“What is the critical mass of African-Americans and Hispanics at the university that you are working toward?”
This was the question Chief Justice John Roberts raised on the first day of oral arguments last week in the affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. The justices of the Supreme Court focused their questioning around “critical mass,” or the point at which affirmative action will no longer be necessary.
Colleges don’t use quota systems during admissions – and they shouldn’t – but that means the Supreme Court justices couldn’t be given a clear point at which race-based admissions will become obsolete.
UT’s lawyer, Gregory Garre, responded that while the school has no specific point of “critical mass,” the university’s 3 percent African American population was certainly insufficient.
“But would 3 percent be enough in New Mexico, your bordering state, where the African American population is around 2 percent?” Justice Samuel Alito asked.
“What you’re saying,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “is that what counts is race above all.”
This exact line of questioning shows the many reasons race-based affirmative action is still needed today. Ideally, affirmative action will become unnecessary. The Supreme Court predicted in Grutter v. Bollinger that racial preferences in admissions would no longer be necessary by 2028 – 25 years after the landmark affirmative action case was decided. But that Fisher v. UT has come to the Supreme Court only nine years after Grutter v. Bollinger is an affront to a decision that needs more time to play out.
There’s no “critical mass” for the appropriate makeup of a student body that challenges its peers and represents a range of perspectives and backgrounds. At a time when student bodies so often lack racial diversity – only 14 percent of GW’s population is black or Hispanic – we are nowhere near reaching this upper limit.
We don’t know what a “critical mass” for racial diversity is because we remain so far from it. The hearing at the Supreme Court Wednesday sought answers to questions that can’t be answered until there is greater equality across higher education.
The University agrees, and it has a number of laudable diversity recruitment initiatives on campus which could be jeopardized if affirmative action policies are struck down.
In an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in response to Fisher v. UT, GW joined nine other schools nationwide in advocating for a continued push for diversity.
“Purely numeric approaches are infeasible,” it reads. “Without the ability to consider race among other factors in selecting a diverse student body, diversity will be [sic] inevitably suffer, as will the educational experience of all students at the university.”
It is a university’s job to foster the best possible learning environment for its students. That means offering the best facilities it can for learning, encouraging critical thinking, hiring the strongest faculty and admitting the most vibrant student body. But by trying to pinpoint diversity numerically, we limit the amount of minorities colleges and universities welcome to campus.
In the amicus brief, the University specifically pointed to the importance of diversity in a field where there’s never enough: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Underrepresented minorities make up only 11 percent of STEM jobs, while they comprise 33 percent of the school-age population. But STEM occupations seek diversity, as that is what drives innovation. Extending opportunities to get involved in STEM education and jobs is not just crucial for increasing diversity within the field, it’s crucial for the progress of the country as our economy attempts to become the leader in math and science once again.
But the justices’ questions Wednesday displayed just how contentious this issue can be. Many Americans wouldn’t agree with the University’s commitment to diversity, and that’s disheartening.
But there’s one thing the proponents of striking down affirmative action don’t seem to understand. Universities aren’t using affirmative action to fill their tour books with photos of black and Hispanic students. Nor are universities using affirmative action because it makes them look progressive.
They use affirmative action because it benefits the entire student body, and it benefits the fields underrepresented minorities ultimately pursue.
The fact that the Supreme Court is seeking answers on the point of “enough” when it comes to minorities suggests that it is concerned with limiting diversity or keeping it at bay, rather than seeing underrepresented minorities as equals. Critical mass isn’t the racial composition at which we will no longer need to appease a group. And it’s discriminatory to believe there might be a critical mass at all.
We remain far from finding out the full potential of underrepresented minorities, yet the high court is asking a school with a 3 percent black population when it will know it has had too much.
Annu Subramanian, a senior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet senior columnist.