Dangers in Normalizing Racism: Trump Wildly Attacks Obama

Sometimes it seems that only late night comedians such as Seth Myers have nailed Donald J. Trump’s bigotry and normalization of racism. According to Myers,

We can’t become immune to it. We cannot allow it to become normalized.

Referring to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Muslim immigrants to the United States knowingly protecting terrorists, Myers noted, “To be clear, this is bigotry, plain and simple.”

The tepid reporting by most cable news and print commentators of Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory comments at a rally near Fort Lauderdale, Florida on August 10, 2016 declaring that President Barack Obama “honors Isis” and is the “founder of Isis” fails to identify the flagrantly racist nature of his most recent attack. In Trump’s words, President Obama “is the most valuable player” for Isis. Even a Trump supporter on a recent CNN broadcast, admitted that Trump’s emphasis on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, in the Fort Lauderdale rally, might have been designed to suggest that Obama is a foreign sympathizer.

After reiterating his claim of President Obama founding Isis several times on August 10 including during a news interview with conservative commentator, Hugh Hewitt, Trump backtracked the next day, declaring his remarks were simply “sarcasm” and adding “but not that sarcastic to be honest with you.”

Most subsequent news accounts of the rally have carefully avoided the mention of race and launched into extensive analyses of the ways in which Obama could or could not be deemed responsible for the rise of Isis. Even Hillary Clinton’s tweets in response to Trump’s commented were understated and did not mention the racist nature of these comments. As she wrote,

No, Barack Obama is not the founder of Isis. . . . Anyone willing to sink so low, so often should never be allowed to serve as our Commander-in Chief.

Ironically, relatively few commentators and mostly those from minority groups have zeroed in on the racist nature of Trump’s delegitimization of President Obama and the ways in which Trump has galvanized the anger of blue-collar and other white workers about their perceived loss of stature in an increasingly minority majority country. The New York Times Editorial Board on August 11 did identify Trump’s “racist rage” against the president as “appealing to the mob.”

Much earlier, during the Democratic primary race, Bernie Sanders keyed in on the “unprecedented level of obstructionism” against President Obama, naming the birther issue that Trump raised as specific evidence of what he termed “a racist effort.” As Sanders keenly observed,

No one has asked for my birth certificate. Maybe it’s the color of my skin, who knows?

The delegitimization of President Obama re-launched by Donald Trump draws on consistent themes that Trump has promoted for more than five years. Trump has repeatedly blasted President Obama as incompetent, a theme frequently leveled against minorities and women as underscored in recent sociological research. The implication that Obama is a secret Kenyan-born Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists labels the President as un-American, an outsider, and a foreigner. Add this to Trump’s call for a ban on immigration of Muslim immigrants and the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States; his declaration of Mexican immigrants as in many cases drug dealers, criminals, and racists; his reluctance to disavow the Klu Klux Klan; his criticism of the mother of Army Captain Humayun Khan; and the claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased due to his Mexican heritage: it all adds up to a single, irrefutable refrain.

As Nicholas Kristoff concludes after analyzing four decades of a consistent pattern in Trump’s words and actions, “I don’t see what else to call it but racism.”

Are Asian Americans Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action?

Asian American communities are clearly split on whether affirmative action in college and university admissions disadvantages Asian American applicants. Add to this the fact that some institutions do not even consider Asian Americans as underrepresented minorities (URM’s) in their employment outreach efforts or student enrollment processes.

Complaints filed with the Department of Education suggest that being Asian American can be a disadvantage at some Ivy League institutions. Take, for example, Michael Wang who had a perfect ACT score and had taken 13 Advanced Placement Courses. Wang filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education after not being admitted to Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, alleging discrimination based on race. According to Princeton sociologists Thomas Epenshade and Alexandria Radford’s study of eight selective public and private universities, Asian American applicants at these institutions received a 140 point penalty compared with whites. In the view of commentator Hrishikesh Joshi, since affirmative action addresses historic injustice such as that faced by Asian Americans for generations, it is difficult to understand how this reverse differentiation argument can be applied to Asian Americans when compared to whites. The exclusionary educational treatment of Asian Americans today is reminiscent of the strategies by which elite universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton limited Jewish enrollment beginning in the 1920’s and continuing into the World War II period.

