Almost a month has passed since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The sight of the band’s procession, red, white and blue Obama signs and an integrated, multiracial crowd chanting in unity on the Diag will not soon be forgotten. But November also summons another recent historical moment that contrasts sharply with the festivities a month ago: the passage of Proposal 2, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.

(Angela Cesere/Daily)

Passed in 2006, and implemented in 2007, the ballot initiative banned affirmative action in the state of Michigan. It had a significant effect on the University’s admission’s policies. One black LSA student described the campus atmosphere on Nov. 8, 2006, as “filled with anger and disbelief, especially in the black community. Amongst my white peers it was drastically different. It was kind of like ‘that sucks now lets move on.’ ”

This student asked for anonymity because he did not want to draw attention to himself when he applies for jobs in the upcoming winter semester. But his feeling — the fear that talking about Proposal 2 and affirmative action will result in having your opinion discounted as passive victimization or garner a reputation for being a race relations malcontent — is prevalent on campus.

“In the Business School it is such a sensitive topic,” said a black student who asked for anonymity so he wouldn’t be labeled a “crying victim.” “I came to Ann Arbor with the perception that this was a progressive community and I see the same racial fractures here in the form of self-segregation as I’ve seen in Chicago or Washington, D.C.”

Despite all the emotions initially surrounding the passage of the proposal, the conversation about affirmative action at the University has largely fallen silent. More than two years later, tough questions on race persist.

What are the barriers for discussing affirmative action? What are student perspectives on affirmative action? What progress was made since affirmative action’s inception? What have been the experiences of students on a post-affirmative action campus?

People of all colors and backgrounds are impacted by affirmative action. But in order to fully account for the historical origination of affirmative action and limit the scope of this article, we focus on the dynamic between African Americans and whites, and affirmative action as it relates to higher education.

BARRIERS TO CONVERSATION

The actual definition of affirmative action is a contested one. For some, it negatively connotes the rhetoric of “entitlement,” “redistribution” or — as it was described in a 2008 Indianapolis Star article, “Equality Beyond Oval Office” — “a particularly hard preference of one aspirant over another” or in contrast as “government, colleges and industries considering an applicant’s race as one factor among many.”

One white LSA freshman, who preferred to be anonymous so as not to draw attention to himself, said he is not comfortable talking about affirmative action in public, but definitely doesn’t agree with it.
“If affirmative action really worked, (race and gender) wouldn’t still be a problem,” he said.

As the term “affirmative action” sometimes functions as a proxy for “race,” it can be a hard topic to tackle given our respective histories and personal investment.

“Interracial conversations on race are usually had on this superficial level where whites acknowledge the history of black subjugation and oppression and it’s legacy but only want to offer lip service,” said University graduate student Ciera Burnett, who is black. “Any policy or initiative that remedies this will involve some form of redistribution, whether in taxes or preference. But no one wants to talk about this.”

Making progress in this conversation must also be an exercise in how much information we’ve retained this campaign season about the “racial stalemate” President-Elect Obama mentioned in his famous speech on race, “A More Perfect Union.” Obama’s speech on race offers that it’s also important to not dismiss “legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.”

It’s tempting to frame the debate as a “litmus test for one’s human decency” in the words of T. Alexander Smith and Lenhan O’Connell’s 1997 text “Black Anxiety, White Guilt and The Politics of Status Frustration.” But to do this would ignore the findings of a 2004 study conducted by Dr. William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, that found 19 of America’s elite colleges and universities did not give additional consideration to low-income students when considering applicants, thus not accounting for poor whites.

The affirmative action in higher education debate straddles two lofty concepts: racial justice in America and the creation of the ideal educational environment. In this attempt to begin a new conversation about affirmative action, we wrestle with these concepts when measuring progress nationally and here at the University.

Making progress in this conversation must also be an exercise in how much information we’ve retained this campaign season about the “racial stalemate” President-Elect Obama mentioned in his famous speech on race, “A More Perfect Union.” Obama’s speech on race offers that it’s also important to not dismiss “legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.”

It’s tempting to frame the debate as a “litmus test for one’s human decency” in the words of T. Alexander Smith and Lenhan O’Connell’s 1997 text “Black Anxiety, White Guilt and The Politics of Status Frustration.” But to do this would ignore the findings of a 2004 study conducted by Dr. William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, that found 19 of America’s elite colleges and universities did not give additional consideration to low-income students when considering applicants, thus not accounting for poor whites.

The affirmative action in higher education debate straddles two lofty concepts: racial justice in America and the creation of the ideal educational environment. In this attempt to begin a new conversation about affirmative action, we wrestle with these concepts when measuring progress nationally and here at the University.

MEASURING PROGRESS

When attempting to quantify the progress that has been the result of affirmative action policies in America, the statistical breakdown is a reasonable starting point. In 1965, when President Johnson advocated for equality as a result rather than just a theory in his commencement address at Howard University, the diversity rates at colleges and universities were abysmal.

At the time of Johnson’s address, 4.8 percent of undergraduate students, 2 percent of medical students and 1 percent of law students in the country were black, according to an article in the summer 2004 Journal of College Admission.

Ultimately, resistance and affirmative action legislation led to increased enrollment and graduation rates for students of color in American colleges and universities. A 2001 National Center for Education Statistics report showed that in 1988 black undergraduates accounted for 11 percent and Latinos counted for 9 percent of the total enrollment at colleges and universities.

The most recent Census Bureau’s reports that the number of black adults with advanced degrees has nearly doubled and more than a half a million more black students are in college today than in the early 1990s. It is statistics like these that advocates of “race neutral” policies for higher education cite as reason to revise or eradicate affirmative action.

But these people do not always ask the right question: who exactly is progressing?

Stephen L. Carter, a law professor at Yale and author of the Times article, “Affirmative Distraction,” opined that affirmative action can otherwise be known as “racial justice on the cheap” when our measuring sticks for progress solely evaluate “where children start and where children come out” without ever fully addressing “those who suffer from the legacy of racial oppression who are not competing for spaces in the entering classes of the nation’s most selective colleges.”

A Native American law student who asked for anonymity because he didn’t want future law firms to look unfavorably on his opinions advocated for the importance of race.

“Class is an important category that needs to be taken into account but people are disadvantaged because of the color of their skin regardless of class,” he said.

This discrepancy is fully apparent in the 2001 report from The Urban Institute, “Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t?” The most recent findings show that nationwide, blacks graduate from high school at a rate of 50 percent. On average, African American, Latino and Native American populations graduate at 55 percent compared to the 75 percent of whites and Asians.

The notion of progress extracted from data on university admissions should not be entirely dismissed, but it is misleading to couch that progress in rhetoric of racial equality considering that more than 50 percent, at minimum, of the Black community doesn’t even figure into the college admissions data. A true measurement of racial progress in this complex landscape would address the long-term consequences of legalized discrimination. Yet, higher education admissions are discussed as if they address this complex landscape of issues, when the scope of affirmative action policies in higher education is limited, though the two are interrelated.

Obama, who is a proponent of affirmative action, described these forms of legalized discrimination in his speech on race, saying that “…blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, …which meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.”

Thomas Shapiro’s 2004 text “The Hidden Costs of Being African American” discusses racial inequalities between whites and blacks with respect to housing that ultimately impact education. He coins the term “transformative assets,” which can be defined as the “inherited wealth from previous generations that lift families beyond their own achievements.”

By the same logic, families can also ‘inherit’ poverty. Shapiro argues that a lack of these assets combined with racial discrimination, in areas like home ownership, crucially impact the everyday lives of many black families. This in essence perpetuates a “cycle of poverty.”

By the same logic, families can also “inherit” poverty. Shapiro argues that a lack of these assets combined with racial discrimination in areas such as homeownership impact education because the monetary value of homes translate directly into public school funding. And adequate public schools translate into adequate collegiate preparation that makes students competitive for admission into institutions such as the University of Michigan.

MICHIGAN AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

The University has a long legacy of trying to obtain diversity that extends far beyond Supreme Court hearings and ballot measure battles. In “Defending Diversity,” a text on the University of Michigan’s journey to acquire a diverse environment, it notes that prioritizing the educational value of students from different regions or different socio-economic backgrounds can be dated as far back as 1879 to initiatives led by former University President James B. Angell.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that race and gender started to be considered in the admissions process. However, it’s seldom acknowledged that affirmative action at the University has always considered race among many other factors that, for better or for worse, have not been afforded the same scrutiny. The objections to the 1996 “quota” system exemplify the difference between the negative attention that race preferences garnered in comparison to the indifference shown to other criteria.

During the life of the University’s point system, points were given to students based on numerous identity categories. Simply living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula awarded prospective students 16 points; 4 points were given to students with alumni parents or grandparents; 10 points were even awarded to students coming from top high schools. Yet, this Supreme Court ruling did not question the constitutionality of other admission policies, such as geography, in this decision.

“I don’t understand why race is [only] talked about in terms of preference in the admissions process when athletes and those who have legacy status are given extra consideration,” said Lishaun Francis, Chair of Students of Color in Public Policy. “An attack on race and not the other categories is just racially biased.”

In the aftermath of the 2003 Supreme Court decision, the undergraduate office of admissions espoused an approach that took on the policies of the law school’s holistic process. The 2003 decision appeared as a compromise for those on all sides of the debate. Yet, those who sought to end affirmative action continued on and eventually succeeded.

Since Prop. 2’s implementation in 2007, ones geographic, legacy or athletic status, among other factors, can be counted in the admissions process. But to be clear, nothing has changed since 2003 except for the exclusion of race, ethnicity, gender or national origin. The tool that has been used to aid in the University’s quest for the ideal education environment calls upon the late president Angell’s commitment to prioritizing geographic and socioeconomic factors.

The new system, Descriptor Plus, is a computer software program that allows the Office of Admissions to identify geographic areas as they correlate with demographics that are underrepresented at the University. This system provides information on the racial and gender break down of an area, however application reviewers are not allowed to proactively utilize race and gender information when making decisions on admissions.

But on the University’s “Diversity Matters” Website, the University fully discloses the limitations of this tool. “Socioeconomic status does not work as a substitute for race, and that has been shown clearly at other schools that have tried it. And it is not at all helpful in addressing participation on the basis of gender.”

Another reservation about Descriptor Plus is that its effectiveness in extracting underrepresented students is based on the segregated and in some cases failed state of the public school system. This was revealed in a in a 2006 Harvard University Study that found America’s public schools were more segregated than they were 15 years ago and that Michigan had one of the highest amounts of segregated schools in the United States. That is to say, in some ways, diversity gains for the University rely on homogenous nature of many neighborhoods across Michigan.

However, the University has made its best efforts to account for integrating high schools into their larger mission for diversity. In an interview with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions Director of Recruitment and Operations, Erica Sanders, discusses the meaning of Susan O’ Connor’s 25-year term limit on affirmative action in the 2003 rulings.

“This call from former Justice O’Connor meant that higher education institutions would be active participants and partners with public schools,” Sanders said. “There are 10 areas in the state that are being targeted where the University builds relationships with these schools, conducts follow-up processes and builds a pipeline.”

“Pipelines” is the term Sanders used and reused to describe the many ways the University invests in students who show academic promise and already consider the University a viable option in as early as the ninth or 10th grade. The University assists with essays, and offers a range of college preparation activities. Additionally, the University has redoubled their efforts in the Undergraduate Admissions Office in Detroit.

For now, minority enrollment has not seen a free-fall to the bottom but has decreased by .4 percent in the last enrollment cycle. Faculty and students, however, offer mixed results about the post-affirmative action debate and the University climate.

“To look at the numbers assessing whether there are more or less students of color fails to complicate the issues efficiently,” said Robin Coleman, a professor of Communications and AfroAmerican and African Studies. “From students I hear anecdotally, that one of the measurements of diversity were tables at the cafeteria. These numbers stand in for students involved in organizations. And they have seen that representation diminish.”

LSA junior Elaina Shope, who is white, said she is for affirmative action, but doesn’t think diversity has been affected much since the ban.

“The racial climate is good, there is widespread diversity and cultural respect,” Shope said. “I am for affirmative action, everyone has equal rights and we are all entitled to the same things.”

Looking ahead, it’s difficult to tell where the affirmative action dialog will go next. This past November offered potential to change the course of affirmative action policy. While Nebraska joined the ranks of a handful of states that now must seek other alternatives for diversifying along race and gender lines, the state of Colorado became the first in the nation to uphold affirmative action by defeating a ballot measure. We have a long way to 2028, the year in which former Justice O’Conner predicts that race and gender will no longer be categories of marginalization.

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