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.

Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

A new report by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity Project (VoD) draws on interviews with at least 50 African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and Native American students at each of four universities regarding their on-campus undergraduate experiences related to their racial/ethnic background, sex, or both. The co-authors, Paula Caplan and Jordan Ford, report on the students’ experiences of racist and sexist mistreatment that took shape in “microaggressions” or subtle, cumulative, and repetitive acts of marginalization and stereotyping.

The concept of “micro-inequities” has received considerable research attention and refers to small incidents of everyday discrimination that have replaced the more overt acts of discrimination characteristic of the pre-Civil Rights era. Micro-inequities can be unspoken, repeated messages that may be invisible to others but send devaluing messages to the targets that hinder these individuals’ performance and impact self-esteem. The vocabulary of micro-inequities dates back to the 1970’s when Mary Rowe, Ombudsperson at MIT, noted the ephemeral, difficult-to-prove events that she saw as the “principal scaffolding for discrimination in the United States.” A more extensive taxonomy of these day-to-day behavioral indignities was developed by Gerald Wing Sue and others that includes microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

Yet at what point do “micro-aggressions” become “macro-aggressions”? Take the experiences of mistreatment cited by a Latina senior quoted in the VoD study: “I go nuts. I do….it hurts so much, so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel” (p. 40). The Latina senior goes on to say, “My whole body becomes hot, and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior….” Or the commentary of an African-American male student, “What can I do? I feel useless. I’m being hurt by this person. It’s messing with me emotionally.” The profound psychological damage caused by racism is not adequately captured in the term “micro-inequity” or “micro-aggression.” As Joe Feagin points out in Systemic Racism (2006), the pain of racism is part of lived experience and to begin to even calculate its costs “one would need to add…the other personal, family, and community costs over the centuries—the intense pain and suffering, the physical and psychological damage, the rage over injustice, and the huge loss of energy” that could have been used for other purposes (p. 20). Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to identify these high costs.

Similarly, consider the example that Alvin Evans and I cite in our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) of an African American faculty member who became the first African American department chair at his religiously-affiliated university. When he was first hired as one of the few African American faculty at that institution, a religious studies professor whose office was next to his refused to speak with him for 10 years:

He didn’t talk to me for 10 years, not a word. . . . He didn’t believe I was qualified, he didn’t believe that I was a real intellectual, I was only hired so that the university could say that we had Black professors.

In fact, the religious studies professor would talk about the African American faculty member with his door wide open so he could hear. Later, when the African American faculty member became chair, the religious studies professor had to speak with him. The chair would regularly ask him a question about diversity. The religious studies professor would inevitably answer, “I think we’re already diverse.” Needless to say, the chair was not invited to the religious studies professor’s retirement dinner.

Or in another interview study in 2012, we similarly found examples of the pain caused by exclusionary practices and behaviors in the workplace. For example, Claudia, an African-American administrator, was singled out in a staff meeting by her white male supervisor who was speaking of African-Americans in general: “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different, you’re an Oreo.’ Claudia responded, “You know, I’m sorry I think that most people would recognize that as being a racial slur.” The supervisor replied, “Oh I don’t mean that. You are one of them that has common sense.” The repeated actions of the supervisor caused Claudia extreme physical and psychological anguish:

When I had that very discriminatory supervisor, I had extremely high blood pressure. I was on three medications. They were at the maximum dosage and my blood pressure was still uncontrollable. My doctor kept telling me I needed to quit my job because he was said I was going to die. He said I was going to just have a stroke or heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.

These examples across the spectrum of students, faculty, and administrators illustrate the long-term psychological and physical damage resulting from what are more than microaggressions (actually, macroaggressions).

To counteract such practices, the Harvard VoD Project identifies the proactive work undertaken by Missouri State University, one of the institutional participants, to address the “silent suffering” of targets of racism and sexism and ensure that the experiences of minoritized students, faculty of color, and women are heard.

As Mark Warren indicates in Fire in the Heart (2010), building community is a process that must move us from passivity to positive action by “breaking down that separateness and achieving something that is more than the sum of the parts” (p. 229). To do so, we must first face the difficult realities that the VoD identifies and then move toward a deepened collective understanding and common vocabulary that help us activate and operationalize practices that enhance inclusion on our campuses.

