The U.S. Supreme Court, as I’m sure you all know by now, upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action yesterday in a 6-2 decision, with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting. (Elena Kagan, recused herself, presumably due to the fact that she was involved in the case prior to joining the Supreme Court, during her tenure as U.S. Solicitor General.)
While perhaps not the objective of the Supreme Court in deciding Schuette v. BAMN, or the 58% of Michigan voters who cast their ballots in 2006 in favor of the disingenuously titled “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” or Proposition 2, the end result will almost assuredly mean that we’ll see fewer black students at Michigan universities, and fewer college-educated black adults in the state for the foreseeable future.
“It’s impossible,” said U-M Admissions Director Ted Spencer recently, “to achieve diversity on a regular basis if race cannot be used as one of many factors.” And the facts since 2006 would seem to support him on that. In spite of the fact that U-M has made an effort to take family income and other factors into account when assessing potential students, the result has still been a steady decline in diversity, as demonstrated in the following New York Times chart.
In 2001, as you can see, 10% of incoming freshmen at UM were black. By 2011, however, that number had dropped to 5%. And, over the same period, the percentage of college-aged Michigan residents who are black rose from 15% to 19% of the population. So, while the percentage of black college-aged students in the state is growing, their representation at UM, and other public universities in the state, is steadily sliding. And things are getting worse. In 2013, black enrollment at the University of Michigan dipped even further, to 4.82%.
[For what it's worth, UM's admission of hispanic students has remained relatively stable over this same period. It's probably also worth noting that no one, as far as I can tell, charts asian acceptance rates.]
Michigan, by the way, is not alone. As of today, eight states have enacted legislative measures to end affirmative action, effectively making it illegal to give preferential treatment based on race when assessing applications at public institutions, like colleges. These states are; California (’96), Washington (’98), Florida (’99), Michigan (’06), Nebraska (’08), Arizona (’10), New Hampshire (’11), and Oklahoma (’12). And, you can be sure, now that the Supreme Court has weighed in, that other states will follow suit. [note: A Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin just today proposed a ballot initiative mirroring Michigan's.]
As Justice Sotomayor noted in her lengthy, biting dissent, Michigan voters “changed the basic rules of the political process… in a manner that uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities.” And now we’re left to deal with the consequences.
Apparently some, like Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, see this as a huge victory against racism. “Our state Constitution requires equal treatment in college admissions, because it is fundamentally wrong to treat people differently based on the color of their skin… A majority of Michigan voters embraced the ideal of equal treatment in 2006, and today their decision was affirmed.”
I know it’s difficult, especially given the fact that the pro-Prop 2 folks willingly accepted the the endorsement of the KKK, but let’s take Schuette at his word when he says he wants a color-blind Michigan, where there’s a level playing field for all. How do we get there in a post-affirmative action world? How do we ensure that students in Detroit, for instance, if they work hard, can still get into the University of Michigan?
I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear yours as well.
First, what if we ensured that inner city kids have the same kind of educational experiences that students in, say, Ann Arbor have? What if, instead of investing $9,723 per year, per pupil in Ann Arbor, like we did in 2009, and $7,660 per year, per pupil in Detroit, we spent equally across the state? Might that not go a long way toward getting us to the level playing field that Schuette claims to want? After all, how can inner city kids compete equally when admissions officers look for well-rounded students, and they’re going to schools where art, music and sports programs are being consistently slashed due to budget constraints?
Or, here’s a second idea. What if we implement a “free market” solution, allowing people to go to whichever schools they prefer? I know Republicans love free market solutions, and it could really work. Good schools would grow. And bad ones would go away. Ypsi is only about 7 miles from Ann Arbor, and Detroit is only about 15 miles from Birmingham. And I suspect that we could find donors out there to invest in buses.
Or, since State sponsorship of our institutions of higher learning has been in serious decline over the past decade, I suppose the University of Michigan could explore the possibility of turning private, which would allow them to take whomever they choose, and stay true to their commitment to diversity.
I should add that I’m only in part being sarcastic. The fact that it’s been over 50 years since the passage of the Civil Right Act, and we’re still talking about the necessity for affirmative action, tells me that maybe it’s time to explore other, more aggressive ways to address the black-white achievement gap. And, if the Republicans want to get rid of affirmative action, I say we attempt something ten times more ambitious. And I’m not talking about handing out a few laptops and encouraging our Republican Governor’s friends to set up virtual charter schools. I’m talking about putting everything on the table, including hiring the best teachers in the world, establishing inner city boarding schools, and instituting free pre-school programs.