Mitchell Chang: Affirming Diversity

Just Talk

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with Mitchell Chang, professor of higher education at UCLA.  Professor Chang, who also holds a joint appointment in the Asian American Studies Department, conducts research on the educational efficacy of diversity-related initiatives on college campuses.  He is interested in applying best practices in campus diversity toward advancing student learning and enhancing democracy.  His research on the educational value of diversity was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger.

 

John Rogers: A few weeks ago marked the 40th anniversary of the Bakke case, in which a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action in university admissions policies, under certain conditions. Key to that decision was the idea that diversity plays an important role in enhancing valuable educational outcomes. Over the last four decades, we’ve seen efforts to challenge this decision and the idea that racially conscious university admissions can be constitutional. Now, these attempts to overturn affirmative action are being advanced by a group called “Students for Fair Admissions” in lawsuits filed against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.  The recent resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who represented the swing vote in Supreme Court decisions upholding affirmative action, points to the fragility of these long-standing policies and the need to understand their underlying rationale.

It’s also important to note that the notion that diversity is socially and culturally valuable has been increasingly challenged in the current national political climate.

So Mitch, we are coming together at an important time to talk about diversity in university admissions as well as diversity generally.  As a starting point, can you tell us about when US colleges and universities began to adopt affirmative action policies in admissions, and what led them to do so?

Mitchell Chang: A lot of it has to do with the momentum created through the Civil Rights Movement of 1965. There’s a great book by a sociologist named John David Skrentny called The Ironies of Affirmative Action. He argues that as a national policy, affirmative action was a very piecemeal plan—there wasn’t any directive that you can point to. Lyndon Johnson pushed this idea by making clear, in one of his famous speeches at Howard University, that in order to address racism you have to account for race.

You’re referring to Johnson’s metaphor of the track race, right?

Exactly. This was the idea that certain folks had a leg up, and you need to adjust for that. With affirmative action in higher education, it’s hard to point to anything specific, but the federal government used very pragmatic approaches to put greater pressure on institutions to make changes, especially in terms of enrollment, for what was often referred to as “minority students.” The federal government actually threatened to withhold funding until institutions were able to show growth in enrollment for those populations.

Was this during the Nixon administration, or did it start during Johnson’s term?

It went into greater effect during the Nixon Administration, leading up to Bakke, which was decided in 1978. Leading up to that, institutions were under some pressure by the federal government to show that they were making measurable gains in terms of admitting and enrolling what were referred to as “minority students,” and African American students in particular. One approach used by institutions to show gains was to set a target number every year: they would say, “Look, we have fourteen students this year. Next year we want to make sure we’re showing gains, so we’re going to target enrollment at eighteen,” and so forth. This approach of setting a quota was regarded in the Bakke decision to be unconstitutional.

Did the federal pressure and encouragement that occurred during the 1970s result in an increased number of underrepresented students enrolled in prestigious, selective schools?

Very much so. I think the more highly selective ones were more or less on board for a lot of different reasons, including what they considered a social and moral obligation aligned with their overall institutional missions. Certain pockets of our country, as we know, just resisted moving forward, but this kind of encouragement really helped to get them moving in the right direction. After all, you’re talking about federal dollars, not only in terms of research, but also in terms of financial aid. The federal government, even though we don’t have a centralized higher education system, can intervene in very effective ways. In California, the momentum was already there, and we were already moving into diversifying our student body. Still, federal intervention here definitely helped to reinforce that momentum.

For those unfamiliar with the Bakke case, the most basic background is that it centered on a student who was denied admission to medical school at UC Davis. Can you talk us through the court’s decision?

Allan Bakke had a really interesting profile. He was an older white student who was a veteran and had been twice denied to UC Davis’s medical school, and charged that he was being discriminated against. The evidence that he presented to make the case was that “minority students,” who he claimed were less qualified, were being admitted. That constitutes what they termed “reverse discrimination.”

