Michigan students brace for SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action

For some students, right campus but wrong speech as president talks about minimum wage, fails to address race on campus

Students at the University of Michigan stand behind President Obama at his appearance there Wednesday. Some students had hoped he would address the issue of diversity on campus as the school waits for a Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in college admissions.
Carlos Osorio/AP

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When President Barack Obama visited the University of Michigan campus this week, students knew what they were going to hear: a rally for his proposed minimum wage increase. Of course, there was more —they also heard him brag about health care enrollment figures, mock the GOP’s new budget and then quip about his lousy luck picking teams in the NCAA basketball tournament.

What they didn’t hear was any reference to the hottest topic on this campus this year: the massive burst of activism by black students over their dwindling numbers and the prospect that the Supreme Court could uphold a ban on affirmative action.

The president’s appearance on Wednesday came as public universities across the nation await a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling, due any day, on whether Michigan’s voter-approved ballot-measure ban on considering race in college admissions considerations is constitutional. It is the second time in 11 years that UM has been at the center of a major affirmative action case before the high court.

Since the ban passed in 2006, the share of freshmen here who identify as black has fallen 30 percent, prompting the Black Student Union in November to launch a social media campaign that trended nationally and spread to dozens of other major schools to highlight racial injustice on college campuses nationwide.

The effort, known by its Twitter hashtag #BBUM — Being Black at UM — was so successful that members of the BSU have met weekly with administration officials since releasing a list of demands in January to discuss ways of addressing both the plummeting enrollment figures and a range of challenges facing black students here.

While BSU Speaker Tyrell Collier said he didn’t expect the president to address the matter, he thought it would have been “a nice gesture” if he did.

“Him being the first black president and this being the campus where BBUM started, for a lot of people it would be validation from the president of the United States of the experiences we’ve been talking about this entire year,” said Collier, a senior pursuing a dual degree in sociology and Afro-American and African studies.

A ‘racial moment’

Michael Proppe, UM’s student body president, who stood along with Collier and other leaders on the risers behind Obama in the gymnasium on Wednesday, agreed the campus is in the throes of an important “racial moment.”

“That’s on the forefront of everybody’s mind, and the president of the United States, by virtue of the fact that he’s the first black president, is going to highlight that whether he addresses it or not,” Proppe, a senior pursuing a business degree, said before the rally. “I hope he does say something, because I think it’s an important thing to pay attention to.”

The White House is pushing Congress to enact a $10.10 national minimum wage. As Obama pressed his case by referring to opposition from Republicans and the harm the current minimum wage does to young people starting out in the workforce, many students booed.

“Don’t boo, organize,” he told them.

Collier and the BSU have been organizing constantly in recent months, albeit for a different aim. The BSU launched the #BBUM Twitter campaign in November on the heels of both Supreme Court oral arguments in the lawsuit challenging the Michigan ban and an uproar in which a fraternity was forced to cancel a party whose Facebook invitation featured offensive racial terms. Within days, #BBUM was trending, similar threads began at other top colleges and Collier appeared on a variety of national news shows to discuss the issues.

The tweets included a range of views on the day-to-day experiences of black students here. “#BBUM is NOT raising your hand in class because you do not want to be THAT black person who just doesn't get it ...” wrote one poster. Another wrote: “I'm proud to be at U of m but when the largest concentration of black students is in the athletic department I see a problem #BBUM.”

On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January, the BSU issued seven demands, including one that the school find ways to increase black “representation on this campus” to 10 percent and that UM make on-campus housing more affordable.

Since then, Collier said, BSU members have held weekly “negotiation meetings” with members of the administration, although he said specific results have been elusive thus far.

‘We invited this’

The BSU’s activism heartened, but did not surprise, UM professor Martha S. Jones, co-director of the Michigan Law Program in Race, Law and History. Michigan has placed itself at the national forefront of campus race issues because it is among the biggest, most prestigious public universities to forcefully advocate for affirmative action. After it won a 5–4 decision in 2003 upholding its use of race as a factor in admissions, UM became a national target for the sort of public referendum that passed in 2006.

“It’s not something that came from the ether or a cosmic confluence,” said Jones. “We invited this in ways other public institutions have not. We already had a very clear identity as the public institution that was going to defend affirmative action. We’ve had a long coalition of students and alumni who have kept this question alive.”

University of Michigan senior Chloe Brown held a sign last fall at a rally to promote diversity on campus.
Melanie Maxwell/The Ann Arbor News/Landov

Jones said the drop in the black student population — from 7.8 percent in 2004 to 4.8 percent this year — reflects the fact that the state’s profile as a place hostile to affirmative action may have discouraged top minority students from applying to UM. “The constitutional amendment may have suggested a climate at Michigan not only indifferent but perhaps in some ways less than accommodating for students of color,” she said.

The issue of race has long been difficult for Obama to address, and he has done so sparingly. Months into his presidency, he criticized a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer who arrested the esteemed black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after Gates broke into his own home when he was locked out. A furor ensued that climaxed with Obama apologizing for his remarks and hosting a conciliatory “beer summit” at the White House with Gates and the officer.

Years later, the president spent months avoiding questions about his views in the case of George Zimmerman, the white Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Florida who shot an unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, and was acquitted of murder in a high-profile 2013 trial. After that trial, he noted that Martin “could have been me 35 years ago.” Still, he resisted leading what black activists had hoped would be a national conversation on race relations.

“It would be a mistake to say he has avoided race, because there have been moments,” Jones said. “The fact that race is sticky, well, who’s surprised by that? It’s a fraught thing. It’s not a surprise that the president is not immune to how fraught conversations about race can be … His charge is not to mediate race relations, beer summit or otherwise.”

Collier noted that the campus movement to highlight racial injustice ought to hit home for Obama, given that the #BBUM campaign has spread to campuses that the president himself once attended.

“This has shown throughout the past few months that these issues and problems are not just specific to Michigan, that it happens at other public universities and even Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Columbia,” which Obama attended, Collier said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the president did fight similar experiences we’ve been fighting all year long.”

Collier noted that the #BBUM hashtag is not solely about highlighting negative experiences, and that was borne out by BSU Treasurer Robert Greenfield, who tweeted a photo from the Obama talk that read, “Blinding lights on the risers behind the POTUS. #BBUM.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter