OXFORD – Cheerful news. The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding a thorny case involving race – and it’s not about something Mississippi is or isn’t doing.
That’s pretty rare for this state where race is often the dominant factor and, if not, at least the subtext in policy issues ranging from staffing the highway patrol to whether a grade school is functioning as it should.
The case came from Michigan, one of eight states that affirmatively ban any form of affirmative action in admissions to public colleges and universities. The issue is whether Michigan’s ban is constitutional.
The reason Mississippi doesn’t have a dog in the proverbial hunt is that Mississippi has open admissions at all eight state universities. Any resident who earns a high school or equivalency diploma and takes the American College Test is (for all practical purposes) admitted. There is no additional screening. Sign up. You’re in.
This is in sharp contrast to other states where obtaining a seat in a public university classroom can be a challenge. For nearly 50 years, American lawmakers and courts have been struggling with whether and how to use an applicant’s race in making an admissions decision. Their hurdle has been how to make amends for long histories of purposeful exclusion of minorities in the face of the Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment. The clause says, in plain language, “treat everybody the same.”
When it went into effect in 1868, that seemed noble enough. It was only after another century of purposeful, unequal treatment that lawmakers and courts decided that maybe the pursuit of equality needed a nudge. The term “affirmative action” was coined.
Many approaches were tried, with the net effect of today’s fuzzy rule: Use of race, generally, as a factor in admissions is OK as long as it is not the only factor.
In a case last term, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to make this “standard” less fuzzy. That case challenged whether Texas, which admits the top 10 percent of each high school’s graduates without regard to race, discriminated against white students who scored better than some minority students. The court, to borrow from a Texas-based musical, “danced a little sidestep” and left fuzziness as the law of the land.
But Michigan, Florida, California, Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma, Nebraska and New Hampshire have, in recent years, just said no to affirmative action. They say admission points – plus or minus – cannot be based on race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin. The result, at least in California and Michigan, has been fewer minorities on campus, a point made loudly by protesters outside the Supreme Court building on oral argument day. At the University of Michigan, the percentage of black undergrads dropped from 7 percent to 4.7 percent from 2006-2012 and the percentage of Hispanics fell from 4.9 percent to 4.3 percent.
Florida increased recruiting in nontraditional areas to widen the applicant pool. Encouraging more minorities to apply has worked there; fancy formulas have been shelved.
Well, what about Mississippi? Here, it was settlement of the 30-year Ayers litigation 10 years ago that cemented open admissions. Today, three schools – the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi University for Women and Delta State University – come pretty close to matching the state’s 67-33 white-black ratio. The two largest historically white universities have substantial minority enrollment. Mississippi State is 21 percent African-American and the University of Mississippi is 17 percent. Historically black universities – Jackson State, Alcorn and Valley – have changed little, but even so Mississippi universities lead the nation in diversity.
“Open” is the way to go here, but wouldn’t work in places where demand exceeds supply.
The street talk is that the justices will allow the Michigan ban to stand. Almost as surely, the decision will be labeled “racist.”
Meanwhile, a compelling development has arisen in the statistics. There is an increasing inability to pigeonhole students as white, black, Hispanic or Asian. Abundant numbers now check the boxes labeled “other” or “more than one race.” This is the trend in all states, including Mississippi, where “other” is the fastest-growing bloc. It was 9.6 percent last year at Mississippi State; 11.6 percent at MUW.
In seeming defiance of all the legal machinations of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences with matters of race, this generation appears to be saying, “Hey, race is not what matters on this application. I just want an education.”
If that’s a fair inference to draw from the surge in self-identified “others,” then that’s cheerful news, too.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.