What Is Critical Mass Theory, And Why Does It Matter?
I grew up in California, and went to public school and college there. I was a freshman in college the year they passed Prop 209. And so I feel like I've grown up observing its effects as I've made my own progress through higher education. With each year and each degree, I grow sadder and more resolved in my support for affirmative action, and more embittered by the myth of meritocracy. It's funny that we so often hear the phrase "the American dream" or "the self-made man"--they sound so mythic, like glorious fables--which they are. A simple historical and sociological study of the American legal and educational system would convince anyone that what we should dream for is true equality of opportunity, and that every man be given the same tools and means with which to build himself.
From The Los Angeles Times, "A Startling Statistic At UCLA":
This fall 4,852 freshmen are expected to enroll at UCLA, but only 96, or 2%, are African American — the lowest figure in decades and a growing concern at the Westwood campus.For several years, students, professors and administrators at UCLA have watched with discouragement as the numbers of black students declined. But the new figures, released this week, have shocked many on campus and prompted school leaders to declare the situation a crisis.
The 96 figure — down by 20 students from last year — is the lowest for incoming African American freshmen since at least 1973. And of the black freshmen who have indicated they will enroll in the fall, 20 are recruited athletes, admissions officials said. [Chancellor Carnesale] and other officials at UCLA and elsewhere said the problem of attracting, admitting and enrolling qualified black students is found at competitive universities across the country and that its causes are complex. In California, the problem is rooted partly in the restrictions placed on the state's public colleges and institutions by Proposition 209, the 1996 voter initiative that banned consideration of race and gender in admissions and hiring.
Other factors include the socioeconomic inequities that undermine elementary and high school education in California and elsewhere, with minority students disproportionately affected because they often attend schools with fewer resources, including less-qualified teachers and fewer counselors. Many students and professors also say the declining presence of blacks on campus discourages some prospective students from attending, thus exacerbating the problem. Some of those interviewed, including UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt, said the campus could be doing more than it is.
In an interview, Hunt acknowledged the difficulty for a campus like UCLA, which received 47,000 applications this year. Yet he criticized the school for rejecting many black students based on what he described as factors of questionable validity, and that he said may be linked more to socioeconomic privilege than academic merit."There's a common misperception that this is a horrible problem but that black students just need to do better," he said. "But most of the black students who don't get in go to other top-notch schools — Harvard, Duke, Michigan. We're losing students who could be here."
"The critical mass of our African American students is eroding, and we know the quality of our education experience is absolutely affected, as well as our obligation to the citizens of this state," said Janina Montero, UCLA's vice chancellor for student affairs.
In Los Angeles County, blacks accounted for 11%, or 9,152, of the 84,677 public highschool graduates. Statewide, blacks made up 7%, or 25,267, of the 343,481students who graduated from California's public high schools in 2004, themost recent year statistics are available.
Ethnic and racial breakdown of UCLA freshmen
*1985 (peak year for black enrollment)
So what is "critical mass," and what is "critical mass theory"? The most authoritative and recent distillation of the idea comes from the now retired Justice O'Connor, who invoked it in her justification of holding the concept of "diversity" as a compelling governmental interest and allowing race to be considered as one factor among many in admissions decisions.
In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan’s admissions policy, affirming Justice Powell’s Bakke diversity rationale. In an opinion written by Justice O’Connor, the Court held that the Law School had a “compelling interest in attaining a diverse body, endorsing “Justice Powell’s view that student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions.”[In reaching this holding, Justice O’Connor discussed the “critical mass” goal as being distinct from the goal of fulfilling racial quotas. Justice O’Connor’s opinion cited to the record of the District Court trial, in which the Law School’s Director of Admissions at the time of Grutter’s petition testified that the admissions staff was instructed to consider an applicant’s race as one of many factors. This was to “ensure that a critical mass of underrepresented minority students would be reached so as to realize the educational benefits of a diverse student body.” Justice O’Connor also cited the testimony of the Law School's subsequent Director of Admissions, who defined critical mass as “meaningful representation,” or a number that “encourages underrepresented minority students to participate in the classroom and not feel isolated.” Finally, Justice O’Connor referred to the testimony of a professor at the Law School, which contended that “when a critical mass of underrepresented minority students is present, racial stereotypes lose their force because non-minority students learn there is no ‘minority viewpoint, but rather a variety of viewpoints among minority students.” Justice O’Connor’s discussion of the critical mass rationale was significant for how it impacted her justification of the Law School’s race-conscious admissions policy.