Opposition to affirmative action by Asian Americans includes the complaint filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) with the Departments of Education and Justice in May 2016, noting the decrease or flat level in Asian American student representation at Dartmouth, Brown, and Yale over the past twenty years as a result of “holistic” admissions review processes that consider race as one factor among many. In addition, the Project on Fair Representation, a one-person organization run by Edward Blum, a wealthy conservative entrepreneur who initiated the Fisher v. University of Texas lawsuit among other legal challenges, has filed suit against Harvard University based on the alleged differential treatment of Asian Americans. The Harvard suit charges that Harvard has set admissions quotas for Asian American students and subjected them to higher standards than other students as well as to stereotype bias.

So why the sudden interest in Asian Americans as reflected in Blum’s efforts to recruit Asian American students to his cause?

As Alvin Evans and I point out in Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, this move is designed to splinter the interests of ethnic and racial minority groups. In an article in the UCLA Law Review, Nancy Leong underscores the fact that conservatives who oppose affirmative action are misusing Asian Americans to portray the “wrongs” of affirmative action. They have not shown an interest in major issues that impact the well-being of Asian Americans such as fair housing, voting redistricting, and employment opportunities. By characterizing the harm of affirmative action as applying to both whites and Asian Americans, conservatives can mask their underlying opposition to programs that disrupt racial hierarchy through the alleged “harm” of affirmative action. As Leong explains,

affirmative action opponents wish to conscript Asian Americans into their opposition because doing so makes them look less racist.

By contrast, consider the fact that in employment processes for federal contractors under Executive Order 11246 and Chapter 60 of Title 41 of the Federal Code of Regulations, minority groups are considered in aggregate rather than separately. Since all minority groups face forms of oppression historically and up to the present day, this broader grouping of minorities acknowledges the need to address the common barriers faced by minority groups within institutions, agencies, and corporations that receive more than $50,000 in federal contracts and have 50 or more employees.

We know that Asian Americans face significant barriers in their upward mobility. As Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou underscore in their recent book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, Asian Americans are extremely limited in their representation in leadership positions at the academic department and university administrative level, and make up less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and 2 percent of college presidents. To assert that Asian Americans as a “model minority” do not need assistance in overcoming social and institutional discrimination overlooks the structural, organizational, and behavioral barriers they face as members of an American minority group. In their insightful interview study, The Myth of the Model Minority, Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin indicate that the subtle and even blatant forms of stereotyping and discrimination faced by Asian Americans is an untold story and represents “a very harmful invisibility (p. 3).” Because Asian Americans lack a constituency, have few public intellectuals, and have failed to organize effectively as a minority resistance group, forms of discriminatory treatment can be exercised without fear of retaliation.

The need for Asian Americans to work collectively with members of other minority groups for racial and social justice is best summed up by Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California’s Hastings College of Law:

Add to that the anger over college admissions, which has been portrayed by demagogues as inexorably pitting Asian Americans against African Americans (and Hispanics) — a framing that is as inaccurate as it is inflammatory to all involved — and there is a mess that foreshadows the worst of our changing demographics. It likely confirms the negative perceptions of white observers.

Marching Backward: Tenn. Politicians Vote to Cut UT Diversity Funding

The historic march of 600 civil rights activists on March 7, 1965 attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama toward Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday” marked the culmination of efforts to bring changes to voter registration procedures that prevented blacks from registering to vote. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, whose skull was fractured by a police nightstick as he led protesters across the bridge, has reminded us of an African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.” On August 6, 1965, following two subsequent marches, the Federal Voting Rights Act was passed. Congressman Lewis recalls that what propelled him forward was “the spirit of history”:

We didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history and we couldn’t turn back. We had to move forward. We had become like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. I thought we would die. …I thought it was the last protest for me, but somehow, some way you have to keep going.

It is now up to us now to move our feet or else the march backwards will erode more than half a century of progress on diversity and inclusion. The effort to cut funding for the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT Knoxville) by the state legislature is symptomatic of this regressive tide.

In April 2016, the House of Representatives and the Senate in Tennessee voted to remove the $436,000 state appropriation for the Diversity and Inclusion office at UT Knoxville for one year. An earlier version of the bill would have used $100,000 of the funds to place decals on law enforcement vehicles that read “In God We Trust.” The bill is now before Republican Governor Bill Haslam for final decision.

At the same time, 10 GOP representatives and state senators led by state representative Eddie Smith wrote to Tennessee’s Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor requesting a joint committee be formed to investigate the diversity offices at the state’s public universities and colleges. According to Smith, “the university needs to reflect the values of Tennessee.”

