Illustration by Adam Niklewicz
Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

Re-Affirming Affirmative Action

Shortly after the Supreme Court rulings, seven undergraduates came together to discuss affirmative action and its meaning on a campus where the emphasis on diversity is a relatively recent phenomenon.
October 1, 2003

With this summer's qualified affirming of affirmative action, the Supreme Court capped a quarter-century of legal opinions. Back in 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court found that a quota system for medical-school candidates was unconstitutional. But it endorsed the idea of considering race among other factors in college admissions.

In its June rulings--on two cases arising from the University of Michigan, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger--the court essentially reaffirmed the principles of Bakke. Race could be used in a "flexible, non-mechanical way," as part of "a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment." The court struck down procedures used by Michigan admissions officials in evaluating prospective undergraduates; the majority of justices saw awarding bonus points to members of certain minority groups as putting undue emphasis on race. At the same time, the court narrowly upheld the Michigan law school's race-sensitive, but less formulaic, admissions policies. In a 5-4 vote, it found that the law school had a compelling interest in enrolling a racially and ethnically diverse student body.

Duke's own commitment to a racially and ethnically diverse student body was unequivocally affirmed in the spring of 1988, when the board of trustees approved a statement of Policy and Criteria for Undergraduate Admissions. The statement embraced the concept of "a student body that is diverse not only in academic and personal interests and achievement but also in more general ways: racial, ethnic, cultural, economic, and geographical." It went on to say, "Special consideration may be given to minority candidates. There is a strong commitment to provide educational opportunities for black students and to increase further the diversity of the student body by having substantial representation of Hispanic, Asian, and Native-American students." Other categories of special interest were mentioned--including children of alumni, North Carolina residents, and athletes. That remains the university's guiding policy.

" We give the same emphasis on how students might contribute to the educational aims of the university to students of color as we do all other students," says Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions. "We look at not only their academic and extracurricular accomplishments, but we think of diversity in terms of backgrounds, values, experiences, and interests. In that way we constantly think of what students will be bringing to--and taking from--the university community, not simply what they may check in a box indicating their race."

Officially, Duke greeted the recent Supreme Court rulings with praise--joining in the huge sigh of relief throughout higher education. "Our admissions policies reflect the principle that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed, namely that student diversity is an essential component of higher education's quality," said President Nannerl O. Keohane. James Coleman, a professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs at the law school, called the rulings "a very definitive and decisive victory for affirmative action." Coleman, who was the head of a working group that prepared the amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court, brief for the American Bar Association in the Michigan law school case, said, "In deciding that a diverse student body was a compelling state interest, the court was persuaded that the benefits of such diversity 'are substantial.' "

But the responses in the unofficial arena, among a selection of Duke students, were less clear-cut. When seven undergraduates came together to talk a couple of weeks after the Supreme Court action, their comments suggested enduring ambivalence over affirmative action--and continuing challenges on a campus where the emphasis on diversity is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

"I support [affirmative action], because I believe in its necessity. But I don't much care for it, because there is that stigma attached." --McKinley Melton, senior

 
Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

 "Not discounting the obvious racial inequality in America, it is clear that even some white people are disadvantaged in society."
--Jonathan Bigelow, junior. Photos: Les Todd

 

Affirmative action isn't discussed much across racial lines, the students agreed. "It's kind of a touchy issue," as sophomore Nick Shungu put it. Shungu's mother is white, and his father is black. "The last time I remember having this discussion in mixed-race company was my freshman year in the dorm," recalled McKinley Melton, a senior, who is black. "It was two black people and two white people. What I think struck me most was that people from both sides were coming at the issue in ignorance. Like, they didn't exactly know what affirmative action was, but they had been taught to support it or to be against it, regardless of knowing all the facts."

When it is a topic of conversation on campus, affirmative action doesn't seem to have particularly negative connotations, according to the white students in the discussion. "I actually notice little resentment on this campus," said senior Devon MacWilliam. "As a white student, I just wish that I knew more minority students, not just their name and home state, but honestly reaped the benefits of a diverse community. Until we have more interaction on this campus, the defense upon which the Supreme Court decision depends isn't realized."

" I have not observed any explicit resentment from white students on campus," said Jonathan Bigelow, a junior, who is white. "And Duke students probably have little to gripe about from a personal perspective, since we all were admitted."