Critical mass is a tool for achieving diversity, and Justice O’Connor emphasizes the benefits of diversity in the school and society in her opinion: “[N]umerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and ‘better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals…These benefits are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”
Justice O’Connor’s opinion affirmed the strict scrutiny test of racial classifications, but held that with regard to the Law School’s admissions policy, the use of race as a “plus” factor did not operate as an unconstitutional quota system. Rather, Justice O’Connor reasoned that the Law School permissibly considered race as a “plus factor” in its admissions determinations while still ensuring that each candidate was considered competitively along with other qualified applicantsJustice O’Connor emphasized that an admissions program that had “minimum goals,” but not specific numbers in mind was not the “functional equivalent of a quota” merely because it included race as one of the factors for obtaining diversity.Rather, the critical mass theory of admissions allowed for a moving range of underrepresented minority enrollment, resulting in a diverse class with a sufficient number of underrepresented minorities without setting aside a specific number of seats.
The critical mass theory of admissions is a significant method for achieving student body diversity. Empirical studies prove the merits of diversity in higher education. A psychological study conducted by Professor Patricia Gurin provides evidence that a racially and ethnically diverse student body has benefits for all students, non-minorities and minorities alike.
Gurin also found that “education in a racially diverse setting was positively associated with…democracy outcomes,” also known as students’ “engagement during college in various forms of citizenship.” Moreover, “students educated in diverse settings were better able to participate in a pluralistic democracy.” Given the complexity and heterogeneity of American society, it is essential that students at institutions of higher education learn at a critical level how to accept differences in cultural identities.
Thus, to provide students with an environment in which learning and democracy outcomes can be achieved, institutions of higher education must provide an environment that fosters diversity. Gurin specifically advocates for the increased “numerical representation of various racial/ethnic and gender groups as the “first essential step in the process of creating a diverse learning environment.” When a diverse student environment is attained, the course curriculum and faculty composition also begins to change. Because positive learning and democracy outcomes are also empirically linked to multicultural curriculum offerings (for instance, the development of women’s studies and ethnic studies programs), the entire educational institution begins to benefit from diversity.
Gurin’s study affirms the importance of using a critical mass theory of admissions to achieve a sufficient level of student body diversity so that these learning outcomes may be achieved. Students engaged in a diverse learning environment are best equipped to appreciate similarities and differences among ethnic groups, to participate in a complex democracy, and to understand multiple perspectives. The critical mass theory is thus a useful method for effectively admitting a significant number of minority students who may contribute to the enrichment of the university environment.
Race-conscious admissions programs are a necessity in higher education because the normal educational process does not, on its own, produce a diverse student body. Discounting race as unimportant in an admissions system simply privileges those who already have access to resources. More often than not, students from poor school districts are likely to have fewer options for higher education available to them. This may be because their schools lack the tools for adequate college preparation. In poor communities of color, the opportunity to attain higher education is twice as difficult because current testing methods cause a disparate impact on minority students.
The Fifth and Eleventh Circuits endorsed the “colorblind” vision of equality. Colorblindness is a doctrine that declares racial characteristics irrelevant and prevents any affirmative steps to achieve the condition of racial irrelevance. A colorblind admissions policy reinforces the political, economic, social, and cultural benefits of whiteness.When race is slashed out of the admissions grid, a committee is only left to judge an applicant with factors that currently have a disparate impact on people of color—test scores and grade point average—thus reinforcing the benefits of Whiteness.
Critical mass theory also ensures that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not as a token for his or her race. The appropriate percentage of racial minorities enrolled should amount to more than “tokenism.” One professor writes that among faculty, “the issue of critical mass becomes an illusion that one minority faculty member is certainly enough to satisfy the requirements of diversity.”There is a perceptual tendency to think that having one or two members of a minority group is sufficient to constitute a “critical mass.”
One student alone cannot comprise a critical mass because an entire class cannot expect one voice to represent the heterogeneity of all minority viewpoints. The minimum number of students of color must be sufficient enough for all students in the racial majority to “experience the meaningful contact that fosters positive outcomes.” In addition, there must be a significant number of students of color present in the class so that they do not feel alienated.[ Alienation occurs when there exists only a token number of minority students. The token students become “highly visible” because their physical features set them apart from “the dominants.” The dominant group perceives the tokens as representatives of their group and maintains stereotypical generalizations of that group. This effect, known as the “assimilation phenomenon,” assures that “the token’s true characteristics are overshadowed…by those stereotypes believed to identify the group to which the token belongs.”
It cannot be stressed enough that race-conscious admissions policies are essential in avoiding tokenism. With a critical mass, majority group members may see minority students as individuals, not simply a marker for diversity. Admitting a critical mass of minority students to undergraduate programs increases the flow of those students in graduate schools and subsequently in the workforce.
Race is an irreplaceable factor for attaining diversity. It is a personal experience. When the experience of race is absent from a classroom, a university fails to educate its students that racial subordination, racism and privilege exist. Voices that can share experiences of heritage, hardship, and culture are absent. In order to keep those voices from being eliminated from institutions of higher education, race considerations cannot be eradiated from university admissions policies.