Created on Thursday, 25 October 2012 03:44 Written by Alex Zimmerman / Columnist
If I had $10,000, I would bet Rick Perry that within the year it will be illegal for universities to include race as a factor in admissions.
Back in 2003, Sandra Day O’Connor set an explicit end date for admissions policies that take race into account: 2028. Now it looks like the Roberts Court will put the last nail in the affirmative action coffin 16 years early.
But supporters of diversity should not despair — diversity is bigger than race.
Diversity is valuable because it gives people with different backgrounds the opportunity to learn from one another. If we want to live in a world where people don’t hate each other for being poor, practicing the “wrong” religion or having same-sex relationships, it is crucial that people are given a meaningful opportunity to engage with those who have had a range of life experiences.
The reason supporters of racial diversity — and affirmative action more broadly — shouldn’t worry that race will be jettisoned as an explicit factor in university admissions policies is that a broader criterion can serve the same purpose.
If universities focus on disadvantage rather than race, they will not only continue to be racially diverse, but will also avoid advantaging members of minority groups who don’t come from backgrounds of disadvantage.
Factors like socioeconomic status, neighborhood poverty levels and family circumstances are much better indications of those who actually experience disadvantage.
Of course, institutional racism lives on. The National Center for Education Statistics data show that the achievement gap between white, black and Hispanic students persists.
In 2008, there were 846,000 black men in U.S. prisons. According to Michelle Alexander, an author and Ohio State law professor, “More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”
But it is not fair to say that all minorities necessarily come from backgrounds of disadvantage and should therefore receive preference in university admissions. In fact, by using disadvantage more broadly as a way of thinking about who deserves preference, we can ensure that the extra help will only go to those who really need it.
I sat down with Larry Davis, the dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work and the director of the Center on Race and Social Problems. I asked him if disadvantage might be a more useful factor than race. While he acknowledged that affirmative action policies could rely on disadvantage instead of race, Davis warned that schools might ignore the importance of racial diversity by focusing on disadvantage.
“Ideally, we want society to not be race-blind, but be race-neutral,” Davis told me.
“You’re not going to correct what was once a racial problem by being racially blind.”
Some will dispute that by making progress against racism, we will necessarily devalue racial diversity. This is a fair enough criticism, but unless institutional racism disappears in America, racial diversity at universities will be reflected by favorably considering candidates who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
According to the American Psychological Association, black people are significantly more likely than white people to live in poverty, attend high-poverty schools, be involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions, receive high-interest mortgage rates and be unemployed. Clearly, a focus on disadvantage would still give minorities a boost in admissions policies.
We will be in a much better position to make a meaningful difference once we abandon the well-rehearsed debate about whether race still matters — of course it does — and move on to larger questions that address the causes of our large-scale social problems instead of trying to perfunctorily address racism through affirmative action.
One of the ways we can come to terms with the inevitable end of race in affirmative action is by having a university-wide discussion about why we care about diversity and whether we have created a community in which people from different backgrounds meaningfully engage with one another.
After all, statistical diversity means nothing if we haven’t built a tolerant community that values cross-cultural engagement.