’t provide more information on their diversity programs may be that the programs are not properly evaluated. Far too many programs persist today because key administrators merely believe they work or are reluctant to ask hard questions about politically sensitive programs. This is troubling because the minority students of today are substantially more diverse than minority students in the 1980s. Without rigorous assessment, we cannot know if programs designed 20 years ago are effective for today’s students, or that the programs designed today will be effective for the students of the future.
It is imperative that colleges and universities scrutinize their diversity goals, programs, and outcomes. As with affirmative action, such examination is sure to produce a number of uncomfortable confrontations. Nevertheless, colleges and universities have a responsibility to take on this challenge. The parents who trust us with their children, and the students who trust us with their futures, deserve nothing less.
David R. Harris
David Harris is vice provost for the social sciences at Cornell University. He, along with a team from Cornell and Colgate Universities and Hamilton, Hobart and William Smith, and Wells Colleges co-authored "Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in College Completion and Achievement," which was commissioned by the Teagle Foundation. A podcast of Teagle Foundation President W. Robert Connor, president of the foundation, interviewing Professor Harris about the report is available here.
There was a national sigh of relief on campuses in June when an altered U.S. Supreme Court left standing the historic 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision supporting affirmation action in admissions. There had been widespread fear among civil rights advocates that a more conservative Supreme Court would seriously undermine or even reverse the 5-4 Grutter decision with its author, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, no longer on the Court. The voluntary school integration decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education was, indeed, a serious reversal for desegregation in K-12 schools but while divided on the constitutionality of the school plans at issue in the cases, all nine justices agreed that the decision had no impact on the Grutter precedent. The rights of colleges to use race in admissions decisions for student body diversity had survived scrutiny by the most conservative Supreme Court in more than 70 years. Since the Supreme Court rarely takes such cases, the Grutter precedent might last for a while. While a bullet was dodged, optimism should be restrained. The dike protecting affirmative action has held but the river that brings diverse groups of students to colleges may be drying up as a result of the latest decision.
Colleges and universities, especially selective institutions, tend to draw their successful minority applicants from interracial schools and their admissions offices know well that many of the segregated minority high schools fail to prepare their students well enough to succeed in college. Research by the Civil Rights Project has shown that too many segregated urban high schools are "dropout factories" where the main product is dropouts and successful preparation for college is rare. Conservative economist Eric Hanushek found that the damage was worst for the relatively high achieving black students, the very students likely to comprise the college eligible pool. So making segregation worse cuts the number of well prepared students. In addition to academic preparation, students from segregated backgrounds are also often not ready to function socially on a largely white, affluent campus. It also means of course, that the most segregated group of students in American schools, whites, also have less preparation to deal successfully with diversity. So colleges may have won, but also lost.
Even before the new decision, segregation had been on the rise for almost two decades in American public schools, partially as a result of three decisions by the Supreme Court limiting desegregation in the 1990s ( Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, Freeman v. Pitts and Missouri v. Jenkins). Because this new decision struck down the most common methods of creating integrated schools in districts without court orders to desegregate, it will likely precipitate further increases in segregation. Since 1980 the tools most commonly used to create integrated schools combine parental choice of schools with magnet programs and racial diversity guidelines. Now the limitations that prevented transfers and magnet choices that increased segregation are gone and districts have to decide whether to do something more complex and multidimensional or abandon their integration efforts. It remains to be seen what will happen in various districts, of course, but the experience of other districts that have ended the consideration of race as a criteria in their student assignment policies suggests that race-neutral methods will lead to resegregation and growing inequality.
Research thus suggests that there are two significant implications for higher education to consider. First, rising segregation is likely to bring a rise in educational inequality and less prepared black and Latino students. Second, all incoming students are likely to have fewer interracial experiences prior to attending college meaning they will be less prepared for effective functioning in an interracial setting.
The Seattle and Louisville cases produced an outpouring of summaries of a half century of research by a number of groups of scholars. A subsequent review of the briefs by the non-partisan National Academy of Education confirms the central premise of Brown v. Board of Education that racially isolated minority schools offer students an inferior education, which is likely to harm their future life opportunities, such as graduation from high school and success in college. Racially isolated minority schools are often unequal to schools with higher percentages of white students in terms of tangible resources, such as qualified, experienced teachers and college preparatory curriculum, and intangible resources including low teacher turnover and more middle-class peers -- all of which are associated with positive higher educational outcomes.
Although colleges and universities differ in their criteria and process for admissions, common elements to their admissions decisions for students include 1) whether a student has or will graduate from high school, 2) standardized test scores, and 3) number of advanced and Advanced Placement courses. Research consistently finds that minority students graduate at significantly lower rates in racially isolated minority schools; in fact, minority isolation is a significant predictor of low graduation rates, even when holding constant the effects of other school performance indicators. Academic achievement scores of students are also lower in segregated minority schools, and this effect can cumulate over time for students who spend multiple years attending segregated schools. Finally, many predominantly minority schools do not offer as extensive advanced curricular opportunities and levels of academic competition as do majority white or white and Asian schools.
In addition to offering different opportunities for academic preparation, research has also found that integrated schools offer minority students important connections to competitive higher education and information about these options. There are strong ties between successful high schools and selective colleges. Minority students who graduate from integrated schools are more likely to have access to the social and professional networks normally available to middle class white students. For example, a study of Latino students who excelled at elite higher educational institutions found that most students had attended desegregated schools -- and gained academic confidence as well as critical knowledge about what they need to do to accomplish their aspirations (e.g., which courses to take from other, college-going students).
White students also lose if schools resegregate. Desegregation advocates assert that public school desegregation is powerful and essential because desegregated schools better prepare future citizens for a multiracial society. A critical component of this preparation is gaining the skills to work with people of diverse backgrounds. Segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods leave white as well and nonwhite students ill-prepared for what they will encounter in colleges and university classes or in their dorms.
Over 50 years ago, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that one of the essential conditions to reducing prejudice was that people needed to be in contact with one another, particularly under appropriate conditions. Research in racially integrated schools confirms that, by allowing for students of different races and ethnicities to be in contact with one another, students can develop improved cross-racial understanding and experience a reduction of racial prejudice and bias. Importantly, research suggests that other interventions such as studying about other groups are not as effective or as long-lasting as actually being in contact with students of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.
Research on graduates of racially integrated elementary and secondary schools has also found that students who graduated from these settings felt their integrated schooling experiences had better prepared them for college, including being more interested in attending integrated higher education institutions. The Civil Rights Project has surveyed high school juniors in a number of major school systems around the country and students in more diverse schools report feeling more comfortable living and working with others of different backgrounds than did their peers in segregated high schools.
