Cornell University’s Black Students United presented the University president with a list of demands with one particularly surprising addition: a call to reduce the admission of African and Caribbean students in favor of African Americans. The demand would define true African American students as those who are at least second generation Americans.
Black Students United declared:
“We demand that Cornell Admissions to come up with a plan to actively increase the presence of underrepresented Black students on this campus. We define underrepresented Black students as Black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country.”
Black Students United does not want to block admitting these students but want the university to refocus its efforts on those applicants who come from black families that have lived in America for two or more generations;
“The Black student population at Cornell disproportionately represents international or first-generation African or Caribbean students. While these students have a right to flourish at Cornell, there is a lack of investment in Black students whose families were affected directly by the African Holocaust in America. Cornell must work to actively support students whose families have been impacted for generations by white supremacy and American fascism.”
The demand magnifies the still simmering debate over the use of race in college admissions, as we have previously discussed. Many have argued that race alone is not just a constitutionally problematic criteria but less valuable rather economic background in bringing diversity to a class.
While many defend race-conscious admissions in terms of the need for affirmative action to correct historic discrimination, the Supreme Court barred such affirmative action in 1978 in Bakke. Justice Lewis Powell allowed for only a limited use of race for the purpose of achieving “diversity” in classes. Notably, in Bakke, the Medical School at the University of California at Davis had a more modest program over all by setting aside 16 of the 100 seats for “Blacks,” “Chicanos,” “Asians,” and “American Indians.” Those slots were justified as a matter of diversity, but found unconstitutional by the Court. However, the Court was deeply fractured. Five justices Powell and the plurality found that Bakke had to be admitted and that the weight given race was unconstitutional.
The exception however soon swallowed the rule as schools fought to maintain levels of minority students as a diversity rather than an affirmative action program. Many academics privately admit that the real purpose of these programs remains the original affirmative action rationale to ensure greater numbers of minorities in higher education.
The fact that the case continues to be referred to as the “affirmative action case” shows how little has changed since Bakke when the Court supposedly closed the door on affirmative action in admissions. By allowing race to still be used for diversity, educators sought to achieve the same numerical goals as a matter of diversity and achieving a racial “critical mass.”
One argument that the students could make is that the selection of African students over African Americans does not sufficiently diversify the class. However, each of those students also bring diversifying elements to a class. The question is again whether diversity is a matter or race or background. If it is background, the race factor itself could be challenged in favor economic and social criteria.