Last Tuesday, the US Supreme Court upheld a 2006 Michigan constitutional amendment banning the use of affirmative action in public universities’ admissions decisions. As Justice Sotomayor said in her powerful dissent, the majority’s “refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable.” Arguing compellingly that race matters because of historical barriers and daily lived experiences, Sotomayor writes: “Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”
I attended the University of Michigan from 2010-2013. For my application, I was asked to write an essay about what diversity meant to me. From what I knew of the school, I was convinced the University was not only comprised of a critical mass of diverse students, but that it would be a welcoming environment for everyone who matriculated.
What I found upon my arrival was very different than what I had envisioned. As I roamed the campus’ “Diag” (quad), not only did I fail to see diversity in the student body, but I also heard from students of color that they did not feel welcome on campus – or, to borrow Justice Sotomayor’s words, that they “do not belong here.”
Last week’s ruling is an enormous setback for students applying to the University of Michigan and for students of color already on campus who struggle to be understood and appreciated.
As a white, upper-middle-class, out-of-state student who benefitted from excellent primary schools, I acknowledge that these factors helped me gain admission to the University. I also felt I was easily accepted during my freshman year.
But this privileged experience is not universal.
Even though 19 percent of Michigan’s college-aged residents are black, since Michigan banned affirmative action in 2006, the percentage of black freshmen at the University of Michigan has dropped to around 5 percent. Those who do manage to overcome the immense barriers to admission to the University may then face serious obstacles upon enrollment, from tokenization to lack of services to overtly racist confrontations.
The underrepresentation of people of color is deeply felt by the student body. Earlier this school year, black students at the University of Michigan took to Twitter to raise awareness about the obstacles they face on a predominantly white campus. The Black Student Union’s #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) campaign gained national attention in November 2013. In January 2014, students launched an opinion column in the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, called Michigan in Color to create an open forum for students of color to “voice opinions and share experiences” about the obstacles they face on campus.
It is crucial to acknowledge that campus diversity affects everyone on campus, not just students of color. My own educational experience would have been made richer by a wider breadth of backgrounds and perspectives.
Diversity is not just about who comes to the table, but about how people feel once they get there. We cannot just say we care about diversity and then let the chips fall where they may, because the chips are held by a white power structure. We must change how our policies are structured if we are to truly provide equal opportunity for all.
Evidently, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority does not agree. In 2007, Justice John Roberts famously wrote: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Arguing that factoring race into policies is a form of race discrimination confuses the solution for the problem. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor effectively summarized the importance of considering race in admissions decisions, and offered a persuasive retort to Roberts:
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”
Rayza Goldsmith is a 2011 YP4 Fellow