Deferred Dreams of Brown and Grutter

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The steps of the Supreme Court at sunset in Washington

The Open Mind explores the world of ideas across politics, media, science, technology, and the arts. The American Prospect is re-publishing this conversation.

The Trump administration and the re-energized conservative Supreme Court majority may be on the cusp of banning affirmative action. Yet a landmark American Council on Education report, Race and Ethnicity in Higher Educationconcludes the grave need for greater equity. “There are myriad factors that inform educational access and success such as income, wealth, geography and age ... yet it remains the case that race is a prevailing factor in many educational outcomes.” University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher and ACE Vice President Lorelle Espinosa discuss. 

Alexander Heffner: What today is most defining that latter question of whether or not you will succeed in the higher ed setting?

Ronald Crutcher: If you don’t pay attention to disparities with respect to race, that is if you pretend or everyone is the same, you know, with only economic factors being different than you miss the nuances that occur when, when you know, you, you suddenly take a student and in there in an institution which feels very foreign to them and they become, you know, alienated. And unless they have they’re very strong people themselves they can often fail even if they’re, you know, very well prepared to do the work.

Lorelle Espinosa: Institutions can use this report is to really think about their student body, their community that they reside in, in light of the data that we show, and we’re seeing institutions do just that and using it as a benchmark for how they are either really growing their student body of color, their faculty body of color, or perhaps how they’re not, where they have succeeded, where they still need to do some work.

Heffner: How much is affirmative action still relevant to this conversation?  

Espinosa: It’s absolutely essential. When you look at the differences that exist by race in a host of outcomes, both who goes to college, where they go, what they study, how they pay the loan debt that they leave with, you can attribute some of that to income certainly, but for certain groups like African Americans, when you look at each income quartile, you see that some of these outcomes still put them at a disproportionate disadvantage. And so that that’s something that we’re working to paint a picture towards.

Heffner: And of course the ability of institutions of higher learning to implement affirmative action policies is dependent upon the legality of affirmative action going forward. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made some assumptions in believing in her Grutter v. Bollinger decision that in 25 years, and we’re coming up on that 25-year threshold, affirmative action would not be necessary. 

Crutcher: I really thought when I graduated in 1969 that by the year 2000, we as a country would have resolved the race issue. We have come to terms that we obviously have not. And part of the reason is that, we basically still live in a segregated society. Seventy-five percent of whites have only other whites as their primary network. I think that Justice O’Connor in her heart, you know, had good intentions as I did when I graduated in 1969. But things have not evolved in the way that we, that I would have hoped or that she had. 

Heffner: She wasn’t saying this based on public policy that was needed and going to address a systemically unjust education system. And so that was maybe a fatal flaw. 

Espinosa: I think she was being hopeful that as a country we might have moved past where we are, but I think in some ways we’ve actually gone backwards.

Heffner: Isn’t the most obvious argument legally after Citizens United the First Amendment: For these institutions to reserve the right to admit a class based on their assessment of students.  

Crutcher: That’s what, that’s what I would hope. We try to craft a class that is geographically, economically, racially, internationally diverse. We feel that the educational benefits

Heffner: O’Connor does highlight the merit of a diverse community. How is the college experience important in amidst what has been the resurgence of bigotry in a lot of places: hate crime, authoritarianism around the world?

Crutcher: On a primarily residential campus, it’s our obligation to ensure that not only we put together and craft a class that’s diverse, but then that we ensure that those diverse entities interact with each other, engage with each other. They’re coming from primarily segregated backgrounds, so they don’t really have the capacity to know how to interact with each other. So we have to help them. We have to help them learn how to sit down with people who have differing political and ideological ideas and have a civil conversation. 

Heffner: You’re talking about segregated high school classrooms as commonplace. We had these two Supreme Court decisions, Brown and Grutter, and yet the reality we live in is almost entirely different, as if they had been ruled in the opposite way. 

Espinosa: People are in some ways not wholly surprised, given their everyday lived realities. For example, when they see the disproportionate levels of student loan debt carried by African Americans who also have an incredible wealth gap between African American communities and white communities. There’s been a lot of activity and research on the lack of access to high quality food for college students. And we see now campuses having food banks. 

Crutcher: We in the United States of America have never really dealt with the aftermath of slavery and segregation. And so we have only dealt with at a kind of superficial level. And until you understand the realities of why we are where we are today, it’s putting Band-Aids on. The funding of our public schools is a real issue in this country. Because you know, today, when I grew up in the 1950s in Cincinnati, lived in the inner city and got a great education. In Cincinnati now you would not get the same quality of education simply because of underfunding, yet if you go to a suburb, you have a very different quality of education. 

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