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Sociologists Offer Brief to U.S. Supreme Court in Support of University of Michigan's Affirmative Action Policy

Washington, DC — Over the past 50 years, sociologists and other social scientists have produced an enormous body of scholarship demonstrating that race and ethnicity profoundly affect both people's life experiences and the way they are treated by others in American society. Drawing on this scholarship, the American Sociological Association (ASA) is submitting a brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the University of Michigan Law School and the Student Intervenors in Grutter v. Bollinger.

In 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court recognized that racial segregation "affects the hearts and minds" of children "in a way unlikely ever to be undone." Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 494 (1954). Fifty years later, the promise of Brown remains unfulfilled: race still shapes the lives of our children, and our cities and schools continue to be segregated to an extraordinary degree. Blacks living in Detroit, New York, and Chicago today are almost as segregated from whites as were blacks living in South Africa under apartheid. More than 70 percent of black children in the United States attend schools that are majority nonwhite. For Latino children, segregation is also pronounced: 76 percent attend schools that are mostly nonwhite. These segregated schools are generally inferior in staffing, resources, and programs compared to predominantly white schools in similar neighborhoods.

School segregation is firmly rooted in residential segregation emanating from racial prejudice. Despite four decades of civil rights legislation, studies by the Department of Housing and Urban Development show that black and Latino renters and buyers face race discrimination about half the time they visit real estate or rental offices to inquire about advertised housing. In social surveys, employers openly acknowledge their reluctance to hire people of color and recount the tactics they use to discourage minority applicants. Well-designed cognitive experiments demonstrate that almost all Americans automatically respond negatively toward people of color.

Race shapes every experience of minority children, from where they live and the schools they attend to the attitudes they encounter in classrooms, on the streets, at work, and in stores. Their everyday experiences are affected not only by their economic circumstances and other concomitants of race, but by race itself. The life experience of growing up nonwhite in America renders other fundamental life experiences, such as living in poverty, qualitatively different for minorities and whites. Moreover, minority children learn that they are treated differently because of their race.

Because growing up black, Latino, or Native American in the United States is a defining life experience, universities have a compelling interest in considering race when selecting students. Universities seek students who will benefit most from the educational experience, who will add to that experience through their individual talents and diverse perspectives, and who will build upon their education to contribute significantly to society after graduation. Given the pervasive effects of growing up nonwhite, universities cannot accurately assess a candidate's potential to contribute to these goals without considering race. Research has established that considering race among many other factors produces graduates of all races who become leaders in law, medicine, science, and public life. Declaring students' race as being out of bounds in admissions decisions would deny admissions officers crucial information to contextualize other life experiences and accurately measure academic performance.

When universities consider race in concert with other life experiences and weigh those experiences individually for each applicant, attention to race is narrowly tailored. Unlike approaches that would automatically admit students from impoverished backgrounds or from the top percentage of every high school class, an individualized examination of files considers race exactly where it matters, as an individual's life experience that transcends most other experiences.

Race is associated with so many life outcomes because, as social science research has established, none of us is indifferent to race. Our race shapes almost every encounter in our lives. Given the centrality of race in 21st century America, it is artificial and absurd to outlaw the consideration of race in a decision that depends on thousands of other life events that have been shaped by race. University admissions committees would be denied information they need to make good decisions. And students who deserve and would benefit from higher education would be unfairly ruled out. Incorporating information about the experience of growing up black, Latino, or Native American into the assessment of individual applicants along with other life experiences is the only way to consider each applicant as a whole person.

The American Sociological Association (ASA) is the major professional association of sociologists in the United States. ASA has more than 13,000 members, including most sociologists holding doctoral degrees from accredited universities. ASA worked together with the Law and Society Association, the Society for the Study of Social Problems, the Association of Black Sociologists, and Sociologists for Women in Society to produce this brief.

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Last Updated on June 06, 2005
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