Specific objections were raised in late 2015 regarding the efforts of UT Knoxville’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to educate the campus community about gender-neutral pronouns as well a memo that recommended avoiding religious symbols at holiday work parties. In a Fox news interview, Representative John J. Duncan, Sr., warned against the “political correctness” involved in these two actions and stated that the liberals in the United States are the most intolerant in the country. And Representative Micah Van Huss who drafted the original legislation stated that the “so-called Office of Diversity” was “not celebrating diversity, they are wiping it out. It is the office of Political Correctness.”

Calls for the resignation of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek by members of the legislature followed. The website posts were amended or deleted and oversight of the Diversity Office’s website was moved to the Communications Department. Some lawmakers called for Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, UT’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, to resign as well. Petitions to support Cheek and Hall gathered more than 3,000 faculty, staff, and student signatures. A student coalition, UT Diversity Matters, was subsequently formed on the Knoxville campus and presented a list of demands to the administration including the need for inclusivity training for all incoming students, faculty, and staff.

In response to the legislature’s efforts to defund the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, hundreds of University of Tennessee students marched in protest on April 29, 2016, with some demonstrators lying down in a walkway and later forming a circle in front of a student residential building. As the protest continued, Confederate flags were hung outside two dorm windows. George Habeib, a 19-year old printmaking student described the hanging of the Confederate flags as “trying to instill fear in us” and added, “it further proves out point of why this [sort of protest] is needed.

The legislature’s efforts have been answered by students, faculty, and staff “moving their feet” in the forward-looking spirit of history that John Lewis spoke of. Yet the bill to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is but one example of the deepening divisiveness over the issue of diversity in this nation and its educational institutions. The move forward toward the creation of more inclusive institutional environments will require the sustained commitment and courage that anchors “trees planted by the rivers of water.”

The Diversity Research-To-Practice Gap: Backlash to Fisher Case

A new paper titled “Bridging the Research to Practice Gap: Achieving Mission-Driven Diversity and Inclusion Goals” by Teresa Taylor, Jeffrey Milem, and Arthur Coleman, seeks to link research findings on diversity with policy implications for colleges and universities. While a valuable effort, the paper appears confusing in terms of the policy implications resulting from the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action in admissions in the Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) case. In 2013, a conservative US Supreme Court ruled on the claim of “reverse discrimination” by Abigail Fisher, a white undergraduate who had applied to UT and not been accepted. Edward Blum, a wealthy conservative entrepreneur, actively recruited Fisher through his one-person organization, the Project on Fair Representation, an organization that has also challenged the Voting Rights Act.

The new research paper does acknowledge the issues arising from Fisher in terms of the need for evidence-based justification for the use of race-sensitive factors in the admissions process. It identifies two issues deriving from the Fisher case as

(1) the relationship between the ‘necessity’ of race-conscious practices and the availability and effectiveness of race-neutral alternatives, and (2) the relationship between race-conscious practices and their impact on the achievement of diversity-based educational goal (p.3).

Yet while the paper identifies the dilemmas debated in Fisher, it does not clearly identify the narrow limits within which the Supreme Court has determined that race-conscious practices can be used. The paper states that

research has confirmed that the use of race and ethnicity in the admission process can be an important tool for institutions to use to achieve their diversity goals because it lays a foundation for interactional interactions and campus climate” (p. 19).

Despite the positive impact of diversity on campus climate and cross-racial interactions as demonstrated in research findings, the Fisher case casts a long shadow over the future use of explicitly race-sensitive means to attain student body diversity.

As highlighted in Alvin Evans’ and my recent book: Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, three of the most critical developments resulting from Fisher with implications for college and university admissions policies are:

1) the Supreme Court has moved from consideration of the value of diversity itself to the means colleges and universities use to attain it; 2) the reviewing court, not the university, “must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce” the educational benefits of diversity (Fisher v. University of Texas); and 3) universities must first exhaust race-neutral measures before race-sensitive factors are considered. The necessity of race-conscious practices was not acknowledged by the Court and even if such practices might be considered, they require substantial proof that workable, race-neutral strategies have been exhausted. As a result, race-conscious strategies cannot be used easily and without substantial proof/justification.

