With the Supreme Court set to review the status of admissions policies such as those at the University of Michigan, it appears that consideration of race as one of many factors used in admissions decisions may be changing. As I review the arguments pro and con, I am reminded of an ugly conversation I had with a very angry classmate while I was studying law at the University of Maryland 15years ago. Regrettably, the conversation could have taken place just yesterday. As a nation and as a legal profession, we have failed miserably in addressing the racial divide that continues to threaten our progress.
My classmates and I had just completed a discussion of the Bakke case in our constitutional law class. Professor Bill Reynolds did a great job stretching the minds of the diverse group of students in our class. However, one particular student remained too wound up. Over coffee, he took pleasure announcing that he had gotten into law school because he was “qualified” and that it was unfair that so many other “qualified” white applicants were not admitted because the spots had been given to minorities.
The fact that my “Uncle Sam,1” rather than the Uncle John or Jim who played a factor in legacy admittees, aided my acceptance to law school has never been a source of conflict for me. I have always realized that success or failure would come as the result of my own work ethic and diligence, and it has. However, on this day I was particularly weary of being looked upon by many of my white classmates as someone who was not “qualified” to be among them. So I turned to my angry white male classmate and admitted to him that I had been the beneficiary of an affirmative action admissions policy. I conceded that by his terms, I was not as qualified to be a law student as was he. Therefore, I mused, it was particularly confusing for me to understand why my grades and class rank were higher than his. I challenged him to think about how qualified he could really be if by his own definition, an “unqualified Black woman” was doing so much better than he was. No reply was needed. His face, which turned bright red, spoke volumes.
Top-flight schools routinely consider an applicant’s hometown, athletic ability, family legacy, gender, and a host of other factors in addition to race. Given the long- standing history of exclusion of non-whites from many law schools, today’s legacy policies still largely serve as bonus points for white applicants. However these “bonus points” remain uncontested. Race continues to divide us, raising particular ire in the very limited and narrow instances when being a racial minority could offer an extra point among universities seeking to stimulate the thought-provoking educational environment that comes with a wide representation of views and back- grounds. It’s the type of exchange that is in everyone’s best interest and that helps to develop tomorrow’s leaders of what has become an increasingly diverse society.
Veta T. Richardson
1. By Uncle Sam, I am referring to the United States, the laws and cases of which facilitated universities to take affirmative action, based upon both race and gender, to increase the diversity of their student bodies.
From the January/February 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®