There are some important takeaways from the Supreme Court’s decision. First, anybody who has studied this case knows that the court was deeply divided. Four justices sided on behalf of Bakke, whereas four others were on UC Davis’s side. Then there was Justice Lewis Powell, who marshaled the educational benefits argument that institutions have a First Amendment right to decide what their mission should be. If institutions deem racial diversity to be a compelling interest for their mission, according to Powell, they have the constitutional right to use affirmative action, but in a limited way.

The first limit concerns quotas. You cannot have numerical targets, and that’s one of the common confusions about affirmative action. People still call it a “quota system,” and that hasn’t been the case, at least constitutionally, since the Bakke decision. Another limit is that institutions cannot have a separate pool for applicants. In this case, UC Davis had a different admissions pool when they made the decision for “minority students,” and a different pool for everyone else. Overall, the Court constrained the application of affirmative action in college admissions, but today, we view Bakke as a victory for preserving such practices.

It is also important to note that the Bakke decision, and Powell’s opinion in particular, took away one very important argument for defending race-conscious admissions—to remedy historical racism. Before that, a key argument for defending race conscious admissions had been that institutions had both a moral and social obligation to address the long history of inequality. And given how important completing a degree in higher education is, one way for institutions to address historical racism is to provide more opportunities to those who have been oppressed under racialized structures.

Bakke pulled away from that defense. Some of the justices argued that institutions are not accountable for this broader social or moral interest unless they are actively discriminating. If they are, then they should be made accountable and take appropriate measures to redress their own discrimination. But not a lot of institutions want to admit to that.

It’s interesting that now, forty-odd years later, we’re in a time when some institutions are being forced to grapple with their histories with enslavement and profiting from the slave trade.

Which would’ve been a very good argument for why an institution needs to have such admissions practices, in order to address their history of systematic exclusion. But that history is not something that institutions feel comfortable acknowledging. Whereas the educational benefits argument that Bakke left us with argued that being exposed to a wider range of opinions and viewpoints would contribute to one’s learning. One of the consequences of the Bakke decision was that it pushed aside an interest, from the perspective of defending race-conscious admissions practices, in remedying the present effects of past discrimination and instead, elevated the educational benefits argument.

It really narrows the rationale that could be used for preferences, even as universities were allowed and still are allowed to take account of preferences for veterans, or for legacies, for example. But race preferences are pulled out as needing particular constitutional scrutiny.

In fact, a very rigorous type of scrutiny—strict scrutiny—is applied to race conscious admissions. Those practices also have to be narrowly tailored so that they don’t unduly burden other populations. Because of its history in the courts and the legal system, racial diversity is unique from other kinds of diversity, including class or socioeconomic status or gender diversity, for instance.

I’d like to pull out a couple quotes from Justice Powell that you’ve written about extensively. You’ve framed much of the research in your career as trying to shed light on, if not Powell’s claim, then the spaces within his claim. In his majority opinion, he talks about the idea that creating a diverse student body broadens the range of viewpoints collectively held by students, and enables a university to provide an atmosphere that is “conducive to speculation, experiment, and creation so essential to the quality of higher education.” This argument is sometimes referred to as “the diversity rationale.” There’s an implicit claim here that having students from different racial backgrounds on campuses together, in and of itself, contributes to valuable educational outcomes.

This is why legal minds, as great as they are, shouldn’t be doing what educators do because each draws from its own set of expertise. We draw from our professional experiences in the classroom as well as the research that informs what we do, which contribute uniquely to how we think about diversity. When Powell wrote his opinion, he had been highly persuaded by one brief in particular, which came to known as the “Ivy Brief.” Not all, but many Ivy League institutions, as well as the University of Chicago, Stanford, and perhaps a few others who also joined in on this brief to inform the courts. They made a very strong argument about why diversity is important in the context of higher education. Powell didn’t really know much in this area from personal experience; he had very limited experiences with diversity-related interactions, so he relied on other people’s perspectives. One thing that was central to his thinking was that somehow, if you bring folks with different racial backgrounds together through admissions and put them in a college environment, something magical and powerful would take place, but there’s much more to it than that.