As schools become more segregated, it will become more incumbent on colleges and universities to intensify their outreach and retention programs to improve access for all students, and to consider the extra burdens borne by the victims of segregation who have done nothing to deserve unequal opportunities. In particular, it will be critically important for colleges and universities to continue to use race in their outreach and retention programs. As colleges and universities that have sought to defend affirmative action policies have long understood and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently wrote, “The enduring hope is that race should not matter, the reality is that too often it does.” Further, the need to help students understand how to productively live with others from diverse backgrounds will fall to higher education. As other institutions retreat from mirroring the racial diversity of our country, this may increasingly become a responsibility universities must shoulder.
Our incoming students already have more limited interracial experiences than the last generation of students, a trend that is likely to only get worse. We hope that many school districts will continue to value integration and seek more comprehensive policies under the new guidelines set forth in Justice Kennedy's controlling opinion, but it is very likely that segregation will worsen. We believe that university faculty and researchers who may have expertise to assist local school districts find legal and workable solutions to maintain diversity should offer support at this critical time. Universities can also take a public leadership and education role in continuing to argue for the importance of integrated educational settings. These actions could help limit some of the ill effects of the resegregation of local schools and help keep alive the legacy of Brown in a period of judicial retreat.
Gary Orfield, Erica Frankenberg and Liliana M. Garces
Gary Orfield is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Erica Frankenberg and Liliana M. Garces are doctoral candidates at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and research assistants at the Civil Rights Project. Orfield and Frankenberg are co-editors of a recently published book, Lessons in Integration: Realizing the Promise of the Racial Diversity in American Schools (University of Virginia Press). Garces, formerly a civil rights lawyer, served as counsel of record in the 553 Social Scientists brief submitted in support of the desegregation plans in the Seattle and Louisville cases.
When we were in college some 40 years ago, neither of us ever had an African-American or Latino professor. Unfortunately, even today many students at major American research universities have the same experience. Departments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- the STEM fields -- are typically the least diverse. Not only is that situation dismaying for those of us who lived through the civil rights movement, but it is also a big policy problem for our country.
At a time when STEM fields are increasingly important to our national security, health, and competitiveness we are neither supporting the research nor producing the diverse pool of scientists and engineers we need to fuel our future.
Programs to broaden the pool of STEM students are being scrutinized, and some have been eliminated. Beyond the obvious logic of numbers -- the more people in a field, the more likely it is that talented practitioners will appear -- research suggests that a diversity of perspectives enriches science and makes engineering more responsive to a global pool of clients. For example, Anthony Lising Antonio, et al. reported on a study of college-student discussion groups in an August 2004 issue of Psychological Science. According to the research, students working in a more diverse group setting were influenced by the different perspectives of minority participants and demonstrated enhanced complex thought processes as a result.
This is especially relevant in the STEM fields, where students are often required to work collaboratively and where thinking about a problem in new and different ways is central to developing solutions. In a friend-of-the-court brief pertaining to the Supreme Court cases on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, DuPont, IBM, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering submitted an argument documenting that "the importance of diversity is heightened in the fields of science and engineering."
As an engine of our economy, the STEM disciplines and the diversity of that workforce should give us great pause. Although only 5 percent of American workers were employed in STEM occupations as of 2006, their impact on the national and global economies is disproportionately large.
In both academe and the workforce, those fields look the least like America, with much smaller proportions of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. Although the overall student population has become more diverse, at the undergraduate level members of these minority groups are underrepresented among all STEM majors, with women underrepresented in many STEM fields. At the graduate level, there is an additional problem: a declining percentage of U.S. citizens. In many departments of physics, computer science, and engineering, it is difficult to find a graduate student who is a U.S. citizen. Across the STEM fields, the situation for faculty members is even more dire.
To achieve better representation in our colleges' STEM departments, we must deal with three issues.
First, we must clearly articulate the educational case for diversity, showing how students and society benefit from it. After that, we can determine how best to reach diversity: What policies should be altered, what practices endorsed, what structural changes made, and what resources committed? In biomedical research, for instance, we must not assume that whites and males are typical of all patients and develop treatments only for them; when scientists who are not white males are present, that assumption is more likely to be challenged.
Second, we need to think more holistically about diversity in STEM, including the need for everyone on our campuses -- undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty and staff members -- to be exposed to diverse ideas and worldviews. For example, in the high-tech industry, the composition of work teams now mirrors the consumer market for company products. No such practices pervade STEM units on campus, although research in many areas ultimately impacts consumers, and many students and faculty will someday operate in the private sector. To reach this goal, we may need to re-examine functions like admissions, financial aid, and faculty recruitment and advancement. What are the criteria by which decisions are made in each case? By reassigning accountability for those functions to a central office, promising and creative practices can be shared throughout the institution, with rewards for STEM units that are diversifying. A campus-wide repository of data, as well as college-specific tools, for monitoring and managing levels of diversity, is essential. Innovative examples can be found in many universities -- Harvard University on faculty searches, the University of California at Berkeley on undergraduate support, Georgia Tech on promotion and tenure -- which honor excellence while seeking to diversify participation in STEM education and careers.
Third, we must acknowledge that stereotypes still matter, and that they affect perceptions of quality and expectations for performance -- regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Studies show that humans use irrelevant external cues and group attributes in our judgments of people -- noting, for example, the race or ethnicity of a doctor before evaluating the extent of her medical knowledge. Assuming that diversity on a campus is just the result of affirmative action or special pleading reveals a different kind of bias. The Supreme Court has ruled that although colleges can consider race/ethnicity as one factor in developing policies such considerations may not carry undue weight relative to other aspects of individual qualifications. Opponents of affirmative-action programs can always claim that their emphasis on group characteristics -- race and sex -- override the required focus on individual characteristics. It seems illogical to operate special programs for the numerical majority -- women and members of minority groups. But special programs remain a valuable source of “intelligence” in guiding the transition to institution-wide approaches. Only leaders, including presidents and trustees, can begin institutional transformation in support of diversity. Though such broad change needs to start at the top, it must also be embraced and carried out at all levels.
So-called race-neutral programs -- created in response to new laws that undercut the use of affirmative action or consider socio-economic status as a proxy for race and ethnicity -- are increasingly advocated by the federal government. But they cannot be the only policy tool used to right that moral wrong. Instead, we must move toward strategies to transform an entire institution -- to serve the needs of all students and faculty members, regardless of discipline, not just those with certain characteristics. Even those who decry affirmative action should applaud an institution-wide approach that gives students what they need to succeed. Yet, this is not the same as providing “equal” treatment.
