By Sherrilyn A. Ifill
THE decision is in. All consideration of race in college admissions is over.
No, the Supreme Court has not yet announced its decision in the landmark case of Fisher v. University of Texas; that ruling is expected any day now. But an alarming number of scholars, pundits and columnists — many of them liberal — have declared that economic class, not race, should be the appropriate focus of university affirmative-action efforts.
How can we explain this decision to throw in the towel on race-based affirmative action? Are we witnessing a surrender in advance of sure defeat? Or just an early weariness with a debate that, a decade ago, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted would last another 25 years?
Perhaps it is the presence of a black president that has encouraged so many to believe that race is simply no longer a significant factor in American life. It is true that we have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow segregation. But the plain fact is that race still matters.
It matters with frightening frequency in the encounters of young black men with the police. It matters in our ability to get access to affordable housing, and in the wealth accumulated (or not) by our families. Whether the name on our résumé is Lakeisha or Leslie matters when we try to get a job interview. And it matters often, though not always, in our views about the continuing significance of race in American life.
Race isn’t the only factor that matters, of course, and universities should take seriously their obligation to educate poor students of all races. But nor should class be the only factor: after all, it was also true in the early 1960s that ignoring race and merely providing more resources to segregated schools would have benefited some poor black students — but that certainly didn’t mean that separate was equal, or that segregation was constitutional, or that pushing for desegregation was a waste of time.
What we might learn from the decades-long (and painfully incomplete) experience of desegregation is the need to deploy multiple efforts to address a chronic problem. In the context of higher education, that menu of efforts should include considering income (if not wealth), as well as an aggressive campaign to raise the quality of K-12 public education.