For years, the approach that major universities take in considering minority applicants has been scrutinized and criticized by those who say black applicants get favored treatment over white and applicants of other racial and ethnic groups.
Now that fight has come to the University of North Carolina, where a non-profit group known as Students for Fair Admissions is challenging its race-conscious admissions policy in court. It follows similar legal challenges to minority admissions practices by Harvard and The University of Texas. The group favors race-blind admissions.
The UNC lawsuit comes at a time when the country is confronting demographic changes that will change the face of college campuses in the generations to come.
In Episode 15 of the podcast, we’re talking about the challenges and opportunities that come with this dynamic shift.
We are joined by Wendy Parker, the James A. Webster professor of law at Wake Forest University. Among her areas of expertise: remedies for civil rights issues.
Also joining us is Darryl Scriven, dean of the school of arts, sciences, business and education at Winston-Salem State University. He’s also a writer and filmmaker whose works have explored such things as the black experience in college and confronting student loan debt.
Parker says the plaintiffs in the UNC lawsuit allege that universities are considering race and ethnicity of its applicants in a way that violates federal law.
The idea is not new, she says, with similar cases going back to the 1970s. It was a response to universities using race and ethnicity to be more inclusive in their student bodies.
“The Supreme Court has never spoken with a unified voice on this like they did in Brown vs. Board of Education, for example, and so the court has been divided since 1978,” she says.
What’s different now, she says, is that the first challenges came mostly from white men. Now the argument is that the practice hurts other groups, particularly Asians.
In the UNC lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions cited research by a Duke University professor of economics. He analyzed a North Carolinian Asian-American male applicant with a 25 percent chance of getting into Carolina. The results, he argues, indicated that a Latino student who had a similar application profile would have a 67 percent chance of admission. The same application from a black student would be accepted 90 percent of the time.
Scriven went to Florida A&M University, one of the country's Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for undergraduate school and Purdue University, a large state university, to get his doctorate.
He says people in low socioeconomic circumstances and people in marginalized communities — including many African-Americans and first-generation immigrants — lose out when they don’t have access to education, which he calls "the equalizer in America."
Would taking into consideration income instead of race or ethnicity have the same effect?
Maybe, Scriven says, but the point of considering race in college admissions is to address wrongs that have occurred when blacks and others have been singled out for exclusion.
“Particularly in the category of race, it has been used to hold certain groups down and exclude them from opportunities,” he says.
The number of non-Hispanic whites in America is expected to decline over the next decades. The fastest-growing racial or ethnic group is actually people of two or more races. The Census Bureau expects that by 2045, whites will no longer be the majority. That means a kid born just five years from now would be of college age in a world that demographically looks much different from how the U.S. looks now.
“We’re going to have a very different set of questions in front of us,” Scriven says. “We begin to ask the question ‘Is this category of race more political and historical, and should we even be thinking of people in these terms?’”
One way of thinking about it is to embrace differences rather than using things like race to marginalize people,” he says.
Parker says the country must confront the racism problem it’s got.
“It’s not going away, it’s just going to get more complex,” she says.
Also, Scriven describes how his mother’s sacrifice, which allowed him and his sister to get an education, inspires him. And Parker talks about the high school experience that led her to pursue civil rights law.