One of the important factors in the UT Austin admissions policy that is not adequately clarified in the new research paper, is that 90 percent of the available seats at public institutions of higher education in Texas fall under the top ten percent plan (TTP). This plan that automatically admits high school students in the top ten percent of their class to public institutions of higher education in Texas was viewed by the Court and conservative think tanks as a “race-neutral plan.” Instead, the Court narrowly focused on the very modest 10 percent of the seats that are based on a holistic admissions review process which after 2004 allowed the consideration of race as a “special circumstance.” In 2013, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit for reconsideration of the use of race in the Personal Achievement Index employed for 10 percent of the entering class, and the Court of Appeals upheld UT Austin’s use of race. An appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, once again sponsored by Blum, will result in a ruling likely to be issued in June.

Given this uncertainty, some caution needs to be applied to the findings of this new research paper confirming

that the use of race and ethnicity in the admission process can be an important tool for institutions to use to achieve their diversity goals because it lays a foundation for interracial interactions and campus climate (p. 19).

As noted in the paper, however, the institutional mission and the context for diversity are essential aspects of establishing the groundwork for diversity and inclusion policies. Viable means of achieving student body diversity also noted in the paper include recruitment and outreach to underrepresented groups, need-based financial aid, and scholarships based on first-generation or socio-economic status.

The future of race-conscious strategies in admissions processes hangs in the balance with lawsuits filed by the conservative Project on Fair Representation against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Given the death of Antonin Scalia and since Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself on the Fisher appeal, per Adam Liptak of the New York Times and others the ruling of the remaining seven justices on the Fisher case could be narrowly confined to the “idiosyncratic Texas plan” or broadly affect admissions policies nationwide.

One can only hope that greater leverage will be granted to colleges and universities in admissions policies that foster the attainment of more compositionally diverse campuses.

“Doing Diversity” in Higher Education: Practical Challenges

Recent student demonstrations protesting lingering and persistent racism on college campuses have called attention to the fact that diversity progress in higher education remains at incipient stages. Student voices have called for structural changes such as the hiring of more diverse faculty, inclusive leadership, the creation of chief diversity officer positions and greater diversity in the student body, as well as a more welcoming climate for minoritized students. In essence, the call for change requires systemic attention and integration of all the components of a campus ecosystem rather than through short-term, cosmetic adjustments to individual departments, courses, or programs.

Surprisingly in a review of diversity strategic action plans conducted for Are the Walls Really Down? (2007), the chief diversity officers that my co-author, Alvin Evans and I, contacted told us that the plans developed at their campuses and that were showcased prominently on their campuses websites had not really been actualized. Similarly, in interviews for Diverse Administrators in Peril (2012), chief diversity officers and affirmative action officers expressed frustration regarding their roles and real uncertainty about the degree to which their work was supported by their institutions.

Recent college graduates we interviewed for a forthcoming study, Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education, reported the same gap between the institution’s stated diversity mission and the curricular and co-curricular experiences they had on campus. Most of their experiences related to diversity learning outcomes were accidental and the students had to seek such experiences out themselves. And adding to this composite picture of disconnection between espoused institutional goals and day-to-day realities, interviews with department chairs for The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) reveal the fractionalization around diversity issues in the academic department, the isolation of the one or two faculty members who are perceived to be the perennial diversity advocates, and the difficulty faced by chairs in moving beyond the emphasis on disciplinary specialization to “border-crossing” dialogue or cross-cultural discussions. As a Black chair of Hispanic background in an elite predominantly white university reported,

Most White colleagues assume ‘diversity’ is for people of color and do not do much in recruitment (p. 79).

Bringing together the strands of research across these different domains of the university or college environment, certain common themes emerge that can yield practical steps on the pathway to successful diversity transformation. A precursor of such transformation is the willingness and desire to move forward collectively and collaboratively on the pathway to more inclusive institutions. This willingness cannot be taken for granted as diversity remains a contested topic on many college campuses and even discussion of “anti-racist” training programs can be considered controversial. Developing a common understanding of what diversity means to an academic institution and why it is important (i.e. the “business case” for diversity) is critical.

Our investigation of the integration of diversity and human resource programs across the private and public sectors and in higher education in the New Talent Acquisition Frontier (2014) reveals 10 prominent themes that characterize successful diversity transformation across all sectors.Among these themes are

1) an actionable leadership commitment to diversity;
2) a power structure that supports the attainment of strategic diversity objectives;
3) creation of a systematic, phase-based approach;
4) cultural change that builds trust-based relationships and eliminates fear-based working and learning environments.

Using the metaphor introduced by Ralph Kilmann to describe organizational change, diversity is not a quick fix. Instead, it will require long-term, sustained, and systemic attention to infrastructure, culture, systems, and processes across the multiple, intersecting domains of a campus environment.

