A New School Year is upon us, and Californians are wondering again whether their university admissions system is broken. Out of 4,852 students expected to start as UCLA freshmen in September, only 96—2%—are African American. To many people, that is clear evidence of a problem, but the solution is not clear at all.
Five years ago, the University of California regents repealed UC Resolution SP-1, which in 1995 had mandated rigid colorblindness in admissions. The policy remains in force, however, through Proposition 209, the 1996 voter initiative that banned consideration of race in public programs.
When SP-1 and Proposition 209 were adopted, I was the dean of the University of Michigan Law School. In that role, I helped to defend my school’s use of affirmative action in admissions, a policy that the Supreme Court upheld in 2003.
My experience taught me that most Americans cherish two important ideals: They value colorblindness, preferring that large institutions not consider race when allocating significant opportunities; and they value integration, wanting their best institutions to include people from all backgrounds.
Unfortunately, those values are in conflict. The admissions pool at the most selective universities reflects the cumulative effect of history, sociology and economics, public investments and private choices. Because those variables are not race-independent, a colorblind admissions process is unlikely to produce meaningful racial integration.
For 10 years, Proposition 209 has proved that point. According to the census, our country is 14% Latino and 13% African American, and California is 35% Latino and 7% African American. Operating under Proposition 209, the entering classes at Berkeley and UCLA have tended to be 11% to 14% Latino and 2% to 4% African American.
The latter numbers are so low that there is no longer a “critical mass” of African Americans on these two highly selective campuses. Critical mass means a group of sufficient size that each member is able to be an individual, to disagree publicly with other members of his or her group, to be freed—at least partly—from the burdens of always being perceived as a spokesperson for his or her race.
This matters because college is a critical time for students to come to terms with the complexity of race in the United States. Most great universities today are living laboratories in which students grapple with questions of identity and inter-group relations. They strive for balance between comfort with their own racial identities and openness to people who are different from themselves. They struggle with issues such as hate speech, self-segregation and cultural assimilation. Their ability to do so effectively is influenced by a campus’ racial demography; without a critical mass of African American students, the “laboratory” does not work as well.
Expert testimony in the Michigan case indicated that the presence of three African Americans in classroom contexts is a key transition point, where black students can speak more freely as individuals and other students can better appreciate how racial identity is complex, multidimensional and unpredictable. When campuses the size of Berkeley and UCLA have African American populations of only 2% to 4%, students of all races rarely experience that transition point. They have an educational experience that is meaningfully different from the national norm.
Without conscious attention to race in admissions, meaningful integration is not possible.
Affirmative action is a compromise—giving up on colorblindness in order to obtain integration. Today’s challenge is to create a society in which meaningful integration can be achieved without affirmative action. Such a society would be committed to dramatically reducing the educational effects of residential segregation, school isolation, socioeconomic disadvantage and crippling racial stereotypes. It would invest heavily to make genuine opportunity within an open and integrated community the true birthright of every child.