Judicial retreat on diversity in primary and secondary education is making it more difficult to diversify institutions of higher education. For example, in spring 2007 the Supreme Court struck down voluntary local strategies to desegregate schools in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky. The rulings asserted that American society is color blind and the playing field is level -- assertions that are both naïve and self-deceptive.
Americans born with the “right” sex, race, or social class still receive advantages at birth. And residence patterns can compound those advantages, as some public schools have the money to buy new technology and hire seasoned educators while others do not. Data from the College Board show that SAT scores are closely linked with zip codes. In the words of Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “At virtually every level, education in America tends to perpetuate rather than compensate for existing inequalities.” She notes, “It takes about five generations for the advantages and disadvantages of family background to die out in the United States.”
Meanwhile, the fact remains that the United States is already importing talent and outsourcing technical jobs. Although that may make sense for our society in the short run, it is risky policy in the long run. Sooner or later, a white male science, engineering, or medical-school graduate will sue his alma mater -- not because he was denied admission to a special program, but because his education in a homogeneous environment left him ill equipped to function in his chosen career. His lack of cultural competence will have impaired his contributions to the productivity of a diverse team, to satisfy a diverse client market, or to treat a diverse group of patients.
Let us not deceive ourselves. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education may be in danger in the courts, and thus race-based affirmative action may no longer represent a viable national strategy for providing educational opportunity to all Americans. But our colleges and universities have an obligation to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to a racially and ethnically diverse group of U.S. citizens -- for our own good.
Daryl E. Chubin and Shirley M. Malcom
Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shirley M. Malcom is head of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs.
Since the passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, the University of California has faced a statewide ban on considering race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. Recently, a political science professor at the university’s Los Angeles campus charged the institution with “cheating on admissions” by quietly considering information revealed about candidates’ race in their application essays – an act he deems illegal under Proposition 209. In an 89-page document, Timothy Groseclose describes how the institution refused to provide him with 1,000 application files to test his theory that African American candidates were being granted undue favoritism in the admissions process.
The questions Professor Groseclose raised accentuate key flaws in the world’s understanding of how colleges admit students – and especially about the false belief that race can easily be removed from the process.
As my colleagues often say, admissions is more of an art than a science. In his argument, Groseclose plays up the fact that average SAT scores and high school grade-point averages differ by racial and ethnic groups. In most cases, decisions do not boil down to quotas or points systems (which were effectively outlawed by the Supreme Court in Bakke and Gratz). What he neglects is the inherent role of human judgment -- the subjective backbone of the admissions process. To my knowledge, no college or university aspires to break the law. But when the law is ambiguous – which has been a recurring theme of affirmative action court rulings over the past 30 years – it becomes easy to imagine violations where none exist.
While Groseclose claims to be a supporter of affirmative action and policies that aim to increase institutional diversity, his argument is that using information about race revealed in candidates’ essays decries UCLA as a criminal organization. Some critics of affirmative action, such as Ward Connerly (former University of California regent and author of Proposition 209, the statewide ban on affirmative action) want to eliminate all mention of race in any applications.
These critiques raise a simple question: How can we ask applicants not to make any mention of race in their application? Do we specify that students are not permitted to talk about celebrating certain holidays? Can we ask them not to discuss trips to visit family outside the United States for it may tip us off to their racial background? If someone is the head of a high school’s Black Student Union, must she leave it off her list of extracurriculars? Is it not discriminatory to state that mention of learning empanada recipes from Mom cannot be included?
And even if we enforce such restrictions, a more complex question emerges: How far must we go to avoid “illegal activity” when attempting to make the best possible decisions for all applicants? Race can appear in more than just a personal narrative. Will we then be asked to disregard students’ names? Their hometowns? Their high schools? Their parents’ alma maters? Will staff and alumni interviewers need to conduct conversations from behind a screen? With all the blacked-out lines, we will be forced to admit only what we can see – test scores and grades as opposed to artists, scholars, and engaged citizens and people whose backgrounds aren't the same as those who have enrolled in higher education for generations.
While some of these constraints may sound extreme, it is time to acknowledge that eradicating race from the admissions process is not as clear cut as some might believe. In states like California, Michigan, and others where affirmative action has been outlawed, admissions officers need some middle ground. If students reveal elements of their personal background in their essays, or if their names, high schools, or hometowns hint at a particular racial/ethnic group, that information is important – just as important as information on students’ grades and test scores. As long as these institutions have compelling race-neutral reasons for admitting the student, there are no racial preferences at play, and no violation at hand. In addition, colleges and universities should be at liberty to consider personal qualities – such as academic success in the wake of economic or social hardship – that may be associated with, but not necessarily linked to, students’ racial background.
In court rooms and living rooms across America, there is an electrified buzz about the “unfair” nature of considering race as a factor in college admissions. Despite ample research highlighting the academic and social benefits of attending a racially diverse institution made possible by affirmative action, it’s not the benefit but the fairness that is relentlessly called into question.
But here’s a little something to halt the noise: college admissions can’t always be fair. Is it fair that a student with C’s gets into an Ivy League school because his father is a trustee? How about the lacrosse player with SAT scores 300 points below the institution’s average? The daughter of a politician? The Republican at a liberal arts institution? As described by Lee Coffin , dean of admission and enrollment management at Tufts University, each of those students could be viewed as a case of “affirmative action.” So perhaps instead of reopening historical wounds, we should let admissions officers do what they do best: craft a talented and diverse class for that particular institution at that particular point in time. If social justice is what Ward Connerly was after in writing Proposition 209 and Tim Groseclose is after in trying to uphold it, removing race from college applications can only heal the runny nose that has plagued America for decades. To cure the cold, it is the deeper cause – persistent societal racism – that needs to be treated. And in an ironic twist, there has been no right answer to that problem either. But I’m not so convinced we should remove its checkbox.
Julie Vultaggio is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination marks a historic occasion in America. Assuming she is confirmed, being the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court will cause enormous cultural ripple effects. Just as the aspiration to become president became more authentic for black children who witnessed Barack Obama’s election, Sotomayor’s confirmation will provide inspiration for young Latinos to dream big. But we must tread lightly.
Many try to use Obama’s election to declare the country to be in a “post-racial era” – a fact apparently confirmed by the election of a black man, proving that racism and discrimination are behind us. If we’re not careful, Sotomayor’s confirmation could be used by some as evidence that the educational system is fine and provides all with equal opportunity to attain the American dream.
The reality, of course, is more complex.
Public discourse over the meaning of Sotomayor’s nomination has in recent weeks become a convenient vehicle for some to debate affirmative action. This debate cuts two ways. While some use Sotomayor's nomination to claim we have leveled the playing field and reached a post-racial era, there is also a vocal contingent accusing her of being racist and of being too pro-affirmative action. The fervor caused by her statements about the contributions of a "wise Latina," or the troubling lack of Latino faculty members in her own education is a potent reminder of how unwilling we all are to engage in a constructive discussion about the role and significance of race and ethnicity in American society. I plan to join this debate and make the case in a future essay about the utility of affirmative action policies and practices. We must be willing to engage in real discussions about how race and ethnicity can describe us, not divide us.
The Latino population in the United States -- Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Central American and others -- is the youngest and fastest growing segment of an increasingly diverse United States. But we are still disproportionately poor and undereducated. Nowhere is the division between Latinos and other ethnic groups starker than when it comes to achievement in higher education. Research, as well as personal experience, shows that race and ethnicity do matter. In fact, paying attention to differences while working to engage and serve all Americans is the hallmark of the most effective higher education reform efforts. But while our country has witnessed a steady increase in college participation rates for Latino students, up almost 25 percent between 2000 and 2004 according to the U.S. Department of Education, completion rates for Latino students have barely changed in three decades.
That’s not due to lack of desire: A recent survey sponsored by Oppenheimer Funds Inc., "College Within Reach," shows that Hispanic Americans are strongly committed to a college education as a part of fulfilling the America dream. In fact, 61 percent of Hispanic parents agreed that Obama's rise to the presidency "proves that a good education makes anything possible." In a floundering economy, however, only a small percentage is able to save up enough to make that dream a reality.
Sotomayor, who from humble beginnings in the South Bronx went on to excel at Princeton University as an undergraduate and at Yale University’s law school, is an extraordinary striver. She will be, and should be, an inspiration for young Latinos and Latinas -- in fact, for all young people. She is exceptional and the exception. We must not allow recognition of her achievements to mask the challenges faced by Latinos across this country for whom an Ivy League education is out of reach.
Nor should she be attacked for being mindful of the range of unique experience she brings to the Supreme Court as a Latina. Society is strengthened when leadership in the White House and state houses, in corporate boardrooms and federal and state courtrooms, and on campuses and in classrooms more fully reflects and acknowledges the challenges of the least well served of our population.
The opportunity for America lies in harnessing the potential of our young Latino population and helping them – and as a result, the nation – to thrive. This is not simply an issue of good will but a matter of necessity. Today, 37 percent of the more than 40 million Latinos in this country are under 20 years of age. By 2020, Latinos will make up 22 percent of the nation’s college-age population, according to demographic estimates today. The critical question is whether Latinos will actually reach college and, once there, succeed.
We need an expanded, educated workforce to manage the jobs of the future, but America’s workforce is increasingly falling behind the pack, becoming less skilled and less competitive. According to a 2007 report, while 30 years ago the United States could claim 30 percent of the world’s population of college students, that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to decline.
The coincidence of a Latino population boom and a projected American workforce unprepared for high-skill jobs of the future is sometimes described as a crisis and used to forecast the end of U.S. economic dominance. But that’s a skewed picture. There are many benefits to a booming U.S. Latino population comprised of ambitious, hard working individuals, simply waiting to be tapped. "Latinos have saved our country," argues Ken Gronbach, author of The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm. "They represent 14 percent of the population but 25 percent of live births. The United States is the only Western industrialized nation with a fertility rate above the 2.2 percent replacement rate." Latino growth spurs the economy, contributes to keeping the Social Security system solvent, and will help prop up the real-estate market once the economy begins to recover.
But Latinos can do more than revive markets and pay for aging baby boomers — we can produce more extraordinary teachers, scientists and judges. Those concerned with the development of America’s human capital, as well as those who advocate on behalf of underserved Latino communities nationwide, can agree on one thing: Education, and particularly higher education, is, and has always been, the most promising pathway to a brighter future.
A new report from Excelencia in Education, Leading in a Changing America:Presidential Perspectives from Hispanic-Serving Institutions, shows how some colleges and universities have found innovative ways to significantly increase the successful participation of “nontraditional” students: those who are part-time, lower-income, commuting, older and students of color. Most Hispanic students fit these categories, and they thrive with culturally relevant support and scheduling that addresses the realities of their lives.
These institutions are front runners as the country is nearing a paradigm shift in education. Many colleges and universities still don’t adequately meet the needs of a large percentage of the Latino college-age population. If Latino college degree production does not improve, the country’s projections for college degree production will not improve. Where will that leave us in 2050, when Latinos are predicted to be a fourth of the population?
Responding to this challenge requires keeping Latino academic expectations high for the newly arrived, as well as for Latinos who have been in this country for generations --and encouraging all to fully participate in American society. The significant numbers of Latinos in the armed services demonstrates their willingness to invest in this country. Imagine matching their commitment to this country with real access and support to earn a college degree.
By implementing strategies to help Latinos succeed in higher education, we ensure that our country remains competitive, that a greater segment of the U.S. population succeeds economically, and that we enhance the opportunity for this country to be strengthened by the outstanding abilities of those who will follow Sotomayor’s path. Already, it’s possible that somewhere in our country the first Latino – or Latina – President of the United States — sits in a classroom. This child’s potential will be fully realized when education affords him or her the best chance of achieving all that he or she dreams.
Sarita E. Brown
Sarita Brown is President of Excelencia in Education, an organization that aims to accelerate Latino higher education success.
The seemingly endless debates about the pros and cons of race-based affirmative action point to two essential conclusions. First, without denying the relevance of moral or philosophical arguments and legal principles, it is important to confront claims with empirical evidence. This is what we do in our new book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal— a study of how students’ racial and social class backgrounds are intimately intertwined with the selective college experience. We find, for instance, that:
Compared to white applicants at selective private colleges and universities, black applicants receive an admission boost that is equivalent to 310 SAT points, measured on an all-other-things-equal basis. The boost for Hispanic candidates is equal on average to 130 SAT points. Asian applicants face a 140 point SAT disadvantage.
"Descendant" black applicants (those who are in the fourth-or-higher immigrant generation and single race — to a first approximation, the descendants of the American slave population) are admitted to selective colleges at significantly higher rates than "vanguard" black candidates (students who are multiracial and/or first- or second-generation immigrants). Even so, vanguards make up close to 60 percent of all black students on private college campuses and nearly 25 percent at public universities. Vanguards represent even larger shares of black applicant pools.