Like the widening ripples that result when a stone is thrown into water, diversity transformation can remain elusive and disappear from intentional consideration or it can take hold through the progressive and practical action of institutional leadership, faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

Dr. Edna Chun serves as Chief Learning Officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and HR consulting firm, and has over two decades of strategic diversity and HR experience as Chief Human Resources Officers in public higher education. Two of her co-authored books have garnered the prestigious Kathryn G. Hansen Publication award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) and she is the recipient of a silver medal in the Axiom Best Business Books Award (2014) for another publication.

Art and Racism: Healing Racial Schisms

When Ashley Powell, a graduate student in Art at the State University of New York at Buffalo placed “white only” and “black only” signs around campus without explanation as a way to expose white privilege, reactions ranged from support to anger and indignation to even reactions among nonwhites of “fearing for their lives.” As Powell explained to the campus newspaper:

I am in pain. My art practice is a remnant of my suffering, but also an antidote that brings about healing. The afflictions I suffer from are self-hate, trauma, pain and an unbearable and deafening indignation. White privilege and compliance only exacerbate my symptoms.

Powell further reflects on the graveness of reality arising from social structures of racism that require, in her words, “constant endurance, resilience, and burden.” Nonetheless, due to the pressure exerted on her campus, it appears that Ashley Powell felt she needed to apologize for the trauma the signs caused, but not for what she did.

The comments on the news story regarding Powell’s art project are equally surprising, ranging from concerns expressed about fighting already-won battles of the past, to accusing Powell herself of “racism” and noting her use of misused commas in her letter to the campus newspaper.

At a time in our nation’s history when racial divides appear to be deeper than ever and when the rhetoric about “otherness” and keeping people out of America and its institutions has escalated, messages of reassurance and challenge such as delivered by Pope Francis at the United Nations create a powerful counterpoint. Speaking in what could be seen as radical and even revolutionary terms, the Pope stated:

To give to each his own, to cite the classic definition of justice, means that no human individual or group can consider itself absolute, permitted to bypass the dignity and the rights of other individuals or their groupings.

He added, ‘Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offence against human rights and the environment” and called for the right of men and women “to be dignified agents of their own destiny.”

In speaking out against injustice, Ashley Powell’s message is a powerful voice. Students in our universities have long been the standard bearers of social change, such as during the Civil Rights movement. As Pope Francis warned, we cannot wait to postpone “certain agendas” for the future. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to attend to the “fierce urgency of now” has been adopted as the title of Julian Zelizer’s new book, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. The book recalls the stunning achievements of 1963-1966 including the passage of Civil Rights legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and the War on Poverty. Attending to our deeply rooted racial schisms does require our collective willingness to take concerted action on long-overdue agendas and to engage in collaborative and committed work to attain the promise of a greater union.

Edna Chun is Chief Learning Officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and human resources consulting firm, and has more than two decades of experience as Chief Human Resources Officer in higher education. A list of her publications can be found on her website at ednachun.com

Test-ocratic Merit vs. Democratic Merit?

What are the benefits of a college education in a diverse democracy? Research indicates that these benefits include the ability to strengthen critical thinking, to provide students with the capacity for leadership, problem-solving, and creativity, and to strengthen social agency and pluralistic orientation for careers and citizenship in a global society. Yet is the inordinate emphasis on college entrance aptitude tests really a measure of merit and of the abilities of potential college students to develop these needed competencies?

Lani Guinier’s new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Beacon Press, 2015) describes how higher education has drifted from a mission-driven to an admission-driven system, focused almost exclusively on the predictive value of the SAT-type tests for success in the first-year of college. In fact, as she notes, the SAT only has a modest correlation with freshman-year grades, whereas grades in the four years of high school are a much stronger predictor of academic success. Guinier asserts that the SAT’s most reliable value is as a proxy for wealth in its norming to white, upper-middle class performance, as shown by the average SAT test scores based on ethnicity.

Alluding to the “Volvo effect” in Andrew Ferguson’s book, Crazy U Professor Guinier refers to the inordinate amount of funding and effort placed by wealthy parents on preparing their children for college entrance exams. As she explains, “Aptitude tests do not predict leadership, emotional intelligence, or the capacity to work with others to contribute to society” (p. 26). As a result, she calls for a culture shift in terms of how we evaluate merit in terms of “democratic values” rather than “testocratic machinery.”

