Losing the War on Affirmative Action
The Chronicle‘s Peter Schmidt writes a new book that goes beyond diversity.
In the last two years, Americans have seen affirmative action policies defeated at every level of government. Now, anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives are slated for five states in the 2008 election. Progressives used to be able to talk about expanding racial equality. Now we’re stuck defending affirmative action each time a challenge crops up. How did the dialogue shift?
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s affirmative action beat reporter, Peter Schmidt, gets to that question in Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action, a book that takes a terse, heavily-reported look at the history and practice of affirmative action in American college admissions. Schmidt’s book is no beach read, since it’s heavily laden with statistics and history, but it is an excellent primer on a perennial campus hot topic.
Schimdt concludes that despite affirmative action, the college admissions system continues to favor white kids, and he argues that it’s time to stop talking about diversity for the sake of diversity and instead seriously discuss class and race.
Attacks against affirmative action began with a series of court cases, starting in 1978 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which forced colleges to justify their admissions practices by emphasizing the value of a diverse student body, rather than the goal, less favored by the court, of remedying past discrimination. Ballot initiatives from California to Michigan in the late 1990s and the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the Seattle public school’s integration plan hurt the ability of education institutions to take race into account, effectively endorsing de facto segregation. In spite of 40 years of affirmative action policy, Schmidt writes that “blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are less than half as prevalent on the campuses of selective colleges as they are in society.”
Race-conscious admissions policies rested on legal arguments that a critical mass of minority students is necessary for everyone’s good education—that campuses should reflect society at large. But the research supporting these claims is highly disputed, Schmidt writes. In fact, when selective colleges began employing race-conscious admissions in the seventies, they did it because they “saw their minority enrollment numbers as measures of how well they were doing in promoting social justice, social mobility, and racial integration.” Unfortunately, such arguments haven’t stood up in today’s conservative courts. With the legal rationale now resting solely on diversity, affirmative action sits on a weak foundation.
Conservatives like Ward Connerly use divisive rhetoric to install anti-affirmative action policies that deepen racial and socioeconomic inequalities. Connerly, whose work has led to controversial referenda banning affirmative action in California in 1996 and Michigan in 2006, is working to push the 2008 ballot initiatives. Progressives who fight for affirmative action aren’t exactly fighting the establishment anymore; leaders from education, corporations, and the military now affirm their support for affirmative action. Instead, they’re fighting a group of highly organized and sophisticated anti-affirmative action activists.
One of these activists’ favorite arguments is that race-conscious admissions policies favor underqualified minority students over whites—especially poor whites. But Schmidt’s data shows it’s more common for an academically underachieving white applicant, thanks to alumni parents or athletic scholarships, to be a given slot over a more qualified lower-income student, than for a minority student to do so because of affirmative action. Schools accept these sub-par white applicants in the hopes of increasing fundraising through parental giving or alumni-inspiring athletic programs.
In addition to scaling back legacy admission, class-based affirmative action might help remedy both racial and socio-economic imbalances at major universities. There is a severe lack of lower-middle class and working class representation at most elite schools—only 10 percent of students at Harvard or Yale received Pell grants intended for the lower 40 percent of the income distribution. But many conservatives oppose class-based affirmative action precisely because they see it as a cloak for race-conscious admissions, while some racial justice groups worry that it ignores racism.
Schmidt’s book is chock full of disturbing facts: Only 40 percent of financial aid from public four-year universities goes to students with documented financial needs. Colleges often treat students who leave race forms unmarked as multi-racial, despite high odds that they are white. But while these disparate facts are disturbing, the crux of Schmidt’s argument is that there are strong incentives for poor whites and minority groups to unite in favor of affirmative action. Without representatives of these groups in the elite of American society, Schmidt worries that they will be further marginalized. He writes,
[O]ur delusions of meritocracy have left us with an elite [class] whose members, believing they have earned their privileges and owe nothing to society, are either blind to the need for change or unwilling to make any effort to bring it about.
Those efforts should include a focus on financial aid and student support services that help low-income kids succeed in college, as well as secondary school policies that prevent re-segregation and invest in high-quality teachers. It will also take a public education campaign so that voters understand that affirmative action isn’t a threat to qualified students or society. Affirmative action policies were designed to integrate minority groups into our country’s elite and heal the divisions of race. But today, race and class-aware affirmative action can open elite academics to an even wider swath of the population. It’s time for progressives to start looking at the big picture.
Tim Fernholz is editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice.
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