I’m not ordinarily one to write about such a controversial subject, but I find the case and some of the issues quite interesting, not so much because of the legal issues of whether a university “should” or has the ability to act a certain way, but because it forces us to confront the very real existence of continuing tensions in race relations.
For those who don’t know, the U.S. Supreme Court currently has a case involving the University of Texas and affirmative action policies in admissions. The petitioner (who is white) argues that she was rejected because of her race, while the University argues that she would have been rejected anyway, and then argues that it has the right to assemble a diverse student body.
I find that this case and others like it present several different issues. First, I think that at least in some ways, people can sympathize with the petitioner. After my first year of law school, when very few places were hiring rising 2Ls, I obviously was not eligible for any of the clerkships or scholarship programs made available specifically for minority students. Of course not having internships or the same type of financial aid affected me; it was more challenging to find employment, and my debt load is as high as it is because I didn’t have scholarships. Additionally, I could also look and see that, for example, I am not in the military, therefore I did not receive financial assistance or the extra points that come in the job search. So no, it’s not “fair,” and I do sympathize that the petitioner is at least in some ways, in a more disadvantageous position due to not being accepted by a well known school.
At the same time, my sympathy only goes so far. The petitioner is currently employed, and, as far as I know, she’s employed within her field. In that sense, she’s in the same position as most people 18-28: educated and thinking that the situation with her work is not the way it was supposed to be. It would be easy for me to make the same arguments; that I would have had more offers and interviews, and better pay had I gone to a different school, or had I been on law review, or had a different background, etc. In the end though, we don’t know. Maybe it would have been different, but I think in general, it’s just hard for people in this age group. We really are all struggling together, just in different ways.
As far as the general policy of considering race, as I’ve already said, my opinion has changed somewhat. Universities generally argue that having ethnic and racial diversity provides diverse perspectives. In theory, it does, but I think in general, college classes where there are truly interesting discussions taking place are the exception instead of the rule. Most of the times it seemed that it was the same four people who enjoyed the class doing all of the participating, while the rest would fight off exhaustion (and yes, I fell into the second group my fair share of times). Additionally, I suppose there are several different ways one could look at the phrase “diverse perspectives.” Certainly somebody who grew up in the former Soviet Union doesn’t have the same perspective as someone who grew up in the United States. Is that counted in admissions processes as well? I don’t know.
While it’s not a “fair” process, the universities do have a point in recognizing a very real problem in higher education. I do believe that racial minorities don’t always have the same opportunities as the average white American. As a group, on average the standardized scores of African-Americans and Latinos are lower, and passage rates on professional licensing exams are lower as well. Now, of course we could also consider socio-economic status in this equation, but it’s really hard to deny that there are disproportionately more African-Americans and Latinos in the bottom income brackets than there are whites.
Truthfully, I think what is really critical is not so much to have colleagues or peers of the same race, but to have mentors of the same background; people who are successful and do understand the challenges one is experiencing. Personally I would be kidding myself if I said I understood what an African American college student or law student experiences. Not being of that background, I don’t (and can’t) know all of the various hidden and perhaps even unknown barriers. So I think it’s very important to have somebody who understands you and is willing to help you develop into a successful person. There is no shortage of successful white professionals to fulfill that need, but there are not nearly as many African Americans or Latinos to do so. Of course, one of the ways for one to even become successful enough to have others looking up to him or her is to receive an education. As I also said before, we can’t deny that when we look at people in poverty, African-Americans and Latinos do make up a good part of that population. Because those in that situation often need government assistance, they tend of have much greater contact with social welfare organizations and individuals. I recall at one point reading that African-American and Latino professionals (doctors, attorneys, psychologists, etc.) are more likely to seek out going into those communities, where it would generally be harder to receive services. Again, in order to become a licensed professional, an education is necessary. So I can’t say that the entire concept of giving underrepresented groups a chance is bad.
I suppose what I’m attempting to say in this exceptionally long post is that this entire argument shouldn’t be about using race in the admissions process solely to overcome stereotypes or make up for past injustices. Ultimately I think those types of goals will never really be met. It also would be ridiculous to say that just because somebody is admitted that means they will graduate. But what can be achieved is more young people being given an opportunity to succeed where it would have ordinarily been more difficult for them to do so. In the meantime, I hope everyone is able to find a way to be successful in spite of any challenges that might exist in trying to receive an education.