An important insight from this thought-provoking book is that democratic merit within an institution of higher education is defined by context. As such, the definition of merit crystallizes the mission and purposes of the institution and necessarily involves choices about which characteristics of the applicant pool are valuable. This definition is particularly germane to discussions about affirmative action in the wake of the 2013 Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin Supreme Court case that will be reheard this fall on appeal.

In the Fisher ruling, the Supreme Court has determined that colleges and universities must exhaust race-neutral alternatives before consideration of race-conscious factors in a holistic admissions process. Guinier indicates that Fisher and other affirmative action opponents have singled out race, before any other admissions criterion such as musical ability or athletic accomplishment, as undeserving of consideration. A perhaps unintended benefit of the Court’s ruling, however, is that colleges and universities must proactively re-examine their mission statements for the ways in which these statements articulate the importance of diversity. As Alvin Evans and I point out in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward (Jossey-Bass, 2015) the Fisher decision brings the institutional context for diversity into the foreground, since a college or university’s specific rationale for a diverse student body needs to be framed in the context of mission, vision, and values statements.

In Guinier’s view an “obsessive culture of testing” obscures the emphasis on developing student potential and results in institutions that lack meaningful race and class diversity. From this perspective, the attainment of democracy learning outcomes in the undergraduate experience cannot rely on a single, weak predictor of first-year success such as the SAT, but instead requires an educational focus consistent with institutional mission that nurtures individual talent and fosters the access and success of a diverse student body.

When Interest Convergence Derails: More Challenges to Affirmative Action

Many of the facts surrounding the recent challenges to affirmative action are not well known to the general public. A “perfect storm” has brought into question the survival of even modest, race-sensitive, non-preferential admissions programs designed to enhance campus diversity in higher education. This storm has arisen from three major sources. First, the term “affirmative action” has caused a backlash in (especially white) public opinion against programs believed to unfairly disadvantage white Americans. Second, wealthy white entrepreneurs have recruited plaintiffs and actively sponsored legal challenges to both civil rights and affirmative action programs. And third, a conservative Supreme Court has decided to hear these cases, resulting in the elimination, revision, or curtailment of existing civil rights laws and race-sensitive admissions programs. Critics indicate that the determinations of Chief Justice John Roberts’ conservative high court reflect a post-racial, color-blind perspective that contradict the continuing presence of race-based inequality in the United States. Roberts’ view is summed up in the 2007 Parents Involved v. Seattle School District; Jefferson County Board of Education (127 S. Ct. 2738): “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

As Alvin Evans and I share in our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, deep ironies and contradictions characterize the Supreme Court’s determinations in the civil rights arena and in the four major affirmative action-related lawsuits over the past thirty-five years. The Court has constricted and even reversed civil rights law on the premise that social conditions of inequality in America have, for the most part, been addressed with the conclusion that policies designed to level the higher educational playing field are both unfair and unnecessary.

Reinterpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) is at the center of the high court’s determinations, moving from the original intent of the clause to protect the rights of minorities to an emphasis on the protection of all groups, including white Americans. For example, in the Fisher case, Justice Antonio Scalia voiced his incredulity over the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment protects minorities:

My goodness, I thought we’ve–we’ve held that the 14th Amendment protects all races. I mean, that was the argument in the early years, that it protected only — only the blacks. But I thought we rejected that. You–you say now that we have to proceed as though its purpose is not to protect whites, only to protect minorities?”

Legal scholar Derrick Bell’s theory of interest convergence explains how affirmative action arose during the civil rights era as a response to the radical protests and converged with other interests that were differently motivated. The creation of contemporary affirmative action programs by President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson in the midst of periods of extreme racial turbulence coincides with the development of race-conscious admissions policies by leading universities.

Ironically, the frontal attack on affirmative action in university admissions practices leading to an overall shift in public policy at the nation’s leading universities has been led by a single individual, Edward Blum. Blum’s one-person organization, the Project on Fair Representation, was founded in 2005 to challenge the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This effort paved the way for the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision nullifying the requirement for nine states and some counties to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice prior to changing voting requirements. A conservative entrepreneur without a law degree or scholarly background, Blum has recruited a network of top lawyers who often agree to offer their services at reduced rates.

