Research on Racial Diversity’s Value and the University of Texas Case

Our conservative-controlled Supreme Court, an essentially undemocratic US institution, has decided to hear the Fisher v. University of Texas case that involves the use of racial characteristics as one factor in a multifaceted (leadership ability, other personal abilities and talents, family situation, racial characteristics) supplemental admissions program aimed at more significant desegregation of what was once an all-white, Jim-Crowed student body. This modest University of Texas undergraduate admissions approach–itself weaker that earlier more aggressive “affirmative action” to break down decades of racial barriers in higher education–has been attacked, again, as harmful to the long-dominant white group that controls most U.S. institutions. Apparently, many white Americans still cannot even envision rather small-scale “losses” in white privilege and power from such modest desegregation programs in higher education and other institutions in the 21st century. (Significantly, however, both the federal district judge and the circuit court judges ruled in favor of the U. Texas program.)

One issue raised in recent Supreme Court decisions dealing with racial desegregation in education under the term “affirmative action” is whether such desegregation has significant educational benefits that validate it under our current mostly individualistic and backtracking court decisions dealing with what is in fact systemic racism.

A University of North Carolina press release describes new research examining benefits of racial diversity for educational programs, in this case for law schools. A ten-year study by a psychologist (Abigail T. Panter), sociologist (Walter Allen), educational research professor (Linda F. Wightman), and law professor (Charles E. Daye) found an array of positive educational benefits.

This press release notes a few issues in the University of Texas case and links to useful pdfs of this social science research (a research article pdf) and of the amicus brief filed by the University of North Carolina–one of ten universities expected to file in support of the Texas position.

The press release summarizes a few points about the study and its significance:

[They] examined links of race (and other factors) with educational diversity, tracking law students from their enrollment in law school through graduation . . . . data from more than 6,500 incoming law students attending a random representative sample of 50 American Bar Association-approved U.S. law schools.

Racial diversity in student populations, not surprisingly, encouraged more significant interpersonal interaction across racial lines and had

positive educational outcomes that benefit students, institutions and society. In addition, when a law school’s racial diversity was significant and group interaction was high, graduating law students perceived their law school as more open and respectful of diverse ideas.

One result for post-law-school careers, the report indicates, is to make graduates broader and more “culturally competent,” as the often sanitized jargon of academia says. More accurate understandings about matters of “race” and racism often result from these more desegregated educational settings–most especially for white students who in the past are likely to have lived largely segregated lives in their neighborhoods and public areas they most often frequent.

. . . you’re going to be dealing with all kinds of races when you graduate, so you better have some of that respect or that appreciation that people can think differently,” said Aaron, a Northern California student quoted in the article.

Our past of 400 years of racial oppression will not be remedied by a couple of decades of modest to weak remedial programs for that past and its continuing impact in the form of racial discrimination. Law professor Charles Daye accented the point that racial differences are essential admissions factors to consider, among other important factors, if law schools (and other educational programs) are to be desegregated enough for a major educational impact:

“There is no other factor that will adequately target the qualities needed in a student body in which the students can interact and learn from each other and learn the ways the others see the world.”

One clear sign of the continuing backwardness on racism matters in the United States, of the continuing power of white-controlled systemic racism and its racial framing, is that even such a modest program of desegregation of the student body at the University of Texas is under such aggressive white challenge.

The colorblind mythology central to contemporary versions of that white racial frame, naively or intentionally, continues to assert fairy tales about this country being “post-racial” and “beyond race.” Unfortunately, those fairy tales are still believed by a majority of the white elite and the general white population, and by many others, in the face of mounds of empirical data refuting such notions. One does not have to look far to see the dramatic contradictions, such as the still widespread racist joking and other racist commentaries among white students on college campuses and on thousands of internet websites and among elite white politicians and judges. As is often the case, important societal frames like that white racial frame tend to trump facts about our actual societal realities.