Op-Ed: The missing students of color and the rest of us

Sunday, April 2, 2017 - 1:08pm

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For the past seven years, a specter has been haunting my classes. 

I have been teaching classes on United States political and social movement history and on the history of race in the U.S. at the University of Michigan since the mid-1990s. Sometime around 2010, I noticed a change in my classrooms. My classes, I came to realize, had been profoundly altered by Proposal 2, the statewide referendum that in 2006 banned the use of affirmative action in college admissions in Michigan.

It was not so much that there were fewer Black, Latinx and Native American students. There probably was a slight decline, but I had taught classes that were all-white or nearly all-white before. Nor was there a significant change in the political viewpoints expressed by students.

The change was less tangible and at times felt difficult to put a finger on. Gradually, I began to realize that the students of color in my classes had become less vocal, less assertive. When they did talk about their experiences at the University, I sensed that they felt significantly more isolated within the campus community than had previous generations of my students. As a result, they seemed less willing to engage white students in discussions about racial justice.

But it was the difference in the white students in my classes that was even more striking to me. They clearly had less experience interacting with students of color than previous generations of white students and less of a sense of how the University experience was different for students of color than it was for members of the white majority.

With students of color making up a smaller proportion of the University’s student community, students of every race and ethnicity came into my classroom with fewer cross-racial experiences and therefore with less confidence in their ability to honestly discuss the complexities of U.S. race relations in a mixed racial setting. Increasingly, I came to feel that my classes were haunted by the ghosts of the students of color who were no longer able or willing to enroll at the University because of Prop. 2. Without the voices of these missing students, the quality of learning in my courses on the U.S. racial experience was fundamentally compromised.

For the University bicentennial exhibit titled “Remembering Students Missing After Proposal 2,” I have estimated that, in the decade since voters approved Prop. 2 in November 2006, at least 1,102 Black, Latinx and Native American undergraduate students were either unable or chose not to enroll at the University. I arrived at this estimate by comparing the number of underrepresented minority freshman who enrolled in the University between 2007 and 2016 with the number who would have enrolled in those years if the University had been able to maintain the percentage of underrepresented students who were enrolled in 2006. (You can read about how I made this calculation on the bicentennial exhibit’s website.) It is the specter of the missing 1,102 unenrolled students of color that haunts my classroom.

In an undergraduate population of nearly 30,000 students, the loss of just more than 100 students of color per graduating class wouldn’t seem to have such a dramatic impact. In fact, according to the Office of the Registrar’s enrollment reports, the number of URM undergraduates was, at its low point in 2014, only 11 percent lower than it had been before Prop. 2 went into effect. Still, the loss of these students has fundamentally remade the campus climate and educational environment.

Why did the loss of this relatively small number of students have such a significant impact in my classroom? The answer, I believe, lies in the concept of “critical mass,” the idea that it takes a critical mass of minority faculty and students not only for students of color to thrive within a predominately white institution, but also for the entire campus community to realize the educational benefits of racial diversity. The concept of “critical mass” was crucial to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases, which ruled it was constitutional for the University to use race as a factor in admissions.

Since I first entered college in 1981 and for most of my years as an undergraduate, as a graduate student and finally as a faculty member, I had been a beneficiary of “critical mass.” But it wasn’t until I saw the impact of Prop. 2 in my classroom that I came to fully appreciate how important critical mass was to the experiences of students of color and therefore to the realization of the educational benefits of racial diversity. Students who feel invisible and marginalized within the larger college community are unlikely to feel the confidence necessary to speak up and have an impact on classroom discussions even in those rare occasions when they are not the only person of color in the classroom. All of us in the University community suffer when the promise of “critical mass” goes unrealized.

Matthew Countryman is an associate professor of history, American culture and African-American studies in LSA.