In an essay in a February 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Bowen and Neil Rudenstine, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, wrote that "it is morally wrong" to ignore a race-based history. They observed that "racial classifications were used in this country for more than 300 years in the most odious ways to deprive people of their basic rights."

None of the students disputed the resonance of a racist past in the present. "I don't think affirmative action is the best type of system," said Alex Baranpuria, a sophomore, whose parents settled in the United States from India. "But I think it's something that is still necessary in our society, where race is a big issue. We aren't a color-blind society. The first thing we notice is a person's color. And that is something that you just can't take away, at least not today."

" Affirmative action is not something that I really count myself for or against," said Bigelow. "It's something that perplexes me. Part of that is because I don't come from a community that is particularly white or black, so I've never identified myself with any race." That community is Lumberton, North Carolina, which, Bigelow said, is equal parts white, black, and Native American.

One of the novelties of the court's recent position was what might be called the pipeline argument. That's the idea that elite universities feed into society's institutions of power and influence, and so those elite universities should boast a conspicuous minority population. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the American citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." Bigelow called that line of reasoning "intuitive." He added, "I think that's why affirmative action is such an issue. For many, college admission is the stepping stone to a leadership position."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas brought up the stigma that, as he sees it, necessarily accompanies affirmative action. He said he would contest the notion that "discrimination benefits those admitted as a result of it." Melton said he doesn't fully contest the Thomas view. "I'm personally not a big fan of affirmative action. I don't really like it. I mean, I support it, because I believe in its necessity. But I don't much care for it, because there is that stigma attached. There is that sense that if you are African American, if you are Hispanic, if you come from a certain background, the only way you could get into college is through affirmative action."

Melton said that, arriving at Duke, he was quick to immerse himself in the black community, in part because of a sense of having been misunderstood--if not demeaned--by whites whom he had considered friends and mentors. "In high school, all my friends were white; all my teachers were white. Then, in my senior year, college admissions started rolling around, and scholarships started coming in. And that was when I 'learned' that I got into college because of affirmative action, because I was black; it had nothing to do with my class rank, grade-point average, SAT scores. I had people whom I considered to be close friends who were telling me, 'Well, you know if I were black, I'd have gotten into those schools, I'd have gotten those scholarships.' I had a teacher say that I was lucky, because I filled a void that these schools were looking to fill."

Sophomore Robert Winterode, a Latino, probably wouldn't be considered lucky in all of his life's circumstances. But while growing up in public housing and homeless shelters, he was an educational achiever. In an article in his hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News, his former principal said, "He's been able to take the challenges and the obstacles that have been placed before him and turn them into stepping stones of success." His high school was close to 100-percent Latino. "I guess my high school could be a case study for a bad, minority, public high school that you find so often in the U.S.," said Winterode. "The SAT average was 742, and there was a huge dropout rate. Most kids didn't go to college. I was the only one in something like four years who went out of state for college."

Alex Baranpuria, sophomore

 "We aren't a color-blind society. The first thing we notice is a person's color. And that is something that you just can't take away, at least not today."
--Alex Baranpuria, sophomore



Tamara Wilson, senior

"I realized that, regardless of the way I view myself, people are going to see me as 'the black girl.'" --Tamara Wilson, senior. Photos: Les Todd

 

Winterode perceives problems with affirmative action when it is applied thoughtlessly: "You have to wonder how much minorities fall behind when they're admitted to good universities more on their color or their race than on their academic record. They come in deficient in academic preparation, and that accounts for a higher-than-average dropout rate for minorities in colleges. I do think that's a problem in that it hurts minorities in the long run."

In its own Supreme Court brief, the Bush administration faulted the University of Michigan for failing to consider "race-neutral alternatives" to affirmative action. But Winterode said that he is even more wary of the sort of alternative to affirmative action practiced in Texas, where the top 10 percent of high-school graduates are guaranteed admission to public universities. Given the weaknesses of some of those high schools, he said, it's predictable that a lot of the accepted students will find themselves academically overwhelmed.

