Diversity: Where Have the African American and Mexican American Law Students Gone?

by ursavoice

Jennifer Elrod

Part two of an ongoing series on diversity.

In an earlier piece in my series on Diversity in Law Schools and the Legal Profession, I raised the issue of the absence of a critical mass of students of color in law school. I suggested that deans’ talking the talk about diversity is not enough to actualize a significant increase in the numbers of students of color in law school and the profession in order to reach a critical mass. As defined by the dean at the University of Michigan Law School, “[C]ritical mass means numbers such that underrepresented minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race.”1 Critical mass is neither a precise mathematical formula nor a specific percentage in terms of either admission or matriculation rates. The aim is to admit and educate a very diverse cohort of law students both inside and outside the classroom and thereby foster respect and understanding for one another in the process of training for leadership roles in an increasingly global society.

In this piece, I look at critical mass in terms of the absence of African Americans and Mexican Americans in law schools as signaled in the recent Columbia Law School and Society of American Law Teachers’ Report (CLS/SALT Report).2 That study examined admission and matriculation trends for these two groups over a fifteen- year period, 1993-2008. The CLS/SALT Report’s findings should set off alarm bells throughout the legal academy and the profession. Where are the African American and Mexican American law students? The CLS/SALT Report describes a disturbing set of statistics regarding the small number of African Americans and Mexican Americans admitted to law school from 1993 through 2008. The number of entering law students from these two groups has been dropping. When comparing the 1993 entering class to the 2008 entering cohort, African American law students decreased 7.5 percent and Mexican Americans dropped 11.7 percent. When the two groups are added together, the numbers are 4,142 in 1993 as compared to 4,060 in 2008.

You might think that this decrease in the number of African American and Mexican American law students was based on a drop in LSAT and/or GPA numbers but you would be incorrect. Applicants from both groups increased their indicators in those two measurement categories according to the CLS/SALT Report. You might also suppose that there was a decrease in the number of applications from African Americans and Mexicans Americans but you would be wrong. Applications from both groups have remained fairly constant during this fifteen-year period.

Further, the rate at which African American and Mexican American applicants have been denied entry to law school is far greater than for white applicants. The CLS/SALT Report examined a five-year period, 2003-2008, and found that sixty-one percent of African American and forty-six percent of Mexican American applicants were denied law school admission. In sharp contrast, only thirty-four percent of white applicants were denied. Within this five-year time frame, the number of ABA-approved law schools rose from 176 to 200. The increase in the number of law schools resulted in approximately 3,000 additional seats. Yet African American and Mexicans American law school applicants did not reflect any uptick in their admission rates.

Grutter makes abundantly clear the importance of diversity in the law school community. According to Michigan Law School’s admission committee chair, Professor Richard Lempert:

[T]he Law School seeks students with diverse interests and backgrounds to enhance classroom discussion and the educational experience both inside and outside the classroom. When asked about the policy’s “‘commitment to racial and ethnic diversity with special reference to the inclusion of students from groups which have been historically discriminated against,’” Lempert explained that this language did not purport to remedy past discrimination, but rather to include students who may bring to the Law School a perspective different from that of members of groups which have not been the victims of such discrimination. Lempert acknowledged that other groups, such as Asians and Jews, have experienced discrimination, but explained they were not mentioned in the policy because individuals who are members of those groups were already being admitted to the Law School in significant numbers.3

Where are the African American and Mexican American law students? The CLS/SALT Report numbers speak for themselves, offering us an important lesson. When law schools fail to admit a critical mass of African Americans and Mexican Americans, we all lose opportunities for understanding, learning from one another, and fostering a more inclusive society by valuing diverse backgrounds. It is time for all law schools to walk the talk on diversity.

1. Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 319 (2003).
2. A Disturbing Trend in Law School Diversity, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/salt/
3. Grutter, 539 U.S. at 319.