You’re right—I’ve been studying this claim and the question of whether racial diversity contributes to educational benefits for a long time, and I can say with great confidence that, yes, it does contribute to benefits. But just as important, institutions have to also create the appropriate conditions to maximize those benefits. Having a racially diverse student body is a very important component that will enable institutions to achieve benefits, but it alone is insufficient. Students, as well as faculty and staff, must have opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom to engage across differences, because engagement strengthens the knowledge base that helps people understand different historical trajectories and experiences that broaden their own limited understanding of the world. Without intentional efforts on the part of institutions, what you have is a mix of different people trying to figure things out without very much support, leadership, or guidance. And often, that can go very wrong. There’s a great deal of literature that even precedes the Bakke decision that informs this—for example, Gordon Allport’s contact theory. In the early 1950s, the psychologist Gordon Allport argued that if you bring folks of different backgrounds together without putting in place the appropriate conditions, they’re going to leave having more hardened stereotypes of one another. In fact, some conditions will actually elevate their antipathy against each other rather than foster collaborative relationships in the long run.

This idea shares similarities with an important piece of the benefits equation, that is, accounting for what institutions do to create the appropriate conditions, above and beyond enrolling a racially diverse student body. Improving the conditions on campus requires addressing what Powell put aside—namely remedying the present effects of historical racism on campus. Powell’s opinion didn’t really emphasize that point—and it’s a very, very important point if the goal is to maximize the educational benefits of diversity.

I’m struck by the fact that he rather naively refers to “unplanned and casual interactions,” whereas you’re suggesting that institutions need to be planful and purposeful. From an institutional perspective, what sort of purpose or plans should institutions of higher education act on in order to take full advantage of the diversity in their student bodies?

There isn’t any one magical thing that an institution can do. I think, broadly speaking, it’s normative in the sense that it’s about a real shift in culture, or how that environment is broadly experienced and perceived by those who are a part of it. I believe what people hear and how diversity is communicated makes a normative difference. A lot of the language about diversity and its value are signaled by an institution’s leadership, and it trickles down.

So too is the ability to learn about difference and enhance one’s cultural competency and diversity fluency. I taught a required diversity course at Loyola Marymount University that was comprised entirely of freshmen. One of the things I discussed was the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and I’ll tell you, 75% of those students were just awestruck. They had never heard about this. Being exposed to that history is a way to get people to see the world differently, as is having a roommate and building a friendship with someone different. Even knowing that people don’t always eat the same things—as superficial as that may sound, I think that exposure on a more intimate level makes a huge difference in maximizing those benefits. And developing diversity related competency and fluency are so critical in terms of preparing students to not just succeed in their professional goals, but also to contribute to a healthy democracy. So the benefits go beyond just being more satisfied with college; we know they enhance students’ civic value and increase their interest in participating in civic life after graduation. We’ve come to understand that Powell was basically right, but he didn’t get it completely right. In many ways, I think he underestimated the kinds of benefits associated with diversity and what it takes to achieve those benefits.

One of the things I’ve picked up from your work is that the benefits of diversity don’t accrue only to underrepresented students. Can you speak to that a little bit?

In fact, that’s been one of the criticisms of my work. In my early work that we did, the aim was really to show how “majority students” benefited, and in fact, the benefits we were measuring were strongest for white students. Not all students benefit in the same way when it comes to diversity. For example, white students may benefit more from how Powell thought about diversity, by being exposed to more perspectives and viewpoints that they otherwise wouldn’t get. Sure, underrepresented students benefit in those ways as well. But sometimes that exposure takes place under conditions of inequality because of their minority status in society. Accordingly, the dynamics of interactions are different for those students so they also benefit from being around other students who share their racial background, which contributes to feeling less isolated, and reduces the risk of being targets of discrimination and racism. Ultimately, it’s more nuanced and there are different benefits for different students. Certainly, there are overarching benefits, but there are also specific nuances that matter when applying this in educational settings.