In launching a sustained, legal assault on affirmative action, Blum recruited Abigail Fisher, the daughter of an old friend, to contest her denial of admission to the University of Texas at Austin based on a claim of reverse discrimination. The Court’s ruling in the Fisher case established a much more stringent set of preconditions for consideration of race as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process. First, consideration of race and ethnicity as one factor among many in the individualized admissions review process cannot occur unless all race-neutral alternatives have been exhausted. Second, a reviewing court rather than the university becomes the arbiter of whether or not a university’s use of race is necessary to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy emphasized that in reviewing the means to attain diversity, “the university receives no deference.” Referring to the Court’s decision in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case at the University of Michigan, Kennedy added:

Grutter made it clear that it is for the Courts, not for university administrators, “to determine that the means chosen to accomplish the government’s purpose are “specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.”

The Project on Fair Representation has continued its effort to recruit plaintiffs and filed suit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Harvard lawsuit takes a different tack by splintering minority interests and building on the white-created “model minority” myth. It focuses on admissions policies limiting the enrollment of qualified Asian-American applicants and argues that Harvard has held Asian American students to higher standards than other applicants. The suit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill challenges that flagship institution’s own description in a friend-of-the-court brief in the Fisher case in which the university wrote of its current process to attain a higher level of black enrollment. Blum also says that he hopes to find applicants rejected from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Tennessee for future suits.

Edward Blum’s most recent high-profile effort challenges the concept of one person one vote, that has led to the Supreme Court decision last week to hear Evenvel v. Abbott, a suit that contests the way state districts’ lines are drawn in Texas. The case calls into question the Court’s Reynolds v. Sims decision (1964) that draws district lines based on an areas’s total population. Instead, Blum advocates the drawing of district lines based only on eligible voters, thereby eliminating children, illegal immigrants, non-citizen, and inmates, among others.

Yet as colleges and universities grapple with the Supreme Court’s rigorous requirements surrounding race-sensitive admissions processes, one unforeseen benefit may be the attention that needs to be paid to clearly-articulated mission, vision and values statements. These statements now need to contextualize why diversity is a compelling interest for a given college or university campus. In sharing recommendations for practice at the conclusion of our book, we note the ongoing and unusual responsibility of educational institutions to ensure the talent of the nation’s minority students is not wasted, but realized. The rich research literature on the educational benefits of diversity that has arisen in specific response to the recent affirmative action cases will assist institutions in the ongoing and persistent effort to open the doors of educational opportunity to America’s diverse citizenry.

White Women, People of Color: Lower Salaries in Academia

A study just issued by the University of California at Berkeley identifies the fact that the compensation of female faculty lags behind their male counterparts by -4.3 percent within their respective fields or the equivalent of one to four years of career experience (excluding controls for rank). However, if demography alone is considered without respect to years of experience or field, women have a negative salary difference of -15.8 percent. When experience is considered, this difference diminishes to -11.3 percent. When rank and field are factored into the equation, under the assumption that full professors are more likely to be white and male based on hiring practices that prevailed over the last two or three decades, then the gap narrows from -1.8 percent. Similarly, the salaries of minority faculty lag behind white faculty by 1-2 years of career experience or between -1.0 and -1.8 percent.

How does Berkeley account for these differences? Possible causes include external factors including market and retention as well as social factors such as time off the tenure clock for a newly born or adopted child. In Academic Motherhood, Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel share research indicating that it would take thirty-five years for the sex composition of faculty to equalize at senior ranks to attain equal status. This equity could only happen if there were no gender discrimination and faculty abilities were presumed to be roughly similar. Ward and Wolf-Wendel note that women tend to be older than men when they attain their doctorates and enter the faculty workforce later, partly due to dual career constraints.

As a result, the authors emphasize that colleges and universities could do more to make their climates hospitable, equitable and accepting for faculty members with families. In particular, they note the importance of ensuring that family friendly policies such as stopping the tenure clock for maternity leave are not only established, but implemented so that faculty members feel free to use them.

Another variable the UC Berkeley report considers is the fact that decisions about promotion are based upon evidence presented and judgment made about that evidence. Since no mechanical process exists to translate the evidence into outcomes, judgments of merit are vulnerable to positive and negative implicit associations that can be triggered by factors such as race, ethnicity, or gender. Recall the 2013 UCLA report that identified incidents of process-based discrimination in hiring, advancement and retention based on interviews with faculty as well as written statements. Several incidents involving perceived bias when faculty members believed that they were denied advancement usually through an unfavorable letter from the department chair or dean and/or a negative departmental vote.

