A series of framed portraits of graduating classes from the early 20th century hang in the third floor hallway of the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis building. Row upon row of stern-looking white faces stare out from these composites: Many years the class is all male, sometimes a white woman is included, inevitably designated as class secretary. These graduates went on to shape Indiana law and commerce as judges, legislators, businessmen and attorneys.
"Law School: Not just for white men any more." Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis students Vanessa Villegas-Densford, Lawanda Ward, Tameka Clark and Emile Smith stand in front of a portrait of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes.
On the first floor of the same building, several members of the classes of 2003 and 2004 dissect Supreme Court case law and talk about their leadership of the Black Law Students Association and the Hispanic Law Society. Like their predecessors in the third floor portraits, they will help shape our community. But in past eras, the only way these men and women of color would be allowed in this building was if they were hired to sweep up after the white students had gone home. Is there a better argument for affirmative action than that?
Of course, these are loquacious lawyers-to-be, so they won't let the argument end so quickly. They are here to discuss plans to join a civil rights march to the Supreme Court on April 1 in support of admission policies at the University of Michigan. That same day, the court will hear arguments on two cases challenging the university's practice of taking race into account when deciding who to admit to its undergraduate and law schools.
"We have an obligation to go there and have our voices be heard," says Lawanda Ward, president of the Black Law Students Association. First of all, those voices will clarify what they are supporting. "Affirmative action as most people think of it does not exist," Tameka Clark says. "It is usually equated with quotas, which makes people cringe. But that's not the case."
She's right. The use of racial quotas for university admission was struck down by the Supreme Court in the same 1978 Bakke case that found that race could be one factor used in admission policies. The Michigan undergraduate school awards points on a competitive scale to applicants who are underrepresented racial minorities, with a similar number of points available to poor white applicants.
"You can"t ignore the disparities"
When the IU-Indianapolis students say race needs to continue to be considered, they are in good company. Over 60 amicus curiae briefs have been filed in support of the Michigan policies, including arguments by several former joint chiefs of staff and our own Indiana University. Secretary of State Colin Powell has expressed his support for affirmative action, no big surprise given that race-conscious policies have effectively integrated the U.S. military leadership.
The chief argument for maintaining race-conscious admission policies is that our society has not yet overcome a national heritage of slavery and discrimination. As Justice Harry Blackmun famously wrote in the Bakke decision, "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take race into account." A
nd we're not beyond racism yet. "We've had white students come up to us and say, "Segregation is over, why do we need affirmative action now?"" Emile Smith says. "But that's a myth. Segregation still exists, it is just not as overt. And segregation especially exists in education and the professional fields."
Disparities also exist in every measure of income, wealth and property ownership, which all show white Americans to be far ahead of African-American and Latino minorities. Recent history shows that the problem would be much worse without affirmative action. When the University of California in 1996 adopted "race blind" measures for admission to elite schools, minority enrollment dried up to the point where only one African-American was admitted to the prestigious Boalt Hall law school in Berkeley.
Another compelling argument for maintaining race-conscious policies is that they are necessary to counter-balance other admission advantages, such as the "legacy" boost enjoyed by a sub-par Texas applicant for the Yale class of 1968 whose father was a prominent and generous alumnus of the school.
"Merit has never been an objective criteria only," Smith says. "It is more than just numbers on grade point averages and LSAT. Life story matters. It always has."
Vanessa Villegas-Densford is glad it does. The president of the school's Hispanic Law Society is frank about the effects of her struggles to learn English and deal with her family's poverty after coming to Indiana from Puerto Rico as an 8-year-old. "If it wasn't for affirmative action and diversity programs, I probably wouldn't be in law school," she says. But Villegas-Densford was admitted, and will graduate in May, one of only three Latinos in her class. She will then put her degree to use in representing the community's burgeoning Latino population.
"You can't ignore the disparities between the races in income and school quality," she says. "Until we fix those inequalities, we still need to consider race as a factor."