Affirmative Action Is Fine – But It’s Not Enough




The Justice Department, led, for the moment, by “embattled” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is back on the warpath.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Justice Department is embarking on a new project to investigate and sue universities that, in its estimation, use affirmative action policies to discriminate against white applicants.

In a rich twist, this crusade will reportedly be based out of the department’s civil rights division — a division that has long supported affirmative action policies in higher education.

The D.O.J. has issued a no comment on the Times‘ report, but considering that white hysteria and victimhood appear to be the only true guide points for the Trump administration’s agenda, the story passes the sniff test.

After all, affirmative action — broadly unpopular and misunderstood in the United States — makes for a good target. A 2016 Gallup poll found that a full 65 percent of Americans opposed the Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision upholding the use of race in college admissions in Fisher v. University of Texas.

The crux of the Fisher case was whether the University of Texas could consider race in addition to a myriad of other factors in making its admission decisions. The court held that it could.

It was the right ruling. Because there is no one number — unless, of course, it’s on a cheque — that determines the worth of any individual student to a university or university class, the admissions process has to be holistic.

My 30 on the ACT is not the same as the 30 on the ACT scored by the kid who didn’t have textbooks in high school and had to drive two hours to get to the test center. It’s considerably worse.

In a holistic admissions process in which colleges strive to understand the entire student, race — in a country that has from the beginning made race its primary organizing principle — must be one of the factors considered, such is its impact on life.

Colleges and universities should take care to build classes and student bodies that are racially diverse — if for no other reason than that going to school with people from different racial backgrounds makes students both smarter and more well-prepared for the world at large.

White people do not, by and large, suffer for affirmative action. They reap the benefits of classroom diversity, and, according to a Georgetown study, were more overrepresented at the nation’s top schools in 2013 than they were in 1994 anyway.

Nor do minority students end up in schools that are too difficult for them. A 2014 University of Michigan study found that “underrepresented minority students tend to do better over the life course if they attend the most selective school that will admit them.”

The idea that removing the factor of race would suddenly make the college admissions process just is a fantasy. The process is tilted towards certain groups of people to begin with.

It’s tilted towards rich people. Charles Kushner’s son isn’t not getting into Harvard, if you catch my drift. Donald Trump’s kids, though brilliant they are not, didn’t have to sweat their admissions to Penn.

It’s tilted towards people who have that money even if they don’t have the social influence. Many colleges and universities are not need-blind and actively consider an applicant’s ability to pay in their admissions decisions.

It’s tilted towards people who can sink time and money into improving their standardized test scores, even though there is no correlation between standardized test scores and college performance.

It’s tilted towards people who are blessed with the resources of elite public and private high schools — schools that almost always located in predominantly white neighborhoods and almost always feature predominantly white student bodies.

In actuality, colleges admit whoever they want by whatever criteria they choose. If colleges want racial diversity, as many of them do, they will get it.

And why is racial diversity, especially as it relates to accepting more students of color, a worthwhile aim? Because we have an ongoing duty to try to scale back the damage done by slavery and oppression.

If the world was comprised only of individuals living and acting alone, outside of any larger systems, then including race as a factor in college admissions would be wrong. It is not, I think we can agree, ideal.

But people are not born into vacuums. They do not get to start fresh. The fact is that government policies set the stage for an America in which black people were denied wealth and opportunity, and the consequences of those policies reverberate today.

Consider: the median net worth of a black household is 7 percent that of a white household. A child born in the Black Belt has a lower life expectancy than a child born in Silicon Valley.

That’s not bad luck. It doesn’t happen by chance. This country is designed to produce those outcomes. Consequently, it’s on the country to fix them. Individuals themselves do not alone have that power. Institutions and systems — government and schools — do.

We have a moral, societal responsibility to repay African American people in particular — if not in reparations, than at least in opportunity — for their role in building this country for zero compensation.

Deciding to segregate a country and subjugate a people on the basis of race, reaping the benefits, and then turning around and saying that our society should be colorblind is duplicitous at best.

As Lyndon Johnson said in a 1965 speech promoting affirmative action, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Even forgetting for a moment the debt that this country owes to its black population, colleges and universities should still view diversity — across all lines, but especially racial diversity — as phenomenally important.

In a country that is struggling so mightily with racial hatred and division, actively pursuing dialogue and understanding across racial lines is one of the most important roles colleges and universities can play.

Increasing socioeconomic diversity in higher education, while also extremely important, does not accomplish this. Economics are not why every Republican since 1968 has won the white vote. It’s not why hundreds of black people each year are murdered by police.

Alas, arguing about affirmative action in higher education largely misses the point. Affirmative action has largely failed to move the economic needle for black people as a whole, because its reach is limited. It fails to change the systems that have kept black people impoverished.

The best research suggests that investing in and reforming the K-12 education system, requiring universal pre-K, and, hardest yet, integrating neighborhoods would create far more opportunities for black Americans than affirmative action ever has.

That’s not to say that affirmative action is wrong. In the college admissions arena, the Trump administration’s new focus, it serves a vital purpose. It just doesn’t go nearly far enough.

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