The discrepancies in compensation for women and minority faculty reflect underlying structural constraints that Houston A. Baker and K. Merinda Simmons refer to in their new co-edited book, The Trouble with Post-blackness, as “the intensely complicated system of economic access” that defies simplistic notions of personal agency and meritocracy”(p. 15). In one of the book’s essays, John L. Jackson Jr. writes about the stories other minority scholars shared with him in the academy:

No amount of publishing productivity exempts you from the vulnerabilities and burdens that come with underrepresentation in the academy.” Jackson adds, “Being ‘twice as good’ as most of their white colleagues (by objective and agreed-upon criteria) still wasn’t enough to spare them from the stigma of race-based stigma” (p. 204).

And mentoring is also important for women and minority faculty in navigating the internal organization, obtaining help with research and publications, understanding promotion and tenure criteria, and advancing in rank. As Rachel Shteir writes in “Taking the Men Out of Mentoring” women can be exhausted from the struggle of trying to get ahead, with little energy for mentoring others. As she explains,

I see women stuck at the associate level, living paycheck to paycheck, renting without savings…. Gender equity in salaries and rank have not been achieved.

A considerable body of research identifies the role of mentoring in opening channels for women and minorities by enhancing social capital, preventing career derailment, nurturing self-confidence, reducing isolation, and improving job satisfaction.

All in all, the Berkeley study underscores the continuing need for viable strategies that will help retain and develop diverse and talented faculty members by creating a more expansive and inclusive value proposition that promotes career progress and enhances retention.

The Perceived Value of Intercultural Competence

A new survey titled “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success” by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) reveals significant disparities between the perceptions of students and employers related to readiness for future careers and the importance of diversity and intercultural learning outcomes. The survey sample includes 613 students at private and public two and four year institutions and 400 CEO’s and executives from private or non-profit organizations.

One of the most surprising metrics is that less than two in five employers rated the following learning outcomes as very important:
Awareness of and experience with diverse cultures and communities within the U.S. 37%
Staying current on global developments and trends 25%
Awareness of and experience with cultures and societies outside of the United States 23%
Proficiency in a language other than English 23%

Despite the lack of emphasis by employers on these diversity and democratic learning outcomes, employers rated students as less prepared in these areas than the students did themselves:
Competency
Employer Rating//Student Rating

Awareness of and experience with diverse cultures and communities within the U.S. 25% //48%
Staying current on global developments and trends 16% //34%
Awareness of and experience with cultures and societies outside of the United States 15% //42%
Proficiency in a language other than English 16% //34%

Only 21 percent of employers strongly agreed that all college students should gain intercultural skills and an understanding of societies outside the U.S., while 57 percent agreed somewhat. By contrast, 87 percent of students felt that such skills were important. A similar gap was found between employer and student perceptions of the knowledge students should have of democratic institutions and preparation for citizenship in a democratic society.

The lack of emphasis on intercultural understanding by employers is striking, given the fact that in the U.S. alone there are more than 20,000 multinational companies, that exceed the number of companies in the Fortune 1,000 or the Fortune 5,000. And the average U.S. based multinational company generates roughly 45 percent of their revenue from countries outside the U.S. The boundary between local and global has become blurred, as most companies compete in a global marketplace.

The survey also reveals that students agree with employers on the value of cross-cutting skills of teamwork, communication, critical thinking, ethical decision-making and applying knowledge in real-world settings as learning outcomes. Ironically, however, in a global society and even within the United States all of these components demand a high level of cultural competency, a recognition of cultural pluralism, and the ability to communicate effectively with individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Perhaps the employers’ perspectives could be viewed as what Derald Wing Sue calls “ethnocentric monoculturalism,” a Eurocentric focus that fails to recognize the importance of connections and communication in a multicultural society and global economic environment. Instead, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter indicates, the reality is that companies need to thrive locally in a global economy by creating new world-class mindsets that embody globally relevant skills.

While employers in the AACU survey endorsed an applied learning emphasis in higher education, they also appeared not to acknowledge the importance of intercultural skills and competence as part of what is needed in an applied learning focus. If we are indeed living in what Fareed Zakaria calls “the rise of the rest” in a post-American world defined and directed by people from many locations our educational systems, in turn, must be finely tuned to the development of the applied cultural competency needed for college graduates to thrive in this new, global millennium. As he writes:

Generations from now, when historians write about these times, they might note that by the turn of the 21st century, the United States had succeeded in its great, historical mission—globalizing the world. We don’t want them to write that along the way, we forgot to globalize ourselves.