Last week, the Supreme Court rendered its decision on Schuette v. BAMN, which upheld the Michigan ban on affirmative action. In that opinion, the Court stated that the case was “not about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.” In the opening paragraphs of the opinion, the Court declared that they did not have the authority to “set aside” the Michigan law. However, by upholding the ban on affirmative action, the Court has essentially blocked an essential key to opening the freedom gates of opportunity for people of color, who continue to experience not only segregated opportunity, but in more instances than we would like, flat out discrimination.'
At the center of the Michigan debate on affirmative action—as well as similar bans in other states—has been the issue of whether race can be a consideration in the admission of students to public universities. This is an important issue for Black women, who have historically embraced college as an important tool for advancement. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 21% of Black women age 25 and older have a college degree or higher in the U.S., which is a tremendous increase from 1970, when just 4.6% held such degrees. Education has been a game changer for Black women.
"African American women go to college at a higher rate than men," says Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "We know that these [anti-affirmative action] ballot initiatives mean a lower attendance by African Americans, if not virtual exclusion."
A synopsis of how affirmative action bans have affected students of color reveals stark disparities that are worth noting. In California, Black students now compose only 2% of freshmen at UC Berkeley and 3% of freshmen at UCLA, down from 7% (at both campuses) in 1996, the year in which the state’s anti-affirmative action legislation passed. In the Florida State University system, Black students are now just 7% of the freshman class, down from 12% in 2001, when the state passed its ban on affirmative action.
As a collective, White women have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, and White women have consistently represented the majority of women enrolled at the University of Michigan. Prior to and after the ban on affirmative action, White women have represented about 62% of females enrolled in the university. Only in 2013 did this proportion drop to 59%–but we cannot attribute that to an increase among Black female enrollment.
Nationwide, the share of Black women enrolled in college increased by 69% between 1994 and 2012, however, data from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor show that there has been a decline in the enrollment of Black women at this flagship campus since the state ban on affirmative action in 2006. Between 1999 and 2005, Black women represented 9% of the female enrollment at the public university. In 2013, Black females were 14.6% of the females in Michigan, but only 5% of those enrolled in the university.
But this issue is bigger than Michigan. In California, Texas, Florida, and other states that have banned affirmative action—whether by referendum or executive order—race-neutral policies fail to produce a racially diverse student body. For Black women in college, what also matters is how Black feminine identity is constructed for the purposes of accessing a game-changing education. In anti-affirmative action states, gender balance can remain a consideration in college admissions, but not race. Still, at no point do Black women stop being Black.
"We teach a zero-sum game," Arnwine said, in relation to the Schuette decision. "Our dialogue doesn't allow us to really explore these issues in an intelligent way…This is really about who we are as a society."
As Audre Lorde once stated, “there is no hierarchy of oppressions,” which means that failing to consider how Black women’s racial identity has informed their educational and life experiences is as harmful as failing to consider how their gender identity has functioned in the same way. For some Black women, even knowing that they must strip themselves of their racial identity in the admissions process may inform whether they even apply to these schools—not because they are afraid they will not be admitted, but because they would rather attend schools that celebrate their racial and gender identity, and that demonstrate the value of a diverse student body to the next generation of leaders.
Ultimately, affirmative action is not about doling out racial preferences, quotas, or handouts. These are programs and decision-making processes that respond to a legacy of segregated opportunity that has rendered 42% of Black children to be educated in high-poverty schools and 39% of Black students to be educated in “intensely segregated” schools. Eliminating race-conscious structural remedies in response to these examples of structural inequality is basically to say that the vestiges of discrimination are entirely orchestrated by the will of the people independent of policies, processes, and programs. And we know that’s just untrue.
You see, systems and structures matter. Race matters…and Justice Sonia Sotomayor agrees.
In her passionate dissent to the Schuette decision, Justice Sotomayor wrote, "Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'"
Black women belong in these schools. It’s imperative that we protect their ability to be there.