Let me ask you to spell out distinctions between three different terms you use that I find really interesting: compositional diversity, diversity-related initiatives, and diverse interactions. What distinguishes those three, and why are all three important to what institutions need to do?

These are important distinctions that are also made in court deliberations. The focus here, when it comes to the defense of race-conscious admissions, is really pinpointing the racial composition of the student body. As I mentioned in the educational benefits equation, this is an important factor, but is insufficient by itself. Institutions that only focus on enrolling a more racially diverse student body may not necessarily be maximizing their benefits. The institutional initiatives are what I was referring to in terms of being intentional about creating opportunities and programs and other structures that are designed to be sustainable and permanent. Those efforts improve opportunities to interact across differences and are subsequently an important part of how students experience their environment and the institutional culture. Those kinds of programming also represent a cultural shift. It’s not just about having one or two programs, or just doing this for only one or two years. Diversity is a long term institutional project that requires meaningful investment.

What you’re describing is, in some sense, the opposite of what Powell described as “casual and unplanned.” And yet, when you have the structures and programs in place that you’re describing, those casual, unplanned interactions that are diversity enhancing are more likely to occur.

That’s the third part, the interactions. Those planned efforts prepare students to engage in these interactions in ways that improve the chances for achieving positive outcomes. Even though those conversations may be tough, with the right conditions, they can be productive. If you don’t create those conditions, there’s a very good chance that they’re going to take a negative turn very quickly.

The idea that productive learning is going to emerge across lines of difference, when people are coming together across substantial power differentials that are deeply embedded in histories of exclusion and oppression, strikes me as naïve. You need conditions that enable difficult learning to occur.

Absolutely. This is one of the many misconceptions about diversity—we’re not here to help students feel good about themselves, we’re preparing them to engage with the difficulties that they will face in the real world. It’s not about trying to avoid, but rather improving capacity to engage. This is one of the more powerful things that diversity efforts add to a campus. They encourage us to run toward difficult issues rather than away from them.

And the hope is that, when students do experience those difficult situations on campuses, something really powerful emerges that they’re going to want to replicate when they leave the university.

As you said earlier, this is more important now than ever before, as our society is becoming more divided. It’s also ironic that many who recognize that this country is becoming more divided aren’t necessarily champions of these types of efforts on college campuses.

Let me bring us to the present legal challenges. In 2014, Edward Blum, an investment banker who has had animus towards affirmative action for several years and has been using his wealth and political connections to try to push back against it, founded an organization called Students for Fair Admissions. He set up websites in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, for students to tell their stories of how they have been “treated unfairly” in the admissions process. Currently, these court cases are moving through the courts.  Are there any important differences in these cases, compared with earlier cases challenging affirmative action?

That’s a great question, and I think this is perhaps what is most important to communicate here. Yes, these cases are different, in very specific ways. Over the years, the cases that have gone before the US Supreme Court regarding race-conscious admissions have effectively constrained the application of those practices. Aside from Bakke, the Michigan cases [Grutter and Gratz] took away mechanical and numerical approaches to admissions—for example, granting additional points to underrepresented applicants when considering admissions. The courts also ruled that admissions practices have be holistic in nature if universities want to consider race. As for what is new about the new set of cases, one notable difference is that they’re no longer going after the educational benefits argument. Since the Michigan cases, the research community has amassed a large body of empirical studies that show quite consistently and conclusively that there are real benefits that accrue for students, institutions, and society. When a study shows otherwise, those studies typically fail to account for what institutions have to do to maximize those benefits.

So even in a political context in which almost any factual claim receives some challenge, the evidence for the benefits of diversity is so powerful that those who are attacking affirmative action are forced to devise other strategies to challenge its constitutionality.

