Well, for one, the makeup of the Court has changed dramatically in the nine years since the Grutter ruling. Not only did O’Connor retire from the bench in 2006, but only two of the five justices in the majority on the Grutter decision—Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer—remain on the Court. Three of the four dissenters in 2003 are still serving—Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. The new justices that have been appointed since then are Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, though Kagan recently recused herself from hearing the Fisher case because she worked on the issue while at the Justice Department as solicitor general. That makes a 5-3 decision in favor of Fisher a more likely possibility, given that Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy have previously voted to restrict government programs that take account of race.
It is also likely that conservatives are trying to take advantage of an election year to make the tired argument that a black incumbent president proves we’ve accomplished some sort of postracial society that would do away with the need to consider race in admissions. The latest numbers on racial and ethnic disparities in college enrollment, however, quickly dispel that myth.
While students of color have made major strides in college enrollment rates since 2000, significant disparities still persist. As of 2011, 36 percent of whites ages 25 to 29 had obtained at least a bachelor’s degree, while only 18 percent of African Americans, 12 percent of Latinos, and 10 percent of American Indians had reached the same level of educational attainment.
We also know that as of 2010, students of color did not complete high school at disproportionately high rates. While 12.3 percent of whites have less than a high school diploma, the rate is 18.1 percent for African Americans, 37.8 percent for Latinos, and 22.7 percent for American Indians and Alaska Natives. And though the rate is 14.6 percent for Asians overall, the rates spike when the data is disaggregated to measure Southeast Asian groups in particular: 33.3 percent of Cambodians, 35.4 percent of the Hmong, 32.5 percent of Laotian, and 30.2 percent of Vietnamese all have less than a high school diploma.
Even when income is taken into account, racial and ethnic disparities do not disappear. With disproportionate educational attainment numbers like these, it is clear we have not reached the ballyhooed postracial utopia in higher education
O’Connor argued in 2003 that affirmative action wouldn’t be necessary indefinitely as the country made progress toward a more just and inclusive educational system, but that it was likely to be needed for another 25 years. It should be incumbent on the plaintiffs in the Fisher case to prove why race should be ignored completely while we still see these glaring disparities—particularly in institutions that have chosen not to consider race a factor in admissions.
Why diversity matters
Ensuring diversity in our institutions of higher education is not only important to close these achievement gaps, but it is also, as the Grutter decision argued, a compelling interest for all those involved. While the long list of amici in 2003 made convincing arguments to retain the consideration of race in admissions, more recent social science evidence released since the ruling has only continued to make the argument for the benefits of educational diversity.
Specifically, research shows that the overall academic and social effects of increased racial diversity are likely to be positive, from enhanced impact on academic achievement to the improvement of near- and long-term intergroup relations.
What’s more, diversity has consistently been valued in higher education, particularly when it involves group characteristics that have nothing to do with an applicant’s race or ethnicity. Athletes, legacies, women, and veterans are only a few examples of groups that have benefited from a holistic consideration of identities and backgrounds, instead of formulaic indexes comprised of test scores and grade-point averages. When is the last time a student filed suit for being rejected from a university because he or she was raised in New York, as opposed to Nebraska?
Race and ethnic politics, however, never fails to incite ugly stereotypes about who is entitled to a first-rate education or who deserves the privilege of having their background considered as one of many admissions factors.
The Obama administration has been strong on the issue of diversity in education. At the end of 2011, the Education and Justice Departments issued a joint guidance that told college administrators and K-12 school officials they could use race to achieve diversity in our nation’s schools. The guidelines sought to reverse the guidance schools had received from the Bush administration, which warned them that they would risk losing federal funding if they promoted diversity on campus. Instead, the Obama administration’s guidelines refer to the Grutter decision and underline the benefits diversity generates for all involved.
While the Court is expected to hear Fisher v. The University of Texas, remarkably, right around the November presidential election, we cannot afford to let affirmative action become another casualty of race-baiting, dog-whistle politics. As our country becomes more diverse, it is absolutely crucial that our institutions of higher education reflect this diversity. Our growing communities of color are comprised of our future leaders, workers, taxpayers, homebuyers, and voters, but, more importantly, both our white and nonwhite youth need to be exposed to diversity in education to learn how to effectively compete in an increasingly global economy.
This post was originally published by the Center for American Progress.
Photo from afagen via flickr
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