Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Fraternity & What, if Anything, It Means for Affirmative Action Today

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will again consider the constitutionality of affirmative action in higher education.  The case at issue is Fisher v. Texas, which involves a challenge to a race-conscious admissions policy used by the University of Texas.  The plaintiff is a white woman denied admission under the state's race-neutral "ten percent" plan, pursuant to which top high school students--including many students of color--have gained access to universities in Texas. Given the success of the race-neutral plan, the plaintiff argues, the race-conscious policy is unnecessary. In preparation for writing an essay about the case, I've been reading recently-published works that might enlighten the ongoing debate.  Within that context, I came across Diane Brady's The Fraternity: In 1968, a visionary priest recruited 20 black men to the College of Holy Cross and changed their lives and the course of history. The publisher's description of the book follows.

On April 4, 1968, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., shocked the nation. Later that month, the Reverend John Brooks, a professor of theology at the College of the Holy Cross who shared Dr. King’s dream of an integrated society, drove up and down the East Coast searching for African American high school students to recruit to the school, young men he felt had the potential to succeed if given an opportunity. Among the twenty students he had a hand in recruiting that year were Clarence Thomas, the future Supreme Court justice; Edward P. Jones, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature; and Theodore Wells, who would become one of the nation’s most successful defense attorneys. Many of the others went on to become stars in their fields as well.

In Fraternity, Diane Brady follows five of the men through their college years. Not only did the future president of Holy Cross convince the young men to attend the school, he also obtained full scholarships to support them, and then mentored, defended, coached, and befriended them through an often challenging four years of college, pushing them to reach for goals that would sustain them as adults.
Would these young men have become the leaders they are today without Father Brooks’s involvement? Fraternity is a triumphant testament to the power of education and mentorship, and a compelling argument for the difference one person can make in the lives of others.
This book, without scholarly pretensions, nevertheless may be of interest to scholars of  constitutional law, race, and legal history. As the  description indicates, Justice Clarence Thomas is discussed in the book. Thomas is one of the work's most fascinating figures partly because of his vocal opposition to race-conscious admissions in higher education. See Grutter v. Bollinger (Thomas, J., dissenting). Yet Justice Thomas fondly recalls his time at Holy Cross and the mentoring of Father Brooks, which, in some sense, was race conscious. The Holy Cross story is proof positive, Thomas's critics assume, that the jurist is a hypocrite. So implied a tired Wash. Post tagline for its review of the book: "Did Clarence Thomas Get into College  Because He's Black?" (used in the print version)

I'm not so sure, however, that the varieties of affirmative action practiced today at many large universities bear anything other than a passing resemblance to the kind of recruiting and outreach that Diane Brady describes in The Fraternity.  Prior to the admission of Thomas and the other black men, the college discriminated against blacks on a systematic basis. That is, it excluded blacks from Holy Cross on account of race. Then one individual, Father John Brooks, a Jesuit priest, initiated the Holy Cross outreach program, partly to remedy past discrimination, and made it work. The book celebrates the power of a dedicated individual to affect others' lives, explains the social context in which that exceptional individual found inspiration for his deeds, and extols the priest's proteges for maximizing their potential. 

By comparison to Father Brook's small recruiting effort at Holy Cross, today's race-conscious policies might seem impersonal and mechanical from the perspective of a Justice Thomas. The diversity rationale under which these policies are justified might appear amorphous and boundless, as compared to Father Brook's search for students with great potential who also happened to be black men. 

It's not clear to me that such distinctions should unduly affect one's thinking about current race-conscious admissions policies, which must be analyzed under recent precedent. But I can understand why these differences might make a difference to others (not to mention in cases such as Richmond v. Croson and other precedents on "remedial" affirmative action programs).  

For more on The Fraternity, read an excerpt from the book here, read reviews in the Boston Globe and Fortune, or see Brady discuss the book on CSpan's BookTv.