Supreme Court Moves Away from Civil Rights

In her recent dissent from the majority decision of the Supreme Court regarding a Michigan constitutional amendment banning affirmative action, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic judge to serve on the Court, described the perspective of her conservative colleagues as “out of touch with reality.”

525px-Supreme_Court_US_2010

 

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Recall Chief Justice John Roberts’ pronouncement in 2007 that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” in the 2007 Parents Involved vs. Seattle School District case that outlawed major avenues for voluntary school desegregation. In direct contrast to this judicial view, Justice Sotomayer wrote in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014)

Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities.” And she added, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.

We know that the promising resolution of the Brown v. Board Case in 1954 that found “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites to be unconstitutional has been eroded and successively reversed through a series of Court decisions based on what Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy refers to as principles of “constitutional colorblindness.” From a colorblind, post-racial perspective, America is viewed as having attained a state in which race, ethnicity, gender, and other ascriptive characteristics no longer play a significant role in shaping life opportunities. Consider the statement, for example, of Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing the Court’s opinion in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that determines which states and counties must follow strict guidelines that govern changes to their voting laws: “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” A well-documented body of empirical sociological research, however, demonstrates that contemporary racial inequality is reinforced through second-generation forms of discrimination and facially nonracial, subtle practices and behaviors that are threaded through the day-to-day experiences of non-dominant groups within American society.

How did this historical shift occur in the Supreme Court’s view of Civil Rights? Legal scholar Gary Orfield points out that that the decisions of the Earl Warren Court in the 1950s and the 1960s played an important role in stimulating the Civil Rights movement, whereas decisions of a conservative-dominated Court in the later 1980s pushed the country in the opposite direction and even reached conclusions that policies designed to address inequality are unnecessary and unfair. These later decisions, he indicates, have been seen by some scholars as replicating the efforts to undermine Reconstruction civil rights laws that resulted in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legitimizing the concept of “separate but equal.” In Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (1996), Orfield and Susan Eaton call attention to three little-noticed decisions in the 1990’s in which the Supreme Court articulated procedures for dismantling school desegregation plans that allowed students to return to neighborhood schools, even when segregated and inferior. These decisions reinterpreted the notion of integration as a goal, reducing it to a formalistic requirement that could be lifted after a few years. Decades afterward, as reported by Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley in a 2012 report sponsored by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of blacks attended highly segregated schools, with the percent of white students only ranging from 0 to 10 percent. In fact, eight of the 20 states with the highest levels of school segregation are in border or southern states, a significant reversal for civil rights progress.

In the area of public university admissions, the Supreme Court’s decisions related to voluntary forms of affirmative action have abandoned the original remedial purpose of race-sensitive admissions and reinterpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in terms of protecting the rights of the majority and preventing what has been termed “reverse discrimination.” As Harvard law scholar Michael Klarman notes, the Equal Protection Clause says nothing about government colorblindness and does not even mention race. Instead, diversity has replaced affirmative action as a compelling state interest, ironically requiring universities to prove that white students and other students benefit from policies that were designed to address a long history of racial inequality.

And consider the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri that are linked to racial segregation, economic inequality, and differential policing practices. As Erwin Chemerinsky writes in an August 24 New York Times Op Ed, recent Supreme Court decisions such as Plumhoff v. Rickard decided on May 27 have made it difficult, if not impossible, to hold police officers accountable for civil rights violation, undermining the ability to deter illegal police behavior.

To what extent does the Court’s conservative drift in the area of civil rights reflect the mood and temper of public opinion? Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph reminds us that the Court has never actually played the role of “counter-majoritarian hero,” but rather has been responsive to shifting political tides. The creation of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in response to public protests, marches, and collective action undertaken by minorities in support of greater social equality. According to legal scholar Derrick Bell, social movements such as the radical protests of the 1960s are more likely to bring about change when they converge with other interests that may be differently motivated.

In The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-framing (2013), social theorist Joe Feagin identifies the strategies of both individual resistance and collective action undertaken by Americans of color that have created significant public pressure to address inequality. Feagin indicates that essential to many civil rights protests was a strong anti-racist counter-frame articulated by numerous black leaders and scholars. As he notes, Martin Luther King emphasized the need for collective action to overcome oppression:

The story of Montgomery (Alabama) is the story of fifty thousand such Negroes who were willing to …walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice (p. 177).

