Sherrilyn Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
When Abigail Fisher’s challenge to affirmative action in university admissions was first heard at the Supreme Court two years ago, counsel for the University of Texas at Austin, where Fisher was denied admission, explained that the school’s admissions policies are aimed, in part, at ensuring that classes include a critical mass of minority students. Critical mass is necessary, the school’s lawyer argued, to address the racial isolation experienced by minority students and to obtain the full benefits of diversity for all students. But some justices were skeptical. “How am I supposed to decide,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked, “whether you have an environment within [which] particular minorities . . . don’t feel isolated?” As the court prepares once again to hear arguments on Fisher’s claim next week, African American student protesters on campuses across the nation have been offering a powerful response to Roberts’s question.
From the University of Missouri, to Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, to the University of Alabama and Ithaca College in upstate New York, African American students have described, for several months and in eloquent detail, the experience of racial isolation on university campuses. Their protests have launched university town halls and “teach-ins” in which students, faculty and administrators have grappled with difficult questions about race, free speech and the quality of the learning environment on campuses. Without question, these conversations have been uncomfortable and challenging. But the presence of minority students on campus has been critical to launching this important and complex dialogue.
The student protests have not been linked to the Texas affirmative action case. But the claims of marginalization and isolation, and the sustained demands for change, offer a timely window into the precise phenomenon that university officials in Texas sought, in part, to address through the admissions plan they created in 2005.
Under this plan, the university admits 75 percent of its students pursuant to a state law that ensures the admission of every student who graduates in the top 10 percent of a Texas public high school class. Given the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in Texas, some increase in African American and Hispanic students at the university was guaranteed by an admissions plan that drew students from every public high school in the state, but the resulting increases were still insufficient. So the university created a process of holistic review for the remaining 25 percent of applicants that was designed to increase diversity across a wide array of factors and also explicitly to address, in part, the “glaring racial isolation” among African American students. The university itself found that 90 percent of the most commonly sized classes included only one or no African American students.
These numbers tell only half the story: Black students at the university have also shared their experiences of racial isolation. Some describe being expected to “represent” the views of all black people. Other accounts are more explicitly racist. Some students threw a “border patrol”-themed party with people dressed up as Mexicans or border patrol agents. Others mockingly held an “affirmative action” bake sale, in which white customers were charged more. One of the students at the Black Student Alliance, for which we filed an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, told us about the time a black student was asked if she was in a classroom to clean it.
The University of Texas has rightly defended its efforts to create a more diverse learning environment and pointed out that students of all races derive benefit and learn from people with different backgrounds. And yet challenges to these universally beneficial programs are unceasing. Indeed, Fisher has enjoyed an unusual level of access to the Supreme Court, presenting her affirmative action challenge next week for a second time. In 2013, the court sent the case back to the lower courts, which upheld UT’s admissions policy. The university notes that the record in the case does not support Fisher’s standing to advance her challenge in the courts: She has graduated from another university and, importantly, would not have been admitted to the University of Texas even in the absence of the current affirmative action plan. There is also another layer of distressing irony in the access afforded Fisher to the court: For more than 30 years, the lower courts have generally refused to allow minority students to participate as full parties in most of the affirmative action challenges to reach the court — thereby inhibiting their ability to testify directly about problems of racial isolation.
Now African American university students are raising their voices — not in the courtroom, but on campuses nationwide. They are refusing the “racial closeting” required by foes of affirmative action, who suggest that minority students should shed their racial identity in the name of a false construct of colorblindness. Instead, they are demanding that their experiences as minority students be recognized and understood by university officials. Their claims, although focused on the classroom environment, curriculum and racial harassment, are deeply connected to the efforts of universities to increase diversity on campuses.
Universities may not agree with every demand made by minority student protesters. But they are right to believe that at a minimum, they must build a class of students sufficiently diverse to ameliorate the “extreme racial isolation” that Texas students reported in the years before the current admissions plans were adopted, and that students across the country now powerfully describe.
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