Can we live without affirmative action? Supreme Court decision may change black life in America

For my birthday this year, The Economist ran a cover story, claiming that is was “time to scrap affirmative action.”  Like many other arguments in this season (and in the past), this article argues that the time for race-based affirmative action has come and gone; that admissions practices should move toward affirmative action polices based upon socio-economic status.

A recent New York Times article caused a stir because it revealed the fact that elite colleges are doing an abysmal job at recruiting talented low-income students to apply and attend the nations best universities and colleges.

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the University of Texas case where a white woman claims she was denied admission based upon her race – she has since graduated from LSU.

Does America have ‘diversity fatigue’?

The combination of this important socio-economic data, an oft mis-interpreted concept referred to as “mismatch,” and the ominous specter of ‘diversity fatigue’ in our nation’s public discourse and praxis have created a moment within which race-based affirmative action has become more and more unpopular.

We might first remember that affirmative action has never been very popular – mostly because it is profoundly misunderstood both in terms of its purpose (to address historically persistent racial inequality) and in terms of its impact. It aids the ascension of white women and the admission of a range of other under-represented minorities into universities and the workplace, but gaps in income, under-representation in institutional leadership positions, and over-representation in the criminal justice system continue to be a persistent factor of American life for African-Americans.

‘Diversity fatigue,’ the idea that people, institutions and corporations are simply tired of talking about and wrestling with issues of diversity, is little more than a cop out.  Some people (and too many corporations) are likely tired of talking about equality and equity but that in and of itself is no reason to end the movements designed to achieve either/both.

Being tired doesn’t mean the job is done

And speaking of either/both, no one has made a compelling case as to why socio-economic status has to eclipse race-based affirmative action in the policies designed to achieve equality.  Given the imbrication of race and socio-economic status, the most prudent innovation of equality and equity measures should be working towards considering these factors in tandem – not one over the other.

Who exactly is fatigued and why?  The effort to make our society equal; to petition the government and all of America’s institutions to reflect and represent the society in which we all live, has been a burden borne mostly by those demanding equality – not by those who have been granted the arbitrary privilege of full access. Being tired does not mean that the job is done.

Prop 209 in California, which was passed via superb lobbying efforts and the real effects of diversity fatigue in one of the nations most diverse states, saw a marked decline in the matriculation of black and Latino students in state schools – especially the best schools in the state system, Berkeley and UCLA.  Even though the numbers of blacks and Latinos in the California system has started to recover, the percentages of black students has not reached the pre-Prop 209 levels.

Race-based solutions need to be more robust

Most of the arguments against race-based affirmative action are buoyed by the presence of the first black president of the United States and a regularly cited study by Stuart Taylor and Richard Sander entitled “Mismatch.”  Sander and Taylor’s research suggests that affirmative action places under-qualified black students in law schools within which they ultimately do not succeed thereby reducing the number of black lawyers because those students drop out of law school.

There are too many contingencies to account for here and many more important factors not considered by those who continue to cite this study.

In fact, the concept of “mismatch” smacks of some of the very reasons why race-based affirmative action policies actually need to be made more robust.

Even if we set aside the well-documented ways in which standardized tests re-inscribe racial bias and generally tell us more about socio-economic status than actual ability, (this includes everything from the SAT to the LSAT to the Bar itself) the real mismatch in Affirmative Action efforts and results is the extent to which historically unequal institutions continue to be unwelcoming environments for black folk.

Mismatch does not account for the bias of professors, the dynamics of study groups, or the racially separate social communities that populate America’s most elite institutions – both corporate and educational.

Efforts to recruit and admit black students, to hire and tenure black faculty, or to train and make partners out of black lawyers all require much more than simply opening the doors of the institution.

Retention and the cultivation of culturally competent educational and workplace environments are the next steps in the affirmative action movement, not the abolishment of the policy itself.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson