Tonight at 8 p.m., the Michigan Student Assembly’s caravan convoy will be leaving for Washington, toting busloads of University students eager to exact their share of history. They’re heading east to be present for Supreme Court arguments in the University’s affirmative action case.
I’m not going; end-of-semester papers and projects aren’t letting me. But the court will be releasing audio tapes of tomorrow’s arguments (a move unprecedented, except for after Bush v. Gore), which I plan to hear. After three years at the University, I’m still fascinated by this case – and a little tired of it, too. I’ve never known a University of Michigan that wasn’t fighting in the courtroom for its admission policies.
But while I’ve faded out from University civic life and lost the pulse of the ins and outs of trial groupies (I used to be one), I still feel that the lawsuits have been enough of a part of my time in Ann Arbor to allow me to stake my own claim in them. I think I have a right – and a lot of people here do – to tell a lot of this story, years from now, in the first person. In February of 2001, as a second-semester freshman, I skipped school one day and heard the eminent African-American historian John Hope Franklin tell the most absorbing and intense stories I have ever heard firsthand about race in this country.
In the time since I sat in the Detroit courthouse that day, the timbre of campus emotional reaction to these lawsuits has changed dramatically. Not long after my experience in Detroit, during my freshman March and April months here, my friends and I would spend hours eagerly connecting the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary and its fearless (now graduated) leader to Trotskyite movements and international bank accounts. The lawsuits were, to us, a campus politics game. But now, only two years later, The New York Times is running full page Op/Ed spreads on the case. The most respected politicians, organizations, businesses and minds in this country have filed briefs and shared opinions.
So now it’s here. This week, the case will be out of the hands of the intellectual and PR machines grinding out the constant analysis and commentary. After the decision is announced in June, this campus will be a very different place. The anticipation of the close of this trial has been like the anticipation of a graduation: We’re counting down the days, but we’re not quite sure what to do after it’s over. In September we’ll come back to an even more irrelevant Defend Affirmative Action Party and a feisty campus with one less issue to keep it occupied.
But if we’ve learned anything from these lawsuits (and we should have learned a lot), it’s that whatever we’re doing at the University hasn’t closed the gap. The University is still making arguments that diversity is good for everybody, but diversity doesn’t happen when two different colored people sit in the same room or live in the same hall. It only happens when they talk.
Former University president Lee Bollinger once wrote, “Diversity is not merely a desirable addition to a well-run education. It is as essential as the study of the Middle Ages, of international politics and of Shakespeare … It broadens the mind and the intellect – essential goals of education.”
In a Saturday New York Times Op/Ed piece, though, Stanley Rothman discussed the results of a study he conducted in an attempt to verify the University’s basic “diversity is good” assumption. He found, using anonymous surveys, that in “diverse” educational environments, students, faculty and administrators all register “increased dissatisfaction with the quality of education.”
What’s become clear over the last few years – and it’s taken a long and difficult trial for us to figure this very obvious point out – is that affirmative action, as it’s practiced or even imagined, is a half-baked effort. It might be putting students in the seats, but the diversity we’re getting out from different-colored people isn’t close, for most of us, to the kind that Bollinger envisions.
When the trial’s over, if all goes well, the University will have some time and resources to spend on phase follow-through – a phase that has to work if we want to convince ourselves that the principal argument for affirmative action isn’t overly romantic and naive.
While many groups have filed amicus briefs on behalf of the University, there’s been growing discussion over the opinions of the individuals behind those groups – most feel uncomfortable with affirmative action. If we win this case, we’ll have activist effort to spare. It would most wisely be invested in closing the gap between what most of us say about affirmative action and what most of us think.