They’ve conceded this point, which wasn’t the case when Grutter and Gratz went up and Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the swing opinion on that. But, the benefits argument is still under attack, in several key ways. One way they’re attacking it is by raising the question of when do institutions know that the composition of their students has reached a point where they don’t need to apply race conscious admission practices anymore? This argument is couched around the notion of critical mass. When do you reach a point where you’re maximizing the potential of the student body to realize the educational benefits of diversity? Is it five percent underrepresented students? Ten percent? This is a tricky play, because as soon as you give folks a particular number, it becomes a target, and the target then becomes a quota; that number and quota is unconstitutional, so you’ve already undermined yourself by answering that question in the legal sense. Yet, if you don’t define what a critical mass is in some concrete way, then “diversity” becomes very amorphous and unclear. So the challenge is not to determine if racial diversity contributes to educational benefits, because it seems like everyone now agrees that it does. The challenge is, how much is enough? What is that critical mass?

Here’s an important way to think about it: critical mass is not a numerical target. There is no magic number. It is a flexible range. So, how should we determine this range? The answer, should be based on the unique mission of an institution and what that institution is trying to achieve. What kind of student body, based on its applicant pool, can they put together to achieve that educational mission? Certainly, that number is going to vary from institution to institution, but it’s also going to vary from year to year. Applying a flexible range is indeed how institutions typically put together a student body. Let’s say an institution values having a marching band, which contributes to the overall mission. Some years, they’re going to admit more students who are going to help to elevate the marching band, whereas some years they won’t need as many. So, decisions about student composition have to be flexible based on a wide range of factors that vary from year to year, but enrolling a critical mass has to be kept in mind—otherwise, an institution will not have enough students to play in their marching band or will be overwhelmingly homogenous and subsequently limit the types of interactions students experience on campus.

And without sufficient critical mass, institutions experience the problems of alienation and isolation that you were describing before.

If an institution believes that their numbers are such that certain students are dropping out at a high rate because they’re feeling isolated, they may want to intentionally raise those numbers because it will contribute to their mission.

The questions surrounding critical mass will definitely be stressed heavily in these court cases, and so too will those regarding race-neutral practices, specifically whether or not institutions have fully exhausted all other kinds of practices before considering race. In other words, do we need to account for race because other practices don’t enable institutions to achieve the necessary racial diversity that will produce educational benefits?

There are certain states where, as a result of public referendums, institutions cannot apply race. California, following the passing of Proposition 209’s is one of them. We’ve used race-neutral practices and we continue to apply them, such as “percentage plans,” which means that if you graduate from high school in the top tier of your class, you become eligible for university admission.  Another race-neutral strategy is to maintain strong articulation programs with community colleges in order to reduce the obstacles for students to transfer into four-year colleges. These are all great practices, and should be part of what institutions continue to do.

But you would argue that they shouldn’t take the place of strategies that do take race into account.

That’s right, because even when institutions do those things, they still can’t achieve the kind of racial diversity that would help to facilitate the well documented educational benefits. It took UCLA over a decade to reach the same level of African American students we had before Prop 209 went into effect. Also, consider race neutral strategies such as through community college transfer. Many private institutions don’t necessarily take transfer students, so that’s not a viable strategy for them.

Some are putting forward a policy strategy that would, in effect, give up on racially conscious admissions strategies in order to focus instead on social class. Proponents of this strategy argue for providing applicants who come from low-income families with special preference. Would such a strategy still provide for racial diversity in the same way that a race-conscious strategy will?

You pointed to a very important line of thinking. Certainly, keeping socioeconomic inequalities in mind is very important, and I believe institutions of higher education need to continue playing a role in closing that gap. Another way of phrasing your question is to ask whether or not replacing race with socioeconomic considerations will achieve a comparable level of racial diversity. The answer to that is, it depends on a number of things, including what state you’re in. It would work best in states whereby socioeconomic differences are highly correlated with racial differences. That is, the state is segregated in ways that underrepresented students tend to come from low income areas. Relying on such conditions to achieve racial diversity is highly problematic as this approach relies on rather than serve to address broader patterns of segregation.

I’m struck by the fact that the court has restricted the abilities of universities to be race conscious in their admissions or frame their rationale in terms of historical discrimination, and yet the extent to which socioeconomic status aligns with race is a product of those histories of racial discrimination.

There are a lot of overlapping pieces here. It isn’t the case that we shouldn’t look at one and not the other, because universities should consider all of those things. Most institutions account for socioeconomic status, and in fact, they started accounting for that long before they accounted for race. The G.I. Bill was one of the things that really opened the doors for many who previously wouldn’t have had the financial capacity to go to college. Some call that affirmative action, and it’s a class-based one, for the most part. Overall, I think pitting race against class is not really helping here, because what we want to do is to enable institutions to consider a lot of different ways to assemble a student body.

For the sake of argument, let’s posit that an institution is able to take steps that enhance its socioeconomic diversity, but not its racial diversity. To what extent would we expect that institution to still accrue the educational benefits of diversity?

That’s a very good question, and to answer it, let me ask it in a different way: How much of the benefits from diversity would you lose by enhancing only socioeconomic diversity? After all, there’s a good chance that benefits will accrue from socioeconomic diversity. Let’s say we’re having a classroom discussion about financial aid. You’ll have a very different conversation if there is more socioeconomic diversity in the student body. But the thing is, race and class are not interchangeable social constructs. Coming from a low-income background plays out differently than racial minority status does.

One important difference is the perceived saliency of race, which has a tremendous effect in the classroom. Studies have shown that the presence of underrepresented individuals alone can dramatically alter the nature of a discussion. For example, if there is an African American student in a discussion group of ten students and they’re talking about police brutality, the discussion within that group is going to be different even if that one African American student doesn’t say anything. That student’s presence alone changes the nature of that discussion in ways that are important for enhancing the quality of the conversation. Regarding socioeconomic diversity, I haven’t seen any studies that have been able to document the same level of consistency and degree of benefits that we’ve been able to document when it comes to racial diversity.

Are there any other key differences in these new legal challenges to affirmative action?

Yes. Over time, the key plaintiffs have changed. Allan Bakke was a white male, and Grutter, Gratz, and Fisher were white females. In the Harvard case, the key plaintiffs are Asian Americans, and this adds a really important twist because now there’s a racial minority group arguing that it puts an undue burden on them. The convergence of these factors is going to make this a very different kind of challenge.

How do you make sense of the plaintiffs’ claims in the Harvard case?

It’s a really tricky issue, but it’s not new. In the 1980s, one of my advisors at UCLA, Don Nakanishi, was at the forefront of investigating how Asian American applicants were being discriminated against in terms of college admissions. Dana Takagi wrote a great book about this called Retreat from Race. They argued that all things being equal—meaning grades and test scores—white students still had a significantly better chance than Asian Americans of being admitted to a highly selective institution. Don pointed out in the 1980s that white applicants had an advantage over Asian American ones, even though Asian American applicants had on average a stronger academic profile in terms of grades and test scores. It turns out that there were many non-academic factors that were advantaging white applicants, including legacy and athletic bumps. In the 1980s, universities were also considering extra-curricular activities as a way to gauge leadership, which advantaged white applicants.

These are criteria that are presented as neutral and fair, though they have racially disparate consequences.

That’s right. Again, it’s always been the case that non-academic factors were considered, which give preferences to certain groups. Now, almost thirty years later, the charges from Asian American communities aren’t that different from the 1980s. What is different is that the charges are more strongly coupled with attacks on race-conscious admissions. Those who are trying to eliminate race-conscious admissions have re-casted those discrimination claims, arguing that any consideration of race places an undue burden on certain populations, including, in this case, on Asian Americans.

