Last month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Fisher v. University of Texas, and sometime in the next year we will know the fate of affirmative action practices in college admissions.
Regardless of what the Court decides, the case calls for an active discussion of the role of race on campus. Despite the Court’s scrutiny of the role of race in admissions, it’s just as important and informative to consider how race manifests itself for students once at college. Anyone who claims that we are race-blind or post-racial needs only to come to Cornell to see that they themselves are blind to the value of racial diversity and difficulty of racial inclusion. Students like Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the case, must put aside a sense of entitlement and faux equality to see the danger of ignoring race and subsequently downplaying diversity and inclusion.
Fisher claims in her suit that she was discriminated against in being denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. Since she is white, and race is a factor in the University’s holistic review, Fisher feels the consideration of race constituted a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Putting aside the fact that under Texas’s admissions policy she would have most likely been denied admission irrespective of her race, the implication is that race shouldn’t matter. In Fisher’s world, it’s both unconstitutional and unnecessary for colleges to consider race as part of who you are. It is thus her right to be considered for admission on her merits, and the color of her skin isn’t one of them.
I shared a similar worldview growing up in one of the nation’s most segregated regions, Long Island. Applying to colleges from a public high school that was largely Jewish and Asian, I was resentful of the few minorities in my school who were accepted to prestigious universities despite some having inferior GPAs and SAT scores to those of me and other white students. I considered myself progressive but thought affirmative action should be purely economic in nature. I reasoned that poor whites and poor blacks equally lacked the test prep, nutrition, education and other factors that contributed to the merit of my test scores and application.
My perspective on race changed soon after arriving at Cornell. I didn’t know at the time that East Hill was home to one of the defining moments in the history of college race relations, the 1969 Willard Straight takeover. Since 1969, the University has come a long way in improving the racial diversity of the undergraduate student population. 20.5 percent of the Class of 2016 identified themselves as under-represented minorities, 39.8 percent identified as students of color and only 41.3 percent identified as white.
It has been eye-opening and truly beneficial to come to a community where there is not only diversity of thought but also of race, background and ethnicity. I have learned so much, both inside and outside the classroom, from being exposed to different perspectives. It’s impossible to separate race from the nature of those perspectives, as it plays a fundamental role in defining who we are, for better and for worse.
My experience going from Long Island to Cornell has shown me the difference learning in a racially diverse environment makes. I have taken history, sociology, economics and government courses where I have learned the salience and role of race in America. The prospect of future Cornellians taking those courses after having been admitted without any regard for a critical part of their identity is troubling.
But it’s impossible to tout the benefits of having a diverse student body without considering the continued problem of racial inclusion at Cornell. To paraphrase a popular American analogy, Cornell is more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. As Deon Thomas ’15 effectively noted in a Sun column last month, in many classes “students of the same race seem to stick together.” The separation extends outside of the classroom. Fraternities and sororities for minorities exist in separate spheres, under the purview of differing governing bodies. Until this year, the Africana Center was administered separately from all of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges. In fact, almost every facet of our Cornell experience is racial.
In the aftermath of a string of bias incidents over the past year, Cornell is finally effectively promoting racial inclusion to the same degree it has built a diverse student body. Under the leadership of Associate Dean of Students and Director of Intercultural Programs Renee Alexander ’74, the new Intercultural Center has made remarkable inroads promoting necessary dialogue and reform. The new Intercultural Center at 626 Thurston Ave represents to inclusion what the creation of the Africana Center in 1969 was to diversity.
We are addressing integration now just as our predecessor Cornellians addressed diversity, and it all wouldn’t be possible if the University was forced to be race-blind. I do support the merging of the Africana Center into the College of Arts and Sciences and eventually think it will be prudent to integrate fraternity councils. But at the moment, the racial composition of student, academic and other leadership cannot be ignored. We have to continue to build bridges between diverse communities at Cornell and make them one.
I wonder if Abigail Fisher had similar experiences to me at Louisiana State University, where she ultimately enrolled. LSU is the least diverse university in Louisiana and is 75 percent white, so perhaps it would have been more difficult for her to see how pronounced race really is on campuses today. If she were to visit Cornell she’d hopefully see that the question before the Court, whether race should be a checkbox on an application, can’t be answered in isolation. She may succeed in removing that box, but if she does it will be significantly more difficult to address equal protection under the law on campus, not just in regards to getting there.
Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.