Identity blind (but still peeking)

15 Oct

As the Supreme Court listens to arguments regarding Michigan’s law that bans the preferences based on sex and race in public programs (http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201310150930), I’d like to ask:

Really?

The state of Michigan really thinks that by not asking for information about race or sex (or not reading the information applicants provide), they can ban the influence of race and sex preferences in admissions and hiring in their state programs?

Let’s break this down, focusing just on racial consideration in admissions to the state’s public universities.

Being a legacy at a school is influenced by race. University of Michigan was founded in 1815, and didn’t accept a black student until 1853. That’s almost 40 years of generating only white alumni at the school. And the first black student didn’t exactly open the floodgates for racial diversity: there has been a historical, consistent, gaping disparity in enrollment between black and white, and Latina/o and white students from 1853 through today: by 2012, black students comprised only 4.6% of first year students, and Latino/a students comprised 3.9% (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-24/black-enrollment-falls-as-michigan-rejects-affirmative-action.html). Notably, these numbers are part of a continuing downward trend (http://www.cew.umich.edu/action/statenatladvo/mcriupdate). Clearly, over the years, the numbers of Latina/o and black UM alumni, while growing, are growing much more slowly than the number of white alumni.

Thus, special consideration for legacy applicants actually and actively prefers white students. So when we talk about policies about race needing to be “race neutral” in order to be legal, how are we assessing neutrality? Are we seeking to level the playing field, or maintain the unlevel status quo? Because just banning the explicit consideration of race and social inequity, while allowing implicit racial preference doesn’t exactly add up to neutral.

UCLA seemed to get that in its own response to the state of CA banning affirmative action at state schools: through its blended criteria ranging from “GPA, to family income, to whether an applicant was the first in the family to go to college,” UCLA may not have singled out race, but it certainly continued to consider racial identity as a component of other identifiers. And “indeed, the percentages of black and Latino students [at UCLA] began to rebound” (http://www.kqed.org/news/story/2013/06/23/122504/what_happens_without_affirmative_action_the_story_of_ucla?source=npr&category=education). And despite protests and claims about an “undue percentage” of minority students being admitted (think about that for a moment), the university has stuck to its policy, and authorized a faculty review that backs up its process and outcomes.

But this isn’t about comparing UCLA to Michigan (well, not entirely). What seems missing from the Michigan case, and maybe I just missed it, is a social vision. Other than “fairness,” which should always be a guiding principle, especially in inherently unfair processes like hiring and admissions, what is Michigan striving for? Is it equitable access to education, despite the unequal credentials and resources of candidates whose qualifications weren’t simply forged by merit? Is it an equitable learning experience for all students once they’re accepted? Is it diversity in the community because diversity enhances group processes and outcomes? Is it interrupting cycles of poverty and insulation of opportunity and wealth? Is it maintaining the privilege of some groups who have historically enjoyed and come to feel entitled to their privilege, while trying to make things a little better at the margins for other groups, without rocking the majority-minority recipe?

Whatever the vision, with an understanding of the intended outcome, it seems to me that complex institutions and communities like the state of Michigan can do better than crying foul over the consideration of some identities (while quietly perpetuating the bias and preference for others). We certainly don’t have to forego fairness: we just have to be more intentional about fairness for whom and why.

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