With Fisher v. Texas remanded down to the Fifth Circuit, the constitutionality of Affirmative Action is still highly uncertain. That uncertainty isn’t likely to last for long, however, as Fisher itself could be appealed again. More likely is another University of Michigan case, out of the Sixth Circuit and now pending before the Supreme Court. As a brief primer for non-law school nerds, the first big Affirmative Action case was born out of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy, in which it imposed a quota system to ensure that a certain “critical mass” of minority students would make it into the school each year. That, the Supreme Court held, was unconstitutional. The follow-up case dealt with Michigan’s law school admissions policy, which considered race holistically. There was no quota, no percentage necessary: it was just one factor among many others that the school considered in looking at its applicants. Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the Court, held that such a policy was permissible, but that hopefully, in thirty years, would no longer be necessary. Both cases were decided in 2003.
Now here we are, only ten years later, rearguing the same point. The newest case regards Michigan’s Proposal 2, passed in 2006, which forbids the use of Affirmative Action by public institutions in the state — most notably, by the University of Michigan. Based on the procedural posture of the case, the Supreme Court doesn’t have to address it on the merits.
West Quad — after three years on campus, I still don’t know what happened in that building.
Disclaimer: I myself attended the University of Michigan, during the three years between the Gratz decision and Proposal 2. In fact, I was in the last class to use the quota system of Affirmative Action. So I attended at the time when it was, in theory the “hardest” to get into the school as a white suburbanite, and a time when it waas, in theory “the most diverse” possible, without lowering academic standards.
There’s a stigma on Affirmative Action, and it’s a really unfortunate stigma that focuses on the color of skin at the expense of focusing on the value of an education. White people dislike it because they have more “merit” but might not get in, due to a similarly situated minority applicant being needed to create greater “diversity.” Some minorities dislike it because it cheapens their hard work and effort. (Indeed, if you want a great story of that, talk to a friend of mine who went to the Air Force Academy, and continuously complained that everyone assumed he only got in because he was black). People focus on the statistics — like the 5% drop in minority enrollment at U of M since Michigan forbid it from utilizing race in its admissions.
What people don’t think about is the advantages that it brings to a campus. Colleges — especially liberal arts colleges, like U of M, schools that pride themselves on commitment to social change and justice — need to have a diverse student body, and need to expose their students to various ethnicities, cultures, and religions. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that I learned in my biology course, or in Math 105, but I can tell you what I learned about the Jewish faith from the boy who lived in the dorm room next to me, or what I learned about poverty and urban life from some of the girls on my rugby team. I learned about the struggles of LGBT individuals from a girl I worked with in the cafeteria, and learned about ostracism from a young gay man I met at the Campus Catholic church. I met people of Indian, Asian, Romanian, Tasmanian, and Mexican descent. I took a class on Cuban literature with guatemaltecos, boricuas, cubanos and chicanos.
I, the white girl from the good public high school, the person supposedly harmed by Affirmative Action policies, received some of the greatest benefit of them.
Step on the M in the Diag and you’ll fail your first bluebook. Or you could take “Anthropology and Genetics” with a bunch of grade students — another surefire way to fail.
Some people complain that taking race into account is too limiting — that it isn’t the color of our skin that defines us, but our cultural background and socioeconomic status. That isn’t wrong — but having spent a summer in Xela, Guatemala, as the only 5’8 white woman in a city of indios, dark-skinned and short, I can tell you that the simple fact of being a minority creates a different perception and way of viewing life. Maybe one day it won’t — maybe, as Justice O’Connor suggested, that day will be in a short twenty years. But it’s not here yet, and so, as long as being of a different race allows you to see life differently, and exposes one to different viewpoints, I remain in favor of Affirmative Action — not to remedy past discrimination, but to create a more vital, diverse educational experience for every student.