Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the voters of any state are free to ban affirmative action programs . The decision involves complex issues of state’s rights, participatory governance, institutional governance, academic freedom, equal treatment, and a legacy of racism that has generational impacts on families of color and white families alike. These tired issues are often framed from a white perspective that has done little to advance the public debate in a holistic way.
The whole point of affirmative action is not to promote unqualified individuals, but to open doors for well-qualified individuals who have historically found them locked. If you could keep a tally of each time in every person’s life something happens automatically because of race, or is obstructed because of race it would be glaringly obvious that affirmative action has not yet leveled the playing field.
One of the arguments to justify affirmative action in higher education is that “a critical mass of diversity is beneficial for everyone.” Translated: white people benefit when they hang out with people of color. In academia this is referred to as “interest convergence,” when the majority supports minority interests because it turns out the minority interest is in the best interest of the majority as well. There are other reasons it is important to promote racially diverse campuses, such as blunting the effects of racial isolation and helping people unlearn stereotypes.
Institutions are still permitted to argue for a critical mass as long as they can demonstrate in clear and quantifiable terms what is meant by a critical mass in a way that does not lead to a de facto quota, and as long as the voters of the state are not convinced that white students will not benefit from hanging out with students of color. In other words, in states where the voters or the legislative body have not given themselves authority to make admission decisions, university administrators need to determine how many people of color among a group of white does it take for a white person to unlearn stereotypes? How many people of color among a group of white does it take for a white person to recognize new perspectives on an issue even in the absence of a diversity of perspectives? How many people of color among a group of white does it take for a white person to learn to solve problems more creatively? How many people of color among a group of white does it take for a white person to learn how to function well in a diverse work force? How many people of color among a group of white does it take for all people in the group to have positive interactions with one another? Since these problems assume people of color are present among white, administrators also need to determine how many people of color among a group of white does it take so people of color do not have an isolating experience? The answers are constantly in flux, though nearly always framed from the perspective of white privilege.
It should be enough to document that generational, institutionalized inequality means we all walk through life with different lenses, and different experiences that leave some people at an advantage over others, unfairly. Make no mistake, it is vitally important to document with rigorous research why race matters, why diversity matters, and to whom it matters. Living in a very white community in a very white state this line of research is all the more important. As a white woman with privilege race matters to me.
While I steadfastly believe that everyone is better off (including myself) in racially diverse learning environments, and there is research to support this, the critical mass logic should be the bonus that seals the deal and helps everyone feel warm and fuzzy about policies that promote integration. Critical mass should not be the primary justification for contorted policies that balance precariously on the edge of a razor until it is determined that white people no longer benefit. The research that documents the need for a critical mass of diversity merely verifies why it is so important to do what is honorable and ethical.
Racial diversity and inclusion should not be about establishing quotas, or putting extra effort into helping out people who have been disadvantaged, or even improving learning outcomes for white students. Racial diversity and integration is about doing what is right. It should be about providing equitable opportunities in an unequal world. It should be about recognizing difference and deciding, out of a sense of fairness, not to treat everyone exactly the same but instead figuring out what equitable means. Policies that promote racial equity and integration should be about beginning the process of institutionalizing integrity.
How should that play out in postsecondary admissions where there is a need to consider the unique attributes of every applicant using clear standards to sort and filter with a sense of fairness? These decisions should be left to admission officers who are best positioned to craft policies that fit the unique needs of their own institutions and community contexts. My opinion differs from that of the Supreme Court, however.
The new prevailing opinion is that institutional governing boards, administrators, and admission officers no longer are able to develop their own policies and practices that will promote racial integration at their campuses, regardless of the reasons for doing so. The voters at large have been granted the ability to determine acceptable institutional admission policies. According to this standard voters should be able to determine how patients are scheduled at public hospitals, or the way fire or police departments prioritize calls, or how hunting and fishing permits should be issued.
In the United States, to make local-level policy decisions we normally rely on administrative agencies and oversight and governing boards that are staffed by technical experts who know the relevant issues thoroughly. Among professionals in any field of expertise, be it wildlife management or education, there are a wide range of opinions that should support a healthy deliberative process to resolve these policy issues in the most local contexts. Because of the deep history of racial oppression in the United States that has manifested in local and statewide regulations that prohibit racially integrated schools and public amenities among other serious offenses, it is crucial not to remove decision-making authority from those closest to and most knowledgeable about the issues affecting equitable access to education.
It is clear to me a “critical mass” of diversity has not been reached in our collective learning and development. With a critical mass it becomes easier to see whose perspective is not represented and to think through how policies and interactions might shape the experiences of people who don’t look like me. It is so difficult to perceive the privilege that I have because of what I look like, because I have always looked like me. But I know I have never looked at a ballot and been faced with the choice of whether I think local bureaucrats should be allowed to make local policies that help me have a fair chance to compete with other folks who don’t look like me. I think if I ever had that experience I would be angered by the question.
It is time to reframe the rhetoric. I’d like to call it what it is: Racism. I am well aware that Justice Thomas, who has benefited from affirmative action, was in the opinion of the majority. That does not lessen the oppressive effects of the decision. It is overtly racist to prohibit public officials from crafting policies that promote the equitable participation of a class of individuals who have historically been prohibited from participation at all. Unfortunately, the public discourse to resolve challenging issues of race and fairness is often framed from the needs of those with white privilege. Even the most well-meaning allies defer to polite terms, or focus on the convergence of interests because it is so uncomfortable and awkward to talk about race openly. The obligation of my white privilege is to reorient the conversation, regardless of whether or not it makes me or anyone else squirm. Any decision or action that has the effect of preventing equitable participation and engagement is racist.