If indeed the Supreme Court mirrors strong tides of opinion within the United States, the admonition of Sonia Sotomayor not to “sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society” represents a call to action. In describing the Court’s “long slow drift from racial justice” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger identifies the importance of a renewed conversation about racial justice in order to address issues that will reach the high court. And the composition of the Court clearly matters in matters of racial jurisprudence. According to Klarman, since the Court is not always a defender of the interests of racial minorities, even the appointment of one more liberal judge could have meant that many key decisions could have been decided differently.

Recently, we have seen a few promising signals, such as the ruling of the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upholding consideration of race as one factor among many in response to the case filed by Abigail Fisher at the University of Texas. Yet reinfusing our judicial processes with the ideals represented in landmark Civil Rights decisions will require an invigorated national dialogue and sustained attention to how the ideals of justice and equality take shape in the prism of public consciousness and are reflected in judicial perspectives.

 

~ This post originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Insight into Diversity magazine, and is reposted here with permission. 

Law Partner Tracks & Asian Americans: Struggles to Affirm Positive Self-Identity

Helen Wan’s The Partner Track is a newly published novel that paints a vivid picture of life inside a corporate law firm and the internal struggles and challenges of a female, Asian-American lawyer seeking to become partner. The book illuminates the ways in which minorities and women are still viewed within hierarchical, white male-dominated organizational structures and highlights the particular embarrassment that can result from being singled out to personify the firm’s diversity initiatives. In situations of high competition, minority and female status can even be seen as a threat, since some may mistakenly presume that such status confers advantage.

Ingrid Yung, the protagonist in the novel, is a descendant of immigrant parents from Taiwan, who knows how to speak Mandarin, but prefers to separate herself from identification with her ethnic roots in the presence of a competing, yet socially awkward attorney from mainland China. The nuances of her relationship with her parents are delicately portrayed. Ingrid’s mother addresses her on the phone as “Ingrid-ah”—perhaps reflecting the difficulty in enunciating the syllables in American names. Ingrid’s parents sacrificed much for her success, and are justifiably proud of her groundbreaking accomplishments. As her mother declares, “Nobody bosses my Ingrid around.” It is this unmistakable sense of pride and independence that accompanies Ingrid as she confronts repeated incidents that question her identity, her right to be at the firm, and her competence.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, the most telling revelation comes when Ingrid realizes that it was not hard work that would land her a partnership and that her mistakes would count more heavily than for others. As Ingrid reflects (p. 238):

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy. Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything that was asked of me, I would be rewarded. What an idiot.

The novel also chronicles with subtle humor Ingrid’s interactions with the firm’s diversity consultant who has been hired after a tasteless, racialized skit at the firm’s corporate outing. Later when Ingrid is singled out at the firm’s diversity event designed to repair the damage from the skit at the outing, she is unwittingly made the poster child for the diversity initiative and later suffers consequences for her required participation.

Ingrid describes her valiant efforts to stay at the corporate law firm for eight years, hoping that “all of these little humiliations and exclusions amount to something.” As she reflects,

More than anything, I wanted, once and for all, to shake that haunting suspicious that, while my record impressed and my work made the grade, I was ultimately not valued (p, 164).

The themes of the book underscore the research perspectives shared by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage.

This study identifies the spatial nature of modern-day discrimination based on the review of the diary accounts of 1000 college students. Based on this extensive research data, Picca and Feagin conclude that performances or comments made by white actors in the frontstage when diverse individuals are present significantly diverge from closed-door backstage performances that occurred when only whites are present. Similarly, Ingrid struggles with her own identity as she gains glimpses of the backstage while she is simultaneously paraded as a model of diversity in the frontstage.

Yet at the same time, there are hopeful notes sounded in Helen Wan’s beautifully narrated story. The novel has much to offer in terms of charting the progressive pathway toward a self-affirming identity for women and minority professionals and leaders. And as Alvin Evans and I highlight in The New Talent Acquisition Frontier, from an organizational perspective, talent is the most important strategic asset necessary for success and survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, empowering diverse and talented employees and eliminating the spatial separation between frontstage and backstage performances are essential steps in the attainment of social integration and genuinely inclusive workplaces.