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Critical Masses By: Peter Wood
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, June 26, 2003

Justice Rehnquist’s dissent in the University of Michigan Law School case brings to light a fascinating phenomenon.  In light of the majority opinion in that case, written by Justice O’Connor, we must now take seriously the Law School’s explanation for how and why it admitted certain numbers of students in various minority categories.  It seems that to achieve the educational benefits of diversity, the Law School needs to have a “critical mass” of members of the minority groups selected for this benefit.  If the number of enrolled students were to fall below the critical mass, the benefits would evaporate. 

Those benefits include overcoming the feeling of isolation among members of the targeted minority, providing ample opportunities for members of the minority group to interact with everyone else so that the experience of diversity can sink in, and to stimulate all involved to “think critically and reexamine stereotypes.”  As Rehnquist points out, however, it is natural to wonder how many people it takes to achieve a “critical mass.”  Maybe that depends on the size of the overall group into which you want to introduce critical masses of minority group members.  As a benchmark, we have the University of Michigan Law School itself.  Total admissions varied from year to year at the Law School between 1995 and 2000, from a low of 1,130 to a high of 1,310.  The average was 1,226. 

So how many people comprise a “critical mass” of minority group members for a group of about 1,200?  Oddly enough, it seems to depend on the minority group.  A critical mass of African Americans in this period was about 100 students; for Hispanics, a critical mass was about 50 students; and for Native Americans, it was about 15 students. 

Some grizzled skeptics had argued to the Court that the relative fixity of these numbers year after year and the disparities between the sizes of the three minority groups receiving admissions preferences looked a lot like “quotas.”  But Justice O’Connor and her four colleagues in the majority (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) have definitively determined that these quota-looking proportions are not that at all.  The ratio of 100 : 50 :15 has nothing to do with an attempt to reflect the proportions of the general population that fit into these categories.  No, it is all just as the Law School claimed, about achieving “critical mass” for each minority group. 

As a social scientist and an anthropologist, I find the Court’s opinion to be of riveting importance.  It means that the Law School has discovered and defined a key social-psychological variable.  Somehow, the Law School has figured out how many people are needed for the members of a particular ethnic group to feel its groupness rather than to experience the isolation and travails of individuality.  We anthropologists have been searching for a way to capture this elusive variable for a long time.  Hats off to the Law School.  

Of course, for the Law School, defining the 100 : 50 : 15 ratio was a practical problem.  As an anthropologist, I am also interested in why these minority groups would happen to equilibrate at “critical mass” at just these levels. 

Clearly the Native Americans at UM Law School have a very low threshold for feeling a robust sense of group identity.  15 Native Americans out of 1,200 students (about 1.2%) does the trick.  I wonder if the Law School focuses its Native American recruitment efforts on members of tribes that were formerly hunters and gatherers, and who might have a strong cultural tradition of living in relatively small communities?  In some of the larger settled tribes, such as the Pueblos in the Southwest, 15 individuals would seem pretty scanty.  But 15 would make up an average Shoshone band.  In any case, it is fascinating that Native Americans are at critical mass at such low numbers, and it is testament to their psychological resilience that these Native American students in such small numbers are capable of spreading the full benefits of diversity to the 1,200 or so other students. 

At the other end of the scale, African-Americans appear to need many more of each other before “groupness” takes on a life of its own.  One way to read this is that African-Americans tend naturally to be individuals with their own interests and ambitions.  Perhaps it takes a more substantial presence of people all stereotyped into the same category before this natural individuality bends into group conformity.  Of course, we skirt here the Court’s assertion that the achievement of “critical mass” is needed to break down stereotypes.  I call this the “diversity paradox.”  You can’t break down a stereotype until you have a situation that brings a stereotype to life. 

The Law School and the Court have worked this out brilliantly.  Admit a cohort of minority students a great many of whom fall substantially below the academic mean of other students.  This will naturally conduce to a stereotype that the members of the minority group aren’t so bright.  Then rely on the members of the minority group who are, in fact, very bright to demonstrate that the stereotype is false.  But I digress. 

The 100-student threshold for a critical mass of African-American students at the Law School might also reflect the historical experience of African-Americans.  Unlike the hunter-gather bands of the Native Americans, most African-Americans might look back to a family history of life in segregated communities where a group of 100 might be seen as roughly the necessary number for self-defense. 

Hispanics fall near the middle of this range:  not as quick to sense groupness as Native Americans, but twice as quick to achieve it as African-Americans.  This one just baffles me.  I would think a Latin American village or a barrio in a North American city would offer an experience of group solidarity more akin to the African-American experience, but somehow Hispanics overcome their sense of individuality much more easily than African-Americans.  I see a grant application in my future.

In fact, I see lots of grant applications as we anthropologists begin to decipher the remarkable discoveries of the University of Michigan Law School and the U.S. Supreme Court.  Now that we actually have the data and know how large a critical mass is of these minority groups, the questions multiply.  Do critical masses vary from college to college?  State to state?  Do critical masses vary within the broad-brush ethnic categories used by Michigan?  And what are the critical masses for other ethnic groups? 

Of course, it is possible that these inquiries are just a fool’s errand.  It could be that the University of Michigan Law School was using quotas after all.  But that, in turn, would mean the Supreme Court judged this important case on a false basis, and how likely is that?  No, I’m going to get busy with those grant applications.

Peter Wood is associate professor of anthropology at Boston University and the author of Diversity:  The Invention of a Concept (Encounter Books.  2003). 

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