Perceptions of Race and Diversity
Perceptions of Race and DiversityStephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
We have just marked the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher, as well as the two-month anniversary of its decision in Schuette. For those who work to foster diversity in colleges and universities across the country, these decisions are worth remembering, not least because they remind us of things we already know.
Fisher reminds us that any use of race in admission remains subject to strict scrutiny, even when the use is sparing, nuanced, and part of the same comprehensive and individualized review afforded to every candidate. The ruling does not, as some have suggested, require that we try every possible alternative before turning to race as one factor among many. But it does remind us that the courts are obliged to be skeptical whenever race is used, and that their scrutiny, in the words of Justice Kennedy, “must not be strict in theory but feeble in fact.”
Schuette reminds us that the opinions of Justice Kennedy and his colleagues aren’t the only ones that matter. Whether at the state or local level, and whether through elections, referenda, or the decisions of governors or legislatures or the people they appoint to our boards, the struggle for diversity goes beyond the Supreme Court and beyond the courts more generally. If we’ve forgotten that we need to talk with our neighbors and not just our lawyers, Schuette reminds us otherwise. And because we’re not just pleading with the court, the case we make can’t just be legal; it has to be political and practical, personal and moral.
Both decisions remind us that the argument about diversity is now mainly about the means, and that the argument about the ends has been won. Writing for the majority in Fisher, Justice Kennedy didn’t question one of the central findings in Bakke, Gratz, and Grutter: the notion that “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body” can be a compelling governmental interest. In the oral arguments in Schuette, the Michigan solicitor general, in defending a referendum that had banned the use of race in pursuing diversity, nevertheless allowed that “diversity on campus is a goal that should be pursued.” This support doesn’t have to be sincere for us to see it as an opportunity. As we engage those who praise diversity while opposing the use of race to achieve it, we should invite their support for courageous and thoughtful policies — immigration reform, for example, or more and smarter funding for financial aid, or better support for pre-K–12 education — that would foster the diversity they champion.
Finally, Fisher and Schuette, along with the news coverage that followed both decisions, remind us that we desperately need to talk about race. Judging from the arguments for the plaintiffs, the questions of some of the justices, and the commentary of some in the media, many in our country believe that we are now blind to race and free of the problem of the color line. This belief runs counter to the experience of millions of Americans, including many who live and study on our campuses. As much as anything else, Fisher and Schuette remind us that we are deeply divided in our perceptions of the role that race plays in our lives and in the life of our democracy. We need to summon up our courage and face this division squarely, and we can’t do so without talking about race.
Stephen Farmer is vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The opinions expressed here are his own.