Why This Supreme Court Ruling on Affirmative Action Is as Dubious as the Roberts’ Court’s Previous Rulings on Race-Related Issues

In contemporary America, income inequality is indisputably increasing and indisputably limiting the potential and the upward mobility of the ever-increasing percentage of Americans slipping into the have-not category.

In the absence of significant upward pressure on wages exerted by the large industrial unions and in the absence of a large industrial workforce because of the automation of plants in this country and because of overseas competition in labor-intensive manufacturing, higher education is the major factor again differentiating the working class from the middle class.

Some African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other people of color have undoubtedly achieved great entrepreneurial and professional success. And some White Americans live in rural areas in which poverty is endemic. But the greatest concentrations of poverty are more than ever in urban districts with heavy concentrations of people of color.

The schools in those urban districts have become illustrations of our “under-performing public schools,” in the phrasing used by so-called “reformers,” either because the system is broken and poor teachers are protected by unions or because education cannot be separated from the other very challenging socio-economic realities that result from desperate impoverishment. Whatever the reason, the students in those school districts clearly have a much lower chance at academic achievement and then a much lower chance at translating their academic achievement into a university education that is their best means of transcending poverty.

At the same time as income inequality has been becoming more entrenched, American politics has been becoming more vehemently partisan, with the GOP representing largely White rural and affluent suburban districts and the Democratic party representing more racially diverse urban districts. Indeed, in many states, gerrymandering has exaggerated those distinctions–the close correlation of racial, socio-economic, and political identifications–well beyond what has previously been the case.

So, the Supreme Court decision seems based on two very flawed premises. Continue reading

Across the Great Divides? No More (Updated)

No matter the measure you use–education, income, heritage, race, family size, job type, language–Americans are moving to greater segregation than we have ever before experienced. This is a no-brainer; it has been the pattern for decades, and it becomes more dominant each year.

We must be satisfied with it, for we are doing nothing, absolutely nothing to change it. Certainly not in higher education.

My students, most of them first-generation college students, many of them immigrants, almost all of them from the less fortunate “side of the tracks” in one way or another (generally in many), are still sold the dream that they can make it to the other side of the divides, that their education is going to make a difference. They have been told that degrees are all it takes, told it throughout their education. I work with an Associates degree program, a transfer program meant to prepare students for baccalaureate majors. Few of these students were strong candidates for college in the first place (else they would be at one of the other CUNY campuses) though most of them (even those lacking basic skills) have the intellectual capacity for college work. As in A.A. programs nationwide, however, their success rate is abysmally low. We, like educators everywhere, are working hard to change that–but we still are, also, abetting a situation of growing separation.

What are these students going to do when they do get their Bachelor’s degrees and find that they still aren’t going to get the prize jobs? When are we going to admit to them that the dreams for their futures that we have helped foster can never be realized, that their chances of crossing to the other side are next to nil? When are we going to recognize that we are fooling ourselves–along with our students–when we claim that degrees are enough in themselves? Continue reading

College Is Making Inequality Worse–Potentially, a Terribly Misleading Headline

On Saturday, Salon ran a terrific article by Suzanne Mettler with this headline: “More Bad News for Millennials: College Is Actually Making Inequality Worse” [http://www.salon.com/2014/03/15/more_bad_news_for_millennials_college_is_actually_making_inequality_worse/].

Given the current attention to the issue of income inequality, the headline does a disservice to what is actually a very complex analysis of the economic impact of enrollment and degree-completion rates.

More specifically, the headline seems to locate this article in the middle of the growing debate on the value of a college degree. On the one hand, there has been a chorus of voices pointing to the employment and income advantages of those holding college degrees at every level, from associates to professional degrees and, therefore, calling for dramatic increases in enrollment as an economic necessity. On the other hand, there has been a competing chorus of voices pointing to the increasingly high debt accrued by college graduates and the under-employment of many of those graduates during and immediately after the Great Recession and, therefore, calling for a reappraisal of which college degrees offer economic advantages and for what percentage of students the cost is economically justifiable.

For Mettler—and this is very much to her credit—this debate over the value of a college degree is a non-issue. In countering the arguments of Right-Wing ideologues who have continued to frame discussions of higher-education issues in the rhetoric of privilege, Mettler tracks degree-completion rates since World War II and demonstrates that when those rates rose dramatically, as they did in the 1950s and 1960s, the income and standard of living of the average American worker increased proportionately. But when college-completion rates flattened out as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, or increased much more slightly, as they did in the 1990s, and 2000s, the income and standard of living of the average American worker stagnated and even declined. Continue reading

If Picky Eating Is Now a Disorder, Here’s the Remedy–Eat a Plateful of Sausages and Call Me in the Morning if You Don’t Feel Cured

You wouldn’t know it from looking at me now, but as a child I was a very picky eater. I have an anecdote to illustrate just how picky an eater I was. And if you bear with me long enough, I’ll explain why I think that this discussion may be of broader interest.