Far from causing a campus segment to feel academically overwhelmed, does affirmative action strengthen the learning environment? To its proponents, affirmative action is more than a corrective; it's an educational imperative. In the amicus brief that Duke helped craft, some of the nation's major research universities made a strong case for the link between diversity and learning. "Diversity helps students confront perspectives other than their own and thus to think more rigorously and imaginatively," according to the brief. "It helps students learn to relate better to people from different backgrounds; it helps students become better citizens."

MacWilliam, like most of the other students, endorsed that argument, and she talked about taking a seminar earlier this summer on the Harlem Renaissance. She said it was an unusually enlivening experience, intellectually speaking, because of the varied backgrounds represented around the seminar table. "As soon as someone in your class says something that new or different from your experience, it gets your mind spinning. It gets you thinking. It challenges what you always thought was right. I haven't had enough of those classes. But in this one class, where I finally had a diverse peer group, I thought deeper and harder than I had in a long time."

Many of these students were steeped in diversity before attending Duke, and some expressed frustration at what they perceived as limits to diversity on the campus. Shungu comes from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, which he described as "a fairly diverse community between stereotypically rich, white Princeton and Trenton, which is predominantly minorities and pretty poor. I went to a public high school, and so it was a fairly diverse student body. But one thing was that, in something like the honors and Advanced Placement classes, I was one of the few minorities."

Shungu's story had a familiar resonance for the other minority students. Although her high school was ethnically diverse, senior Tamara Wilson was "the only black person" in her accelerated-track classes. "As a black student, if you're going to succeed, you have to learn how to live in two worlds. It's how I was raised. At home, I was part of an all-black family and went to an all-black church. Outside of class, I would hang out with my black friends, my Hispanic friends. In class, I would be with my white friends."

That experience in straddling different worlds is also reflected in Melton's background. The summer after he finished fifth grade, Melton and his family moved to Marietta, Georgia. There, "I lived in an all-white neighborhood, went to an all-black church, and went to a diverse school. But I was in all the advanced classes, where, sadly, I was usually the only black person."

For his first two years as a high-school student, Baranpuria was in a public school in Gastonia, North Carolina. "That's when you have cliques develop, and I never quite got into one. I didn't fit into the white, upper-middle-class clique; I wasn't a minority, essentially, because most of the minorities in my high school were black or Hispanic." For his last two years, he attended the North Carolina School of Science and Math, a residential magnet school in Durham. "You're pretty much a group of 250 kids who are stuck in a shoebox. You have curfews at 8:30, and you have RAs checking on you continuously. We felt restricted, but, at the same time, we were in a bubble where people who were white, black, Asian, gay, bi, all had to get along and gain understanding of perspectives outside of what they were used to back home. It was quite amazing to find that sort of interaction between different races, different cultures, different backgrounds."

Baranpuria hasn't found the mixing so natural at Duke; he said he was surprised that the Duke Indian Association seems to draw Indian students exclusively. "All my peers are of South Asian descent. And I regret that, just because I know there's so much that I want to learn about other people, because they have their own story to tell. It seems the opportunities that we do have here are so amazing, but there's a stronger tendency to segregate and isolate as groups."

Critics of affirmative action zero in on that image of self-segregation and isolation. They argue that one consequence of the policy is a heightened race consciousness and the pigeonholing of minority students--the notion that black students, for example, will be looked to for articulating a "black perspective." The students in this conversation said that expectation is played out routinely. But, in their view, it reflects the hard reality of the relatively small numbers of minority students. In Melton's words, "As a minority, you feel like you're speaking up for your race, because you're the only one in the classroom to do that. I don't think that's because of affirmative action. I experienced that in high school, in elementary school. It's just part of being who you are."

Devon MacWilliam, senior

"As a white student, I just wish that I knew more minority students, not just their name and home state, but honestly reaped the benefits of a diverse community." --Devon MacWilliam, senior



Robert Winterode, sophomore

"You have to wonder how much minorities fall behind when they're admitted to good universities more on their color or their race than on their academic record." --Robert Winterode, sophomore

Nick Shungu, sophomore

 "What I think struck me most was that people...didn't exactly know what affirmative action was, but they had been taught to support it or to be against it." --Nick Shungu, sophomore. Photos: Les Todd

 
 

As a high-school student, Melton said, he had few role models among his peers. "I feel like a lot of black people who come to Duke and then find, 'Wow, there are other black people like me; I'm no longer the only black student in those advanced classes.'" So there's a natural tendency to identify with that new cluster of peers, he said. "Also, coming to Duke, you're about 9, 10, maybe 11 percent of the population. So it's really easy to become bonded within the black community. I feel like maybe--I don't know if doing this out of a sense of survival is too strong a term, but it's really easy to become involved thoroughly in the black community. It's really easy to embrace the black community, not so much as a rejection of the white community, but more for enjoying being with other blacks of like mind, like goals, like purposes."

