By Pedro Noguera (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Parents v. Seattle Schools, I have heard little more than anguish and frustration about this decision and its long‑term implications. In fact, most of the legal analysis I have read describes it as the death knell for serious efforts to promote racial integration in our nation’s schools. In an attempt at positive spin, one colleague at NYU Law School suggested that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court view matters pertaining to race in a manner that is not dissimilar to their stance on gays in the military: As long as districts don’t say they are using race as a factor in school enrollment, the courts will not intervene. Such a strategy is hardly encouraging, given that the forces in opposition to affirmative action and school desegregation (i.e., Ward Connerly and the Pacific Legal Foundation, to cite just two of the better known opponents) appear to be closely monitoring the actions and policies of schools and universities on matters pertaining to racial inclusion.
It is against the backdrop of growing pessimism that I read and became genuinely excited about the strategy described by Chambers, Boger and Tobin. The article offers one of the few creative ideas on how to bring about racial diversity in higher education that I have encountered in recent years. What sets their proposal apart from the others is that it might actually work. As the authors point out, several leaders in higher education (and in many elite prep schools) filed amici curiae briefs in Grutter v. Bollinger, and, unlike many public universities, most have not allowed the number of minority students they enroll to drop. Pushing them to go a step further by sending a clear signal to secondary schools (and to parents of high school seniors) that they not only value diversity but will give extra credit in the admissions process to students who attended diverse high schools may actually result in greater willingness to support racial inclusion in secondary schools. We know from past trends that the admissions policies of colleges and universities have had a trickle‑down effect on high schools in other areas (e.g., AP enrollment, service learning, advanced math enrollment, etc.) Now the question is, can a similar approach be taken to further efforts to promote diversity in secondary schools? I think there is reason to believe it can.
Even before affirmative action policies and practices were challenged by the courts, and in some cases state propositions, colleges and universities across the country were faced with declining minority enrollments due to a “pipeline crisis.” For several years, the number of high‑achieving minority students eligible for admission to top universities has been decreasing. Many factors have contributed to this decline, but perhaps the most important is the fact that African‑American and Latino students are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-performing schools. In many cases, such schools serve the poorest students with the greatest needs, and typically lack the resources (i.e., books, technology, certified teachers, advanced placement courses, etc.) to prepare these students adequately for college. In the absence of a plan to address gross inequity and de facto segregation in many of our nation’s secondary schools, there is little hope that the trend toward declining minority enrollments will be reversed.
This is why the ideas put forward by Chambers, Boger and Tobin are so appealing. In the absence of legal mandates that protect the rights of school districts to promote racial inclusion, it may be that the only recourse available is to rely upon the leadership of elite universities to assert that greater diversity is a public good that should be valued and recognized in the admissions process. Of course, the main weakness with this idea is that it relies almost exclusively upon the goodwill and commitment of university and college presidents to remain supportive of efforts to retain some degree of diversity among their student populations. That may not comfort those who want more—legal mandates, busing orders, consent decrees, etc. However, it doesn’t seem likely that these strategies will return any time soon. In the meantime the kind of creativity captured in the Chambers et al. proposal may be our best bet.
Pedro Noguera (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professo of Sociology at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development at NYU and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education.