Yet, targeting race-conscious admission policies to explain disparities in Asian American admissions is too much of a stretch for me. Given what we learned in the 1980s about the advantages that white applicants have over Asian ones, I don’t see how removing race conscious admissions practices would curb those advantages. It seems to me that the discrimination claims should be decoupled from affirmative action, unless you are targeting affirmative action for whites, and should instead focus on those factors such as legacy bumps that advantage white applicants.

Tell me if this is correct: in your view, it’s consistent to say on the one hand that discriminatory institutional practices that consciously disadvantage any group need to be scrutinized and redressed, while on the other hand it’s important for institutions to use race-conscious admissions and the sorts of diversity-enhancing policies and practices you’ve been describing.

I’ll put it another way: we should be asking whether or not there are discriminatory practices by Harvard that privilege white applicants, and as a result, discriminates against Asian applicants. If this were the focus, it makes little sense to target an unrelated policy like race conscious admissions that addresses underrepresentation. If the Courts find that Harvard is discriminating against Asian American applicants in favor of their white counterparts, I don’t see why Harvard can’t redress practices that privilege white applicants and still practice race conscious admissions to enhance the diversity of their student body. The two are separate issues and framing it as such is a qualitatively different way of looking at this case. It’s important to decouple the discrimination claim from the diversity interest so that we shine a spotlight on the privileges that continue to be afforded to white applicants.

Before we end, I want to bring up a story you included in a recent article about the important role that Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act—that’s the Fair Housing Act that Congress passed in April 1968—played in your family’s history. It struck me as a powerful story of how purposeful, equity-centered public policy can make a difference.

Indeed, those policies do make real-life differences that change people’s trajectories. I’m an immigrant and arrived in this country when I was almost six years old. We settled in what’s come to be known as Silicon Valley, which in the 1970s wasn’t anything like what it is today. My father was an electrical engineer at the time, and we landed there because of what that area was turning into, as it was changing from a largely agricultural economy to other types of industries. At that time, there were a lot of farmlands, and orchards were being turned into track homes. We landed in one of those new developments that were coming together after the passage of Title VIII, the Fair Housing Act, which deemed it unlawful to discriminate by race when it came to selling and buying homes, giving people a chance to reside in new neighborhoods. Those developers bought into that, and they sold to anybody who had the cash and was willing to live there.

I grew up in this neighborhood that was developed from the ground up, so to speak, and different folks converged there. My next-door neighbors were African American, and two doors away from them was a Latino family. There were European immigrants a few doors down from them, and so on. There were blue collar and white collar families living next to one another. It was a very, very interesting mix of folks. This exposure helped me think about the work that I eventually ended up doing as a researcher. It gave me insights not only about the benefits of diversity, but also the real challenges it presents. This is why so much of my message has to do with institutional interventions, how to prepare students to address those challenges, and how to create the conditions to facilitate positive engagements that lead to life changing benefits.

Given the cases that are about to be heard by the court, and given the broader political climate we have been speaking of, what leaves you hopeful in 2018?

Growing up in the environment that I did gave me unique advantages compared to other folks, especially in terms of being comfortable around people who are really different than I am. Having landed in California when I did, I was exposed to a range of people who not only had different cultural practices than I did, but different beliefs and values as well. I think I can navigate those differences more effectively than most, but not nearly as effectively as my kids can. They’re growing up in diverse conditions that advantage them and their friends, and they’re being put into positions that will take this diversity work several steps further. Given how they have grown up, they will be able to imagine social, political, and cultural arrangements that I couldn’t possibly imagine because of certain constraints that I grew up with.

In this sense, I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful that if we continue to give students the space to do this—if we encourage them to imagine new kinds of equitable arrangements and to realize them as they move through the educational system—then we won’t have to keep fighting over the same policies or court decisions in the future.

But, for now, those policies continue to be very, very important.

Menu