Affirmative action in higher education was originally meant to rebalance the scales of mostly-white, mostly-male institutions. But a study from the University of Colorado Denver found that the legal semantics of two landmark Supreme Court cases have redefined the focus of affirmative action from access for students of color to educational benefits for white students. This repositioning of diversity priorities also shows up in higher education diversity initiatives, such as “Inclusive Excellence.”
“The idea of ‘inclusive excellence’ seemed good at face value,” said Naomi Nishi, PhD, department of Ethnic Studies at CU Denver. “We cannot, as an institution, be excellent unless we have a diversity of people participating. But in practice, students of color at elite institutions are being treated like their responsibility is to be the diversity that gives white students a well-rounded education.”
The study was published in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education.
Defining diversity and critical mass
In 2003, a pair of affirmative action lawsuits found their way to the Supreme Court (Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)). The first found in favor of the University of Michigan, ruling Michigan’s Law School was using racial diversity appropriately in admissions as they were seeking a critical mass of Students of Color through a nuanced admissions process. The second found for the plaintiff, arguing that the University of Michigan had used a quota system in their undergraduate program scoring system that unfairly favored people of color.
During the two cases, two terms—diversity and critical mass—began to fluctuate in their definitions. In 1977, Rosabeth Moss Kanter coined the term “critical mass” to mean diversity in diversity—enough people of color in the classroom so that students of color would not be tokenized or feel isolated. In the Grutter case, the term matched Kanter’s definition half of the time.
Diluting and revising the legal definitions
But a revised usage showed up, too: “critical mass” became the number of students of color needed for the student body to realize educational benefits. The definition was revised to focus less on the students of color and more on the benefit for current students (most of whom were white). It stuck. By the next Supreme Court cases, Fisher v. University of Texas (2013, 2016), it was the only definition used.
Nishi described how, in the discourse of these cases, the definitions of key words, like “critical mass” and “diversity” were being diluted and revised to be more palatable to white interests.
“Both sides were rapidly changing definitions to co-opt and concede the remaining benefit for students of color that remained in Affirmative Action,” said Nishi.
Who benefits from diversity?
The semantic concessions had reverberations in future affirmative action cases. As affirmative actions cases proliferated alongside state-wide bans on using any racial consideration in the admissions process, institutions shifted their efforts to instead focus on diversity and inclusivity programming. It was what Nishi called a “Plan B in the face of legal dismantlement of racial considerations in admissions”
“Yet, these same diversity and inclusivity initiatives were quickly co-opted by people who were looking—even unintentionally—to further white elite interests,” said Nishi.
For example, when a business school launched an Inclusive Excellence program, Nishi said leaders in the school described the program as a way to help prepare their students for future jobs where they would manage diverse groups.
“It was a predominantly white institution and they were essentially saying ‘we’ve got to teach our white students how to manage people of color because one day they’ll be their boss,’” said Nishi. “That’s troubling.”
The problem of racism and supremacy in higher ed
But affirmative action and subsequent diversity programming were Band-Aids from the beginning, said Nishi.
“We’ve never actually been interested in dealing with the larger problem of racism and white supremacy in higher education,” said Nishi. “White women were the biggest benefactors of affirmative action, but now their numbers in higher ed outpace white men in some areas. We’ve seen that when these programs no longer benefit white people, interests diverge. There’s a seizing back of any benefits or access from people of color—something we call ‘Imperialistic Reclamation.’”
“The truth is, we won’t see racial justice until we stop pretending that racism isn’t at work in our institutions of higher education and end the futile attempts to convince white elites in power that racial equity is first and foremost for them. It’s not.”