We find evidence for and against a "mismatch" hypothesis. Students who are the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action are more likely to graduate, more likely to enroll in professional or graduate schools, and more likely to have higher lifetime incomes if they attend a more selective college. However, class rank at college graduation for a given student is likely to decline as college selectivity goes up. On balance, we conclude that a higher graduation rate and the other advantages of attending a more selective institution more than outweigh the potential disadvantages of lower class rank at graduation.
Doing away with racial preferences for underrepresented minority students would substantially reduce the number of such students at selective colleges. No admission policy that we have examined is able to replicate underrepresented minority student shares at selective universities if affirmative action is eliminated. This includes policies that substitute class-based for race-based affirmative action.
A second and more important conclusion is that debating the relative merits of affirmative action deflects attention away from something much more fundamental — America’s racial gap in academic achievement. Fixing the achievement gap would obviate the need for affirmative action to create racially diverse campuses. This gap is observed in the pre-college academic records of applicants in our study, and it persists among first-year students. For instance, the average SAT score among entering Asian students in the sample of competitive colleges we studied is 225 points higher (on a 1600-point scale) than the average for black students. More than three-quarters of Asian students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class, in contrast to less than one-half of black students. Academic performance in college shows similar racial disparities, whether it is measured by six-year graduation rates or by class rank.
What we see at selective colleges and universities is just the tip of the iceberg. It is symptomatic of a much broader societal phenomenon. Racial gaps in academic skills and knowledge begin to develop soon after birth. They are reflected initially in children’s inventories of vocabulary words and later in tests of math and reading. By the time of kindergarten entry, black children lag about one year behind whites. Gaps continue to grow throughout the elementary and secondary school years in a pattern of cumulative advantage and disadvantage. By 12th grade, black students on average have fallen roughly four years behind whites. Hispanic students perform slightly better than blacks but not nearly at the level of white and Asian students. The likelihood of repeating a grade, lower-track placement in high school, and graduating high school are differentiated by race in the same way. Social class differences account for some of these gaps, but the gaps remain when income and other measures of socioeconomic status are held constant.
A skeptic might reasonably ask: "How much does this really matter?" For one thing, the racial academic performance gap lies at the heart of many adult forms of social and economic inequality. What starts off as a racial gap in school readiness quickly becomes an academic achievement gap, which is followed by a graduation gap, a labor-market skills gap, a wage gap, and eventually a poverty gap. The chain of cumulative causation extends well into adulthood. Racial gaps in academic accomplishment have been linked to racial differences in educational attainment, crime, health, and family structure. There is every reason to believe that these differences in adult outcomes would be reduced if a way could be found to narrow racial performance gaps among children and adolescents.
An additional reason to be concerned is that racial gaps in academic success have implications for workforce quality and the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Poorly educated Americans face a number of growing hurdles. There are important racial and ethnic differences in the distribution of job-related skills; nearly half of all new jobs being created in the U.S. require a college degree; and the Hispanic plus non-Hispanic black share of the workforce is increasing. Added to this is the fact that global forces are putting pressure on American families with inadequate education. The end of the cold war and the integration of China, India, and the former Soviet-bloc republics into the international market-oriented, capitalist production system effectively doubled the number of workers in the global economy from about 1.5 billion in 2000 to 3 billion. Whereas unskilled U.S. workers once had to compete only with other unskilled Americans, now poorly educated Americans have to compete with unskilled, low-wage workers anywhere in the world. At the very time we need a better educated population to compete with other rapidly modernizing countries and to avoid a decline in living standards, growth in the quality of the U.S. workforce has slowed or stagnated.
The challenge facing all Americans is to identify the factors responsible for the racial academic achievement gap and close this gap as soon as possible. Time alone is an unreliable ally. Given the slow rate of convergence in black-white test outcomes over the past 30 years, it is likely to take another century to reach parity. The No Child Left Behind Act aims to eliminate the racial gap in academic achievement by the end of the 2013-14 school year, but no serious observer believes this goal will be met. Test scores have been rising for all students, but racial gaps persist. There is general agreement about the broad set of factors responsible for the achievement gap. Home environments, schools, and neighborhood conditions, among other determinants, have been implicated. But no one knows for sure how all of these factors interact or what their relative importance is. Most critically, there is no consensus on the most effective intervention strategies.
So What is to Be Done?
To address this problem, we propose in our book the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for the social and behavioral sciences — a project with the same scale, urgency, and sense of importance as the original Manhattan Project. Its aims should be twofold: (1) to identify the causes and cumulative consequences of racial gaps in academic achievement and (2) to develop concrete steps that can be taken by parents, schools, neighborhoods, and the public sector all working together to close these gaps on a nationwide scale. We should not be satisfied with demonstrated success in pilot studies on a local level.
The project we envision is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, likely on a scale previously unimagined in social or behavioral science research. It will have to monitor the lives of a large sample of children — perhaps as many as 50,000 — who are followed from birth to roughly age eighteen, or onto the first rung of their postsecondary plans. Data generated by this project will doubtless consume the time of hundreds of graduate students, faculty, and research scientists at our leading research and teaching institutions.
All Americans stand to benefit from the knowledge and action plan derived from this project, especially individuals whose life chances will be made brighter as a result. But there are several groups that have a particular stake in its success:
Higher education. As we have shown in our simulations, if black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps are closed, affirmative action policies would no longer be needed at selective colleges and universities to preserve current shares of underrepresented minority students on campus. This issue takes on greater urgency because of the 25-year sunset provision for affirmative action suggested in Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger and the realization that students going to college in 2028 will be born next year.
Corporate America. Achievement gaps impede diversity in the workplace, not only in entry-level positions but up and down the corporate ladder. All too often one finds a shrinking diversity pipeline as one looks at upper levels of management. Closing the achievement gap would help expand this pipeline.
U.S. taxpayers. Many of our public policies and programs are directed to combating the symptoms of the achievement gap, but this approach is both expensive and inefficient. Individuals with improved education and greater labor market success have higher earnings, pay more in taxes, and make fewer claims on public services.
Philanthropic sector. Identifying successful intervention strategies will give foundations concerned with child welfare and, especially, the education of children and adolescents a clearer idea of where to target resources.
The racial gap in academic performance plays a much more central role in problems that loom large today than almost anyone realizes. That is why we call this gap “the most pressing domestic issue facing the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Closing the achievement gap has the potential to do more for race relations and racial equality in this country than any other initiative currently under consideration.
Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford
Thomas J. Espenshade is professor of sociology at Princeton University. Alexandria Walton Radfordis a research associate in postsecondary education with MPR Associates Inc. in Washington.
In the early 1990s, two social psychologists conducted an experiment to see whether our society’s negative racial stereotypes affect the learning experience of students in our educational institutions. They selected a group of black and white Stanford undergraduates and gave them a test made up of items from the advanced Graduate Record Examination in literature. The students had been statistically matched for ability, and since most of them were sophomores, the GRE-based test was intentionally chosen so that it would be challenging and difficult for them.
The psychologists – Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson – wanted to see if there were differences in the way students of similar academic background but from different racial groups experienced a test that is supposed to be scientific and "objective." In particular, they wanted to see whether simple cues provided in the testing environment would affect the students’ performance. The cues they provided casually were intended to refer indirectly to negative social images; their goal was to see, in short, if negative social stereotypes were mere words, or if they had the power of sticks and stones (for a basic overview, see “Thin Ice”).
What they found was startling. When the test was given to the students as an abstract test of intellectual ability (the cue from the examiner echoing social prejudices about IQ tests), the black students in the group performed less well than the white students. When, however, they presented the same test as a study of "how certain problems are generally solved," with a clear statement that the task did not measure intellectual ability in general, the black students' performance improved dramatically and now their scores matched those of the white students.
Experiments such as this one have been carefully replicated by researchers in various countries and they consistently produce the same measurable effect – not only in the case of racial stereotypes but also those concerning gender and class. The series of experiments Steele and his colleagues conducted revealed to them that all our current beliefs about bolstering self-confidence and eliminating socially produced self-doubt are much less relevant to the learning context than we think.
Instead, what the black students revealed was that they were responding to their educational environment with "social mistrust.” “When they felt trust,” says Steele, summarizing the results of this series of experiments, the students “performed well regardless of whether we had weakened their self-confidence beforehand. And when they didn’t feel trust, no amount of bolstering of self-confidence helped." He goes on to suggest that educational policy needs to recognize how "different kinds of students may require different pedagogies of improvement."
Steele says that we need to think about “fostering racial trust” if we want to improve the educational environment for vast numbers of American college students. This proposal – and the groundbreaking research on which it is based – goes to the heart of the discussion of what we may call "the future of diversity." The proposal takes us beyond our current – perfectly justified – concern with providing more students "access" to college. It forces us to think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.
Social trust or mistrust are not merely attitudinal matters, to be left up to those who are affected by them, that is, the students; trust and mistrust – as we see in the case of the cues provided in the psychology experiments – are produced by our actions as teachers and administrators, and they reveal much more than our personal intentions as individuals. As many have argued in recent decades, trust is a social achievement and it takes us beyond our contractual obligations to be legally fair. Trust and mistrust are often defining characteristics of the environment in which we all live and function, and they can exist even in the absence of overt discrimination. So the real question is whether our students experience our educational institutions as being trustworthy.
Far from being content with recruiting greater numbers of socially underprivileged students, staff, and faculty, we need to see the ideal of social trust as a positive challenge to re-imagine the culture of our campuses, to envision a culture that will be more conducive to learning precisely because it is more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experiences of different social groups. Diversity needs to be conceptualized not only from the perspective of access (admissions, recruitment, financial aid, etc.) but also – and equally importantly – from the perspective of the campus as a learning environment for different kinds of learners.
A forthcoming volume, TheFuture of Diversity: Academic Leaders Reflect on American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan) contains essays by academic leaders from a variety of American institutions on both these perspectives – access and the culture of learning. How do we broaden access to more kinds of social groups? How do we make our campuses more genuinely inclusive? How do we conceive social diversity as a valuable educational resource, rather than a problem to be managed or solved? How, finally, do we replace the mistrust many feel – and the inequality of access, opportunity, and experience it points to – with the kind of social trust on which all learning, and indeed the very ideal of democracy, depends? These are big and general questions, and the prominent academics who have contributed to this volume – university and foundation presidents, deans, leading scholars -- address them by drawing in part on their own specific experiences. They review what we have all learned from recent history – from the Supreme Court’s verdict on the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action to experiments on various campuses involving students from different cultural backgrounds – and they make concrete proposals for the future.
One of the challenges is to imagine a diverse campus as a valuable and unique learning environment, one that is in effect a social laboratory of sorts. Nancy Cantor – president of Syracuse University and former provost of the University of Michigan (during the critical period when the recent Supreme Court cases were being prepared) -- argues that university campuses have a special role to play in building the future of our multicultural and diverse society. Cantor argues that "healthy group dynamics" are critical "if we are to open up our institutions (and the power within them and conferred by them) and transcend the destructive fault lines of our society, thereby building the capacity for – and trust in – democratic culture beyond the campus." Cantor’s central point is that the campus culture needs to be organized in such a way that it respects the "delicate balance between strong group identification and vibrant inter-group exchange."
Like many psychologists, Cantor affirms the importance of group identification for the psychological well-being of those who are from socially marginalized groups, thus implicitly rejecting the popular notion that group identities are necessarily opposed to the non-parochial ethical perspective required of citizens of a democratic society. She also focuses on the importance of "normalizing" conflict, of raising – through "mutual respect and healthy interaction" – our consciousness of conflict so that we see it as a potential source of knowledge, a vitally important knowledge in a democratic society that thrives on difference (of background, of views, of life experiences).
A second issue arises when we think about the roles played by different kinds of universities, especially non-elite and regional institutions. Campuses like Rutgers-Newark or Michigan-Dearborn serve first-generation immigrant families and provide an educational experience in which socio-cultural diversity defines the learning environment, one that reflects the rich diversity of both American society in general and the increasingly globalized world in which we all live. But Steven Diner, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, points out that while his alumni recognize the value of this environment and talk about it eloquently, the mainstream culture seems to lack the tools with which to measure its value. Daniel Little, chancellor of Michigan-Dearborn, makes this point in more general terms. While elite status and financial resources are valuable, he says, they do not guarantee a superior educational experience, for a quality education depends on a combination of factors, chief among which is the conscious planning and coordination by various levels of the campus leadership – the administration and the faculty. Diner and Little point to the crucial role played in any democratic society by regional and urban institutions in providing access and social mobility to immigrants and those from lower income groups. If the goal is to reduce social inequality through education, then regional and urban universities need to be both recognized and supported by policy makers at not just the state level but also nationally.
