In a move that surprised many, including myself, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided not to strike down the practice of colleges using race as a factor for selecting students earlier this year, at least for now. I, for one, am pleased with this outcome because this practice, known as affirmative action (AA), which is not a racial quota system (quotes have been illegal for 35 plus years), is still very much needed to break the institutionalized cycle of poverty minorities still disproportionately find themselves in and to provide all college students with a better education.
Dealing with the latter point first, the administrators at the universities who argued to keep AA in place said that the educational experience at a university is significantly enhanced for everyone when a school is made up of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. My personal experience has confirmed the truth of this for me. As some of you might know, I went to law school. It was tier one school (George Mason) and had very competitive admission standards. It was VERY conservative and VERY white, something in the range of 90-95% white. While, on my own merits I had more than a fighting chance of getting in, I more than got in. I was given a fellowship to attend which I can admit I did not deserve on the basis of just my grades. However, the school had a hard time attracting minority students, especially blacks, and wanted to sweeten the pot to get me to go there.
It worked, and I decided to go there despite the school’s conservative and homogeneous make up. I don’t want to sound more arrogant than I usually do, but I think the school got its money’s worth out of me. It wasn’t that I excelled as a student. It was just that I came from a very different background than many of my wealthy, white, conservative-republican classmates. Both in class and in private discussions, I challenged the prevailing views on many different issues. Having to defend their points of view was new for some of them because they had come from such an insulated world and were, quite frankly, trying to stay there by going to this law school. On the other side of the same coin, I had come from a very diverse and liberal undergrad where almost every debate took place on the liberal side of an issue.
While I can’t say any of our discussions resulted in anyone having a change of heart on an issue, we did force each other to think harder about our points of views and to refine and improve, and to think more critically about them. Personally, I found this very stimulating, at times frustrating, but overall extremely beneficial as it gave me a better appreciation for the other side of many arguments. It broadened the range of friends I had and deepened my understanding of a previously mysterious segment of society. There is no doubt that I got more out of being around people who viewed the world differently than me than I would have gotten out of attending a school where everyone echoed my previously held beliefs.
Aiming to create this type of environment, which should be the goal of every university, many universities in the US found that race is still the easiest and best way to assure intellectual and experiential diversity because America is still such a segregated place. This aim is especially laudable when you consider that recent studies have shown that public schools today are more segregated than they were in the late 1960’s. The majority of high school students in America attend schools that are 90% one racial group or another. So, clearly race is still a big factor in how people experience our society and creating a multi-cultural environment at the college level provides the additional bonus of introducing Americans to each other since we are so resoundingly failing to do this at the grade school level.
For me, however, the social and academic benefits of a university having a diverse student body are just the icing on the cake. The real reason AA is still needed is to address the historical and institutionalized inequalities in American society by allowing promising students that have been disadvantaged a chance to go to a top school where they will be challenged and given an opportunity to reach their full potential.
Some want to pretend certain realities don’t exist in our country, namely that schools are hugely unequal in terms of outcomes and that segregation has ended, despite the 90% stat I just shared. The biggest deniers of these realities are our courts which have been dismantling the programs set up to integrate the country long before the job was done. Schools in states like Washington have been barred from considering race when creating school districts and busing has been banned in others. The result has been the re-institutionalization of our historically unequal education system that our country has never come close to fixing.
This issue is summed up in one SCOTUS ruling in which the court said it was OK for school districts to draw funding directly from their local property taxes and keep that money in the district. The Court thought this was better than doing something crazy like funding a school based on the number of students it has. Instead, schools in rich neighborhoods get more money by virtue of being in rich neighborhoods and schools in poor neighborhoods get less. And without arguing the underlying causes of these income gaps, the fact remains, though the Court didn’t care, that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor and, therefore, are more likely to go to poorly funded, poor performing schools. If that doesn’t sound like the makings of a vicious cycle, I don’t what does.
This, however, is where many people who argue against AA take issue. While most don’t deny the connection between poverty and poor performing schools, they do question the connection between race and poverty and correctly point out that since the 60’s millions of minorities have moved out of poverty and into nice neighborhoods with decent schools. These minorities, they argue, don’t need AA but still benefit from it. Many of my conservative friends argue an AA program set up on socio-economics would be fairer. It would recognize being poor for the handicap it is in our society and apply to poor whites who are equally harmed by our unfair schooling system and keep the children of an upper-class minority family from receiving an undeserved advantage.
However, the injustices minorities face in America go far beyond our school system and don’t all disappear just because of money and, despite what most people in America seem to truly fail to understand, segregation didn’t happen hundreds of years ago. It happened in our parent’s life time. Neither of my parents went to college which was in no small part due to ongoing effects of segregation in their respective home states of Mississippi and Virginia in the 1960’s. So, given there is a clear connection between how well a child does in school and the level of education their parents have, we can see one of the historical results of segregation that’s still directly impacting people today. Furthermore, every college I know of has a legacy program in which it gives preference to applicants who had family members attend. Obviously many minorities don’t get to avail themselves of this program, but these programs are typically not complained about by the people who oppose AA.
Regardless, I don’t have a huge issue with an AA program that is based on socio-economics instead of race. It seems like a reasonable fix that more directly addresses the educational inequalities in our country in a way that will help the people who need it most: the poor. There is also a lot of research that shows the real dividing line between who does and does not go to college is an economic one more so than a racial one.
Alternatively, George W. Bush, while still governor of Texas, did something pretty amazing – in a good way (I know! I’m shocked, too!). He got rid of AA and replaced it with a system in which the top 10% of students from each high school were guaranteed admission to one of the state’s public universities. The number of minority students has never been higher. This is a completely race neutral, and, I would argue, very fair system because it overcomes any historical or inherent injustices in the education system. However, it is still being challenged by wealthy families who argue that kids at good schools face tougher competition to make it into the top 10%. In other words, because the schools they go to are so much better, it’s harder for them… Am I the only one whose heart goes out to them? For me this confirms one thing I’ve always suspected about people who argued against AA: It was never about them wanting a more meritocratic process. It was about their sense of entitlement and the idea that someone got something they felt was theirs. These people will view any system of admissions that leaves them out as being unfair. (Keep in mind the whole reason extracurricular activities and legacy programs were added to the college application process in the first place was to water down the role grades play and thereby reduce the number of Jews getting into Ivy League Schools.)
The idea that opposition to AA is unprincipled was recently confirmed in a study in which it was shown white students’ support or opposition towards AA was largely dependent on whether or not they were told it would benefit them. The majority of whites living in California who were told AA would be used to help minorities opposed it, but a majority of those who were told it would be used to help whites attend public colleges in California that were predominately Asian supported it. But let me be clear here, I don’t necessarily think this clearly unprincipled stance is a white thing as much as just the normal self-interest motive most people have. However, it does undermine the idea that people opposed to AA are doing so out of some sort of deeper principle.
Regardless of where we go from here, it is unbelievably important that something is done to break the cycle of poverty in this country and that requires including people that have previously been excluded for racial and/or economic reasons and giving them a chance to reach their full potential. College is a great place for everyone to expand their group of friends and meet, with any luck, some people who will go on to do big things. If minorities and underprivileged people aren’t in these top schools, this, by default, means they will not be able to lift themselves up or benefit from one of the best ladders to success: knowing other successful people. Some form of AA is still needed if we’re ever going to stop the perpetuation of a permanent underclass in America.