I grew up in my grandfather’s house. There were nine of us—my grandfather, my aunt and my uncle, my parents, myself and my three siblings—and my great uncle who lived next door and was a widower, often ate with us as well. My aunt and uncle were siblings and single and worked full-time, she as an executive secretary and he as a diesel mechanic. The house was large, and when my grandmother died when I was about a year old, my grandfather asked my mother essentially to cook and to keep the house clean in exchange for our living there rent-free.

On my mother’s side, my ancestry was German and Polish, and on my father’s side, my ancestry was Austrian/Russian/Rusyn or Ruthenian (more on that in a still pending follow-up to a previous post). For a while when I thought that I had settled on the idea that I had Russian ancestry, I became fond of describing my German-Polish-Russian ancestry and then saying, “So if it sometimes seems that I am at war with myself, now you know why.”

But, despite this ethnic mix, there was one absolute point of almost universal agreement in our home—on food. Everything was fried. Even the mashed potatoes. The one exception was the vegetables, which were always boiled. And at every meal that didn’t feature some sort of beef or pork roast, or whole chickens or a whole turkey or ham, there was some sort of “-wurst.” Continue reading

“Cultural Taxation”—A Stealth Killer of Professional Careers

This is a guest post by Cecil Canton, a professor of criminal justice at CSU Sacramento. He is also associate vice-president for affirmative action at the California Faculty Association and is on the executive committee of the AAUP-CBC.

Every tenure-track faculty member in the Academy, neophyte or seasoned veteran, is responsible for teaching courses, building a record of scholarship, and providing service to the institution to meet the standards of the retention, promotion, and tenure process.

These processes take on increased and amplified weight for underrepresented faculty and faculty of color in predominantly white institutions. Continue reading

On the Issues: American Higher Education–Separate and Unequal?

An “On the Issues” Post from the Campaign for the future of Higher Education [http://futureofhighered.org]


A recent report, “Separate & Unequal,” released by the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, is introduced with a provocative statement: “The higher education system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations.”  The study goes on to detail ways in which the United States is moving toward an entrenched two-tiered higher education system based on race/ethnicity. Continue reading

Not a Whole Lot Better than the “N-Word” and in Many Ways a Whole Lot Worse

While Riley Cooper Was Getting Drilled, a College President Largely Got a Pass

Earlier this summer, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper became the unceasing focus of media attention because while he was attending a Kenny Chesney concert, he got into an altercation with an African-American security guard and used the “N-word.” The incident probably would have remained just another ugly little off-season episode involving an NFL player, overshadowed by the actual felonies committed by other NFL players, but the exchange was captured in a video that then went viral.

I have no desire to defend Cooper or anyone else for using racial or ethnic slurs. But the whole thing quickly assumed ridiculous proportions. Commentators worried whether Riley Cooper’s teammates’ would ever again “be able to forgive him or to trust him,” whether they would be able to “move beyond their feelings of bewilderment and betrayal.” ESPN started to become dangerously close to indistinguishable from Oprah or Dr. Phil. The media swoon became so suffocating that the Eagles sent Cooper off for several days of sensitivity training (unfortunate echoes, here, in Bob Filner’s abbreviated gender-sensitivity therapy), and Cooper vowed to “work hard” on his “problem.” Continue reading

Paula Dean, the Voting Rights Act, the Affirmative Action Rulings, and Changes in American Attitudes towards Racist Language and Race

If your response to the title of this post is that this seems too broad a range of topics to tackle in a single blog post, give me a chance. I will try to be more succinct than I sometimes am.

The one thing that Paula Dean has said during her weepy apology tour of the morning talk shows and cable news shows that is absolutely true is that if we were all held publicly accountable for the most stupidly insensitive and offensive things that we have ever said, we would all be subject to the figurative stoning that she is experiencing. Unfortunately for her, most of us are not public figures who will be publicly held accountable in this way.

I personally think that if she had made a career out of cooking healthy dishes and had not previously created controversy by trying to become a spokesperson for Type 2 Diabetes when her career has been based on promoting the very food choices that most contribute to the incidence of the disease, she would have gotten off somewhat easier on the racist comments. More people would have given her a pass if they were convinced that it was something that she had said at some ambiguous time in the past—though she kind of sabotaged that rationalization by overplaying it, as if she were now a centenarian who could barely remember the grand balls and banquets on those ante-bellum plantations.