Then there are the reminders of a persistent stereotyping. Wilson recalled meeting with a physics tutor to review a problem set. She was struggling with a particular algebra problem. "For the life of me, I just couldn't do it. And he made a comment to me, like, 'If you ever expect to be an engineer, you're going to need to learn how to do this.' And then he followed that comment, saying, 'Oh, but you're a girl and you're black. So you'll always have a job.' I was taken aback by it. It hurt. Then I realized that, regardless of the way I view myself, people are going to see me as 'the black girl.' "

In her opinion in the Michigan law-school case, Justice O'Connor declared, "We expect that twenty-five years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." Duke law school's James Coleman called O'Connor's words an expression of hope, rather than a court order. "That places the burden on universities to review periodically their admissions policies, [to] adopt race-neutral policies when they will serve the goals of meaningful diversity and selectivity, and to eliminate the consideration of race when race-neutral policies will achieve the compelling interest of a diverse student body," he told The Washington Times.

These students, who were not yet born when the Bakke decision came down twenty-five years ago, weren't so sure that affirmative action would lose its social purpose that quickly. After all, they observed, Brown v. Board of Education was decided fifty years ago. Yet Winterode said that his experience in San Antonio points to the persistence of segregation and "the inequities in the public education system." MacWilliam mentioned this year's shared freshman-reading assignment, Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, which documents the divide between urban and suburban schools. Kozol concludes that segregation has deepened even as the quality of education for minorities and the poor has slipped.

" I think there are always going to be those in society who are less privileged than others," said Bigelow. "I think that what Justice O'Connor's statement suggests is that, at some point, society won't feel a need to correct on the basis of race alone. But society will still need to correct on some other basis, like growing up in poverty or going to a school system that doesn't get as much funding as another school system." Pondering the current workings of affirmative action, he added, "I wonder if universities appropriately take into account factors such as socioeconomic status and the educational circumstances that were available in each student's surroundings." Such factors might weigh more heavily than racial identity, he suggested. "Not discounting the obvious racial inequality in America, it is clear that even some white people are disadvantaged in society."

As society continues to struggle with affirmative action, Duke, according to the numbers, has come a long way. The freshman class entering in 1984 had 128 minority students: fifty-six who identified themselves as black or African American, forty-three Asians, and twenty-six Hispanics/Latinos. The class entering this fall has 570 minority students: 163 African Americans, 288 Asians, 115 Latinos, and four Native Americans. The proportion of minorities in the freshman class, 35 percent, is a record for Duke (that percentage figure includes international students).

The current numbers are all the more dramatic given the fact that an integrated Duke isn't all that old. In 1955, The Chronicle editorialized, "Many of us do not understand why this institution is segregated.... We should open our doors to all qualified people because we believe in democracy, the principles of Christianity, and the manifestation of the ideals of a university. Segregation is wrong." A month later, the University Council called for "action [to] be taken looking toward the admission of duly qualified Negroes in such areas of advanced study in the University as might prove desirable and feasible."

But there was little administrative response to such stances until the spring of 1961, when the board of trustees adopted a resolution specifying that "qualified applicants may be admitted to degree programs in the Graduate and Professional Schools of Duke University...without regard to race, creed, or national origin." That September, six African-American students registered; three withdrew before classes started. Among the three who enrolled, two entered the law school and one, the divinity school. At its meeting in June 1962, the board resolved to integrate the undergraduate colleges. The first five African-American undergraduates enrolled in the fall of 1963--exactly forty years ago. One left to enter military service, and another left to take a job. The remaining three students received their degrees in 1967.

What was a novelty just a few decades ago is now basic to the character of the campus. Still, at Duke, as elsewhere, affirmative action, motivated as it is by the aim of diversity, remains a work in progress.