The scandalous truth is of course that American educational policy is weak precisely on a national level, since funding of public universities has generally been left entirely up to the states. What the recent economic downturn makes clear, however, is that American higher education, which has traditionally been the engine of the country’s economic development, has fallen behind dramatically, and that is mainly because of the erosion of federal funding and our myopic social policies about lower income groups. As the economist Paul Krugman points out in TheNew York Times, education and social mobility suffer because of largely invisible economic policy decisions, the net effect of which is that American higher education is no longer available to the population at large. Krugman considers this predictable result of myopic national policy to be “a large gratuitous waste of human potential,” and calls for Congress to take appropriate measures. “Education made America great,” he points out, and goes on to issue a timely and urgent warning: “neglect of education can reverse the process.”
Noting the need to address social inequality in the broader national context, Eugene Tobin [former president of Hamilton College and co-author – with William Bowen and Martin Kurzweil -- of Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005)] recommends that at least the top universities, private and public, consider putting a "thumb on the admission scale" by taking low-income status at least as seriously as we now take race. Research shows that students from less affluent backgrounds, once admitted, go on to do at least as well as those from more affluent ones. Broader considerations of social justice would necessitate that colleges and universities take class seriously in their definition of social diversity. Income-based preferences in admission, Tobin argues, should be seen as a necessary complement to the race-based programs that have been so successful in diversifying the major colleges and universities that have initiated such programs in recent decades.
All these attempts to imagine a more genuinely diverse academic campus have an interesting implication: academic "excellence" can be achieved only if we recognize the social conditions in which learning takes place. Our efforts to promote excellence on our campuses are closely tied to our ideals of democracy and diversity, and these efforts cannot be successful if we do not question our deeper assumptions about what success is and what produces an effective culture for the work of scholarship and teaching. For such work is not done by abstract individuals but by socially embodied beings, with socially produced strengths and vulnerabilities, and any attempt to think about the educational culture of a campus must focus on the actual experiences of faculty and students from a variety of social backgrounds. This requires a rethinking of some of our most basic theoretical assumptions as well as a reexamination of our traditional habits and practices.
One of these theoretical assumptions concerns the nature and value of what is called "objectivity." It is possible to worry that while taking the subjective experiences of students and faculty of color, for instance, into account may improve the campus culture in some respects, it compromises the objectivity of our approach as senior faculty or administrators. That worry is based on the understanding of objectivity as pure “neutrality,” and there are reasons to doubt that this conflation of objectivity with neutrality is intellectually justified. Modern philosophers often talk about the need to see objectivity as a context-sensitive value rather than the product of an abstract and a-contextual attitude of neutrality. So in contexts where unfairness is built into the environment because of half-conscious habits and practices that echo and reinforce prejudices prevalent in the social mainstream, genuine objectivity may itself be the product of a conscious effort to examine our assumptions rather than of a neutral approach – as evidenced, for instance, in "color blind" or "gender blind" policies. What seems fair and just to a member of one social group is not in fact experienced in the same way by members of a group that is, say, the target of negative social stereotypes.
One of the most revealing experiments done by Steele’s colleagues showed that what targets of negative stereotype threat respond to most favorably is a clear message that while the test is tough the evaluation will be fair – that the students’ social identities will not be a factor in the way their academic performance is judged. In thinking about the culture of a genuinely inclusive learning environment, then, the first great challenge for us may be to remind ourselves that what is needed is not so much sentimental partiality as -- ultimately -- greater objectivity. The assurance of genuine fairness can restore social trust. The future of diversity on our campuses depends on our thinking hard about restoring to education and learning the healthy environment of mutual trust and respect in which alone they can thrive. And while social forces beyond our immediate control do much to diminish this trust, the joy – indeed the magic and mystery – of learning is that it can transcend such forces. The world pervades our classrooms and our laboratories, but it does not wholly determine what can be achieved in them.
Both recent research in social psychology and the academic leaders I have been quoting suggest that there is an urgent need for all of us to coordinate our efforts to re-imagine our campuses and to work toward making them the laboratories that they can be -- of the future society we hope to build. Social diversity is about more than just numbers. Most importantly, it is not a "problem" to be solved, but rather an enormous social and educational resource that is waiting to be tapped. From admissions to sports to the designing of the curriculum and of non-curricular interactions, the practical and theoretical challenges posed by a campus’s “diversity” are the gateways to a more democratic national future.
Satya P. Mohanty
Satya P. Mohanty is professor of English at Cornell. He is director of the national Future of Minority Studies Summer Institute, funded since 2005 through grants by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Future of Diversity, which he co-edited with the philosopher Daniel Little (chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn), will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2010.
Even as Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee last Tuesday, his continuing failure to win white working-class voters clouds his prospects for November. The inability to connect with noncollege educated whites also undercuts his claim to being a truly transformative candidate -- a Robert F. Kennedy figure -- who could significantly change the direction of the country. In the fall campaign, however, Obama's suggestion that he may be ready to change the focus of affirmative action policies in higher education -- away from race to economic class -- could prove pivotal in his efforts to reach working-class whites, and revive the great hopes of Bobby Kennedy's candidacy.
Affirmative action is a highly charged issue, which most politicians stay away from. But nothing could carry more potent symbolic value with Reagan Democrats than for Obama to end the Democratic Party's 40 years of support for racial preferences and to argue, instead, for preferences -- in college admissions and elsewhere -- based on economic status. Obama needs to do something dramatic. Right now, while people inside and outside the Obama campaign are making the RFK comparison, working-class whites aren't buying it. The results in Tuesday's Indiana primary are particularly poignant. Obama won handily among black Hoosiers, but lost the non-college educated white vote to Hillary Clinton by 66-34 percent. Forty years earlier, by contrast, Kennedy astonished observers by forging a coalition of blacks and working class whites, the likes of which we have rarely seen since then.
On May 6, 1968, the day before the Indiana primary, Kennedy participated in an iconic motorcade through industrial Lake County, with black mayor Richard Hatcher sitting on one side of Kennedy and boxer Tony Zale, the native son hero of Gary's Slavic steelworkers on the other. On primary election day, running against Eugene McCarthy and a stand in for Hubert Humphrey, Kennedy swept the black vote but also white working-class wards which four years earlier had supported Alabama Governor George Wallace's presidential bid. Author Robert Coles told Kennedy, "There is something going on here that has to do with real class politics."
Of course, Obama's skin color may have made it more difficult for him to attract these voters than it had been for Kennedy. But in some ways RFK had it harder: The May 1968 primary came on the heels of widespread urban rioting spawned by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April. Blue collar whites and blacks were at each others throats, and Kennedy was the one national politician most closely associated with black America.