The rush to desert her by her corporate sponsors has been both predictable and predictably hypocritical. Continue reading

Supreme Court hears arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas

This is a guest post by Yen Tran, a legal fellow in the AAUP’s Washington office. 

On Wednesday, I attended part of the US Supreme Court’s oral arguments in the case Fisher v. University of Texas.  As a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, a minority student, a Texas resident, and someone interested in higher education law and civil rights, I was especially interested in hearing the oral arguments in this case.  I arrived at the Supreme Court around six in the morning, and I instantly wished I got there earlier; the impossibly long line wrapped from the steps of the Court to around the side of the Library of Congress across the street.  Although I did not get a seat to see the entire argument (apparently the last person to get a seat arrived at four in the morning, according to an informal survey), I did see two three-minutes segments, and because I was part of the last group admitted from the rotating line, I got to observe almost a half hour of oral arguments.  As a result, I was fortunate enough see the bulk of the Gregory Garre’s argument and all of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s argument as they defended the University of Texas admission policy, as well as Bert W. Rein’s rebuttal, who represented Abigail Fisher. Continue reading

Fisher v. Texas, Part Two

Last week, I wrote about the upcoming Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. I recently attended an event sponsored by the ACLU, discussing the upcoming court term, including this case. There are a few unusual elements to the case that I want to talk about this week. Once again I am indebted to Dennis Parker of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program for explaining these issues and his thoughts on them.

The first is the unusually high number of amicus briefs filed in the case, mostly in support of the university (the AAUP has signed on to one of these briefs). Other briefs on behalf of the school came from:

Sixteen members of the US Senate and sixty-six members of the House of Representatives;

Thirty-eight members of the Texas legislature;

Dozens of Fortune 100 companies;

A bipartisan group of former commissioners of the FCC;

And the United States government itself.

There were many, many more. Read the full list here. The list of interested parties on both sides show that this case is about much more than affirmative action and the college admissions process—it raises questions of what “diversity” means, and what its value is or should be in our society. These questions affect not only schools, but businesses, governments, and individuals.

As Steven Shapiro, the legal director of the ACLU, put it last week, this case makes us confront the very idea of diversity. Is “diversity” just a statistical measure of students’ races? Will we get to the desired amount of diversity by just making sure that the percentages of students of each race match up to what we want? Or rather, is diversity about the student experience—ensuring that students interact with people different from them as they go about their college careers, particularly in the classroom? If it’s the latter, then ensuring diversity in its own way would be part of a school’s academic freedom.

When this case goes before the Supreme Court on October 10, Justice Elena Kagan will not be present. She has recused herself, presumably because her work while solicitor general included working on this case. What that means is that there’s a possibility of a 4-4 split by the eight justices who do hear the case. If that happens, the lower court’s ruling will stand—a win for the University—but there will be no official ruling, and the arguments and logic of the justices will not be able to set precedent for future cases. But for supporters of affirmative action, that would be a much better result than a ruling against the university.

To even get to a 4-4 tie, one of the traditionally conservative justices (Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, or Thomas) will have to side with the three non-recused traditionally liberal justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, or Sotomayor). As in so many cases, Justice Kennedy seems to be the most likely swing vote. Kennedy opposed the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger decision, but Shapiro speculated that Kennedy’s reasoning was primarily based on the fact that he thought Michigan’s policy was a thinly-veiled quota system. It is very, very hard to argue that the Texas policy is a quota system, since the majority of the students they accept are accepted automatically by virtue of being in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Of course, he may oppose it for another reason.

If five or more justices decide that the Texas policy is unconstitutional, then they will have to decide the question of how much of the Texas admissions policy needs to be revised. Remember that Abigail Fisher, the student who is suing UT in this case, did not automatically get admission by being in the top 10 percent of her class. She applied as part of the secondary policy, which considers race and other factors in filling the remaining slots. It is possible that the justices could decide to keep the top 10 percent policy, but forbid the school from considering race in the secondary process. This would effectively revert the Texas policy back to where it was from 1997-2003.

Or, the justices could go farther, and throw out the entire admissions policy, arguing that even the 10 percent plan was meant to increase racial diversity, and that any attempt to increase diversity is unconstitutional. This would constitute a major setback for affirmative action, and would be surprising, since it would overturn the Grutter decision, which is still less than a decade old.

But it’s hard to guess just how the justices will decide, though it seems reasonable to me to say that the best supporters of the university can hope for is a 4-4 split (I don’t think Alito, Roberts, Scalia, or Thomas will budge on the issue, though I am not a professional court-watcher by any means). Oral arguments will be on October 10, 2012, and transcripts and audio should be available on the court’s website soon after that.