Refocussing Affirmative Action

Good Sunday morning. Today we’re going to hear from our old friend, New York