Society and Culture
A Cry For Help
While most of my posts concern the intersection of race and criminal law in America, I could not help but be moved to write this post on a video that has gained national attention. This video, featuring some of the Black male students at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a veritable cry for help that represents the pathos of Black males throughout most of the nation’s prestigious institutions of higher learning. Take a look at this powerful video first.
There are some stunning statistics in this video that bear repeating. Of the more than 19,000 male students at the University, only a scant 3.3% are Black. Also, of the 48 Black male freshmen who enrolled last fall, only about 35 are expected to graduate. Some might wonder what the problem with these numbers are. They might point to the demographics of the state, or the admissions policies of the University. Or they might even go so far as to say all of the “qualified” Black males who applied got it, and there just must not have been thousands of qualified Black males applying to the school.
All of these responses are bullshit.
According to the Census Bureau, the total percentage of California’s population that is African American is 6.6%. So even if proportional representation meant true diversity [which it decidedly does not], the University would still be behind the curve. The admission’s policies of the University are of course set by the institution, and, since it is a school in the University of California system, governed by the Constitution of the State of California as a state entity. That’s where the problem lies. The video raises questions about the true meaning of “diversity” and whether Affirmative Action policies can, or even should, play a part in achieving that elusive goal.
Before November 1996, when California’s Proposition 209 passed, the public universities in California could pursue affirmative action policies consistent with the California Constitution and Supreme Court jurisprudence on the issue. The most famous case dealing with California was Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978). There, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Affrmative Action policies in a general sense, but specifically invalidated the quota system that was in place at the time at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. The medical school there was setting aside 16 of the 100 seats in the medical school for African Americans. The Supreme Court squarely rejected this quota system. What emerged in later cases from the Court as acceptable were Affirmative Action policies that considered race in a nuanced way and that aimed for a “critical mass” of minorities such that the diversity pursued educational goals of limiting minority isolation and tokenism.
Nonetheless, in 2009, the citizens of California decided enough was enough when it came to helping those minorities that had historically been systematically excluded from the avenues of higher education, and passed Prop. 209. This ballot initiative banned state institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity. Proponents of the the initiative considered it consonant with the Civil Rights Act in banning discrimination. However, it had the terrible effect of banning Affirmative Action policies in California’s public universities. This is how we got here.
Despite Affirmative Action being under attack across the country, officials at UCLA still want to pursue diversity. They lament the statistics highlighted in the video. But their hands are chained by the change to the California Constitution initiated by Prop. 209. More’s the pity.
Diversity is extolled as a virtue in every aspect of society, from academia to the private sector. But I ask, do they want diversity for the inherent benefit of expanding horizons and increasing cross-cultural understanding? Or do they want brown and black faces for brochures? The students in the video suggest the latter. In my own experience, having attended “diversity receptions” at BigLaw firms my 1L year, the answer is complicated. Have I felt that some of those firms truly valued diversity: yes. Have I also felt the push for diversity was an utter joke upon entering the reception and meeting the one female partner and two Black associates: yes. In higher education, diversity should be pursued even more vigorously than in the workplace. It is in the classroom that people engage in the freest flow of ideas and where one, often in close contact by living in dorm rooms with others, can most reach out and experience the life and culture of another. Having only a few token minorities does not accomplish this goal.
The sentiment portrayed in the video has been reinforced in my own experience. I attended a Historically Black College. Some of my other Black friends attended what we call PWI or Predominantly White Institutions. Yet it is often these PWIs that identify themselves as paragons of “diversity” despite many of the nation’s top state schools being mostly white. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is 66% White, for example. The University of Virginia: 61% white. The University of Georgia: 74% white. UCLA’s highest demographic is Asian. UC Berkeley: 37% Asian and 30% White. Despite the admitted mix, many of these institutions have minority enrollment in single-digit percentages. Not quite the melting pot they tout themselves to be.
More subjectively, the video illustrates the pervasive feelings of isolation that can stem from such limited minority enrollment. The men in the video make the analogy to Rosa Parks. Still more troubling can be the feeling of spokesmanship. In this instance, one must always signal that one is not speaking on behalf of the entire race. Similarly, one often encounters tokenism – the feeling from Whites that the minority was less qualified and got in solely based on race – whether or not race-based Affirmative Action policies are even legal or practiced a the institution.
The video has gained national attention and in many ways has fed the flame of the debate over Affirmative Action and the place minorities have in higher education. But have no fear, Black men out there, as the video poignantly notes, if you can play football extremely well, you can write your own ticket to just about any flagship state school in the nation.
Better start practicing, brothas.
Featured image courtesy of [BrokenSphere via Wikipedia]