In Obama's campaign to win over working-class whites, pundits have pointed to two key obstacles: his 20 year association with the angry and race-obsessed Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's condescending comments about the bitterness of small-town white working-class voters. Some working-class whites appear to believe that Obama is not on their side - worried that he may favor black interests over theirs, and at the same time that he looks down his nose on people like them. The image may be unfair, the result of a single comment he made, played up by his political opponents, but the notion could stick nonetheless.
Obama is right to talk about shared concerns of all working people, such as better health care and schools. But to catch the attention of working-class whites, he needs to do something striking, which further distances himself from the Rev. Wrights of the world, who view life through the lens of race, and also signals to working-class whites that he understands that they deserve a helping hand too. Switching the basis of affirmative action policies from race to class would do just that.
Thus far, Obama has hinted that he's ready for the shift. While Obama has in the past been a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action, in his debate in Philadelphia with Hillary Clinton, he said in response to a question that his own privileged daughters do not deserve affirmative action preferences, and that working-class students of all colors do. He needs to make this explicit, to spell out the new policy, and explain why he is shifting away from his traditional reliance on race-based policies.
Supporting a shift to class-based affirmative action would be the logical policy manifestation of his well received speech on race in Philadelphia back in March. In the address, Obama made clear that this nation needs some form of affirmative action to address the legacy of discrimination in America. He noted that legalized discrimination in FHA loans, for example, prevented blacks from borrowing to purchase homes, leaving older blacks with little accumulated wealth to pass down to today's generations. And he observed that many African Americans continue to attend to attended inferior segregated schools, to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, and to grow up in single parent households, all of which are connected to some degree to discrimination.
On the other hand, Obama acknowledged many of the arguments made by opponents of affirmative action, who say that while such policies might have once made sense, it is now time to move on. Obama faulted Rev. Wright for failing to recognize that significant racial progress has been made, and he urged the country to "move beyond our old racial wounds." Then, amazingly for a Democratic politician, he observed: "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race.... As far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything."
Resentment builds, Obama said, "when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed." These resentments, he said are not "misguided or even racist," but rather are "grounded in legitimate concerns."
Class-based affirmative action reconciles both points of view. It avoids the explicit use of race that working-class whites resent, moving us beyond the "racial stalemate" Obama described. But a carefully conceived economic affirmative action program would also try to capture the full legacy of discrimination of which Obama spoke. It would be colorblind but not blind to history. Discrimination has economic manifestations, and college admissions officers could give a leg up to smart students who overcome various obstacles which disproportionately affect African Americans: growing up in a low-income household, one headed by a single-parent, a family lacking in accumulated wealth, and residing in neighborhoods with concentrated of poverty, and attending low quality schools. Under such a program, low-income and working-class kids of all races would benefit -- people like the young Barack Obama or John Edwards -- but not students like Barack Obama's own children.
Moving to class-based preferences would at once remove a terrible source of division and instead reinforce the common interests of working-class voters. And it would do more than just help Obama get elected. Reviving the old RFK coalition would give Obama a mandate to enact the type of far reaching change than hasn't been fully entertained since Kennedy's death.
Almost all colleges and universities seek diversity in their student bodies and their faculty as well as staff. This is often one of two major goals for these institutions, the other of which is academic excellence. But, in my experience, many faculty and some administrators view diversity and academic excellence as competing goals (see this recent example). Moreover, some view concerns about diversity largely as a form of political correctness. Is concern for diversity merely a form of political correctness, or is there really some educational benefit to a diverse student body and faculty such that diversity contributes to rather than competes with academic excellence?
There are three reasons why diversity truly is important in institutions of higher education. Consider each in turn.
First, students learn more from others if the others are different from themselves in significant ways. Imagine, in some strange world, that everyone in a university was a clone of everyone else. Students would learn almost nothing from each other, because they all would be identical to each other. Diversity promotes learning by exposing students to different ways of seeing the world, different points of view, and different assumptions about how the world works. Much of learning is outside the classroom -- it is in the informal curriculum of the university.
One’s learning from friends is as important as one’s learning from books and lectures. And diverse friends expose one to different experiences. When I was a freshman, I had classmates in my hallway from Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, New York, Calgary (Canada), and other locales. I learned from them in a way that would not have been possible if all were from my home state of New Jersey. At Oklahoma State University, we have the largest number of American Indian undergraduates of any university. These students teach other students about diverse cultures in a way that students of the majority culture could not. In a global world and global economy, we fail to learn about others at our peril.
Second, diversity helps promote understanding that can be lacking when different groups fail, or even refuse, to interact. In 1968, the Flemish and French-speaking factions of the University of Leuven decided that they could not get along, and they split, leaving two universities, Leuven (Flemish-speaking) and Louvain (French-speaking). The repercussions of this and other similar splits can be seen in contemporary Belgium, which has not had a fully functioning government since April 22, 2010. The country has been on the verge of splitting apart because people of different linguistic and cultural groups have failed to work together. The split has hurt the economy and, obviously, the morale of people in the country. South Africa, for many years, had “black” universities and “white” universities, never the twain did meet; the consequences were extremely negative for education and for the country as a whole. Bringing diverse people together creates bridges across cultural, linguistic, racial, and other divides.
Third, diversity helps attract the best students, faculty, and staff. Suppose everyone at a particular university is a member of Group X, whatever group that may be. It is safe to say that no matter what the group, many of the people who could contribute most to the university will be members of other groups. But members of other groups likely will be reluctant to go to a university where they will find no one at all like themselves. The result is that the university will scare away many of the most able potential constituents.
Academic excellence and diversity go hand-in-hand because, to have excellence, you need diversity. Some faculty will argue that increasing diversity will reduce the academic skills of the student body. But this argument is based largely on scores from narrow standardized tests. When we have measured creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills in addition to the memory and analytical skills measured by conventional standardized tests, we have found that group differences, such as among diverse ethnic groups, are greatly reduced or even eliminated at the same time that the predictive power of the measures is increased. In other words, choosing students for diverse talents identifies students who can succeed academically who are not identified as potentially successful by standardized tests. Similar logic applies to faculty and staff.
In sum, diversity is actually not a matter of political correctness (although the concept can be perverted to be just that). It is a way of bringing together people into an organization that helps to ensure that the whole is more, rather than less, than the sum of its parts. Without diversity, true academic excellence is difficult, if not impossible, to attain.
Robert J. Sternberg
Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University.