Achieving Diversity Without Considering Race

Achieving Diversity Without Considering Race

Americans often hesitate to deal with racial issues head-on, says Georgetown University research professor Anthony Carnevale. As an example of this tendency, he points to the 2013 case Fisher v. University of Texas, which strictly limited the use of race itself as a factor in college admissions -- but encouraged the use of "race-neutral" policies to promote diversity.

Is it possible to achieve racial diversity with this approach? We recently took a few minutes to speak with Carnevale about his chapter, co-authored with Stephen J. Rose and Jeff Strohlin, of the Century Foundation book The Future of Affirmative Action. The conversation has been lightly edited.

You mention that Fisher "encourages universities to adopt race-neutral strategies (proxies) to achieve the compelling interest of promoting racial and ethnic diversity." Can you describe what the best alternatives to racial classifications would be?

The most interesting thing about our deliberations on race in the Supreme Court and in the society at large is that Americans seem to be a people who keep race as a secret even from ourselves. So what the Supreme Court has done in Fisher is, essentially, exactly that, meaning it is okay to have racial diversity as long as you don't use the word "race."

There are three ways to get racial diversity in college admissions. One is you admit people based on race. That is the most direct and straightforward way. The second is you can use place or geography, and that is what they do in the Texas 10 percent solution, where if you are in the top 10 percent of your high school class, you get admitted regardless of your test scores or grades. In the end, that works in the United States, because our communities are so highly segregated -- if you take the top 10 percent in high schools, you are going to hit high schools that are 80 percent African American and Latino and the odds are very high you will get African Americans and Latinos in the top 10 percent, even though they may have test scores in other kinds of tested achievement below a similar kid in a white suburban high school who is not in the top 10 percent. The third way to do it is to use a set of characteristics that come with race in America -- income, whether or not you are going to college for the first time in your family's history, whether you come from a neighborhood of low-income people, whether you own a house, a whole series of economic-based indicators.

What the court is essentially saying is, you can use geographic differences that come up with segregation in America, which high school you go to, which neighborhood you live in, and you can use income-based or class-based designations. But you can't use race alone. You can't use race all by itself. In the end you can use proxies for race, but you can't use race. It is a very American solution, that we are going to get racial diversity, but we can't do it directly.

Can you describe the "race-blind" and "race-conscious" approaches?

Race-blind essentially means that you don't use race explicitly. You don't say "We are going to build a pool of candidates and then we are going to pick African Americans and Latinos." The race-blind alternative is to use these other mechanisms which in effect have the same outcome, but you use proxies for race. 

Race-conscious -- and this is where it gets sticky -- there is a question there of the intent. So if you are using geographic designations or social class designations, you are bound to get more race. What you are doing -- and this is where the arguments come up -- some people will say that is being race-conscious, and that is not allowed. Others will say the courts allow these geographic or socioeconomic kinds of selection metrics, and that is not race-conscious because you don't use race explicitly.

So there is a gray area in this whole debate that is about what your intentions are. Some people say if your intention is to get racial diversity and you use geography or social class, than that is race-conscious. Others will say it isn't because you are not using race explicitly. The Court is basically saying that it is okay to use race-conscious kinds of metrics for selection, but it is not okay to use race alone.

Can you describe the methods and results of your "race-blind" and "race-conscious" simulations?

In the end, if you get proxies for race that are strong enough, you could get a fair amount of diversity. If you want to get very explicit about geographic area, you can get racial diversity. So if you are Rutgers University, and you want to get racial diversity, than you choose from certain high schools in Newark. You can add class to that -- that is to say, not only do you use certain high schools in Newark, but you break the candidates down by their family income and other characteristics that are about class -- and you will get even stronger race-based characteristics. 

What you do then -- which is appealing to a lot of people on both sides of this issue -- is that at a minimum if you use class and geography in combination, you don't allow access for minority kids who are the children of affluent minority parents. That seems more fair to most people and more fair to most Americans. In opinion polls, we know that if you say "We are going to use race," the vast majority of Americans are opposed to that and have been ever since affirmative action started. There has never been a poll, save for one that I know of, since the Nixon administration that said Americans are in favor of race-based affirmative action. They simply aren't.

If you make it class-based, for example a low-income kid who is a striver, who has achieved above expectations, do you give that kid a break? The majority would say yes. But the minute you introduce race into that question, it is a different story. Americans refuse to admit to themselves that race is a factor in opportunity in the United States.

What do you find would best improve racial and socioeconomic diversity in higher education?

I think the most effective way is to be fairly honest about this. A fair compromise is to use race, place, and class. That is, it seems to me okay if you are to give preference to low-income minorities. I think that is a fair compromise. I understand when people say that you don't want to let rich black kids or Latino kids have an advantage over working-class white kids. I get that, emotionally. So if you compromise and say "There won't be rich kids," that is clearly the most effective way. You have to twist yourself and play with the numbers a bit to use place- and class-based variables in combination.

I think the question then becomes whether there is going to be a court case at some point that says if your intention is to get race and you are using geography or class, is that disallowed? So if you are at all going to be race-conscious in what you do, is that disallowed? In which case, there is no way to get racial diversity. There really is no way to do that if you just use class all by itself, which is a lot of people want to do. There are six or seven white kids who are low-income and relatively high achievers for every one minority, so the odds that you will get racial diversity are fairly low. You will get a lot of low-income white kids. 

In some ways, this is a game we are playing. Truthfully, if someone from Mars landed and heard this discussion, they would say this is somewhat of a silly game. But I don't think that the court for now allows race-conscious solutions; they want those solutions to be race-blind. You would have to parse words pretty hard to figure out what that means if you are an English professor. But while the people who are opposed to race-based selection tend to be opposed to race-conscious selection, some of them will say it is fine if there is an income component to this, that it is at least fair, you aren't letting in rich minority kids over poor white kids.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One of the things about this, by the way, that is sort of interesting and always comes up in the data, and nobody talks much about it, is all of this works better for Hispanics than African Americans. All of us who collect the data have a minimum test score or a minimum preparation that we demand of the data, so when we run the data to do this, we don't allow anyone in the pool who has less than an 85 percent chance of graduating from the college, given their minimum test scores and so on. When you set that minimum-preparation standard, you run out of African Americans very fast, but you end up with lots of Hispanics.

The difference is largely about the preparation. You get a larger pool, because there are more of them who have more than an 85 percent chance of graduating from a selective college. 

Michael Cipriano is a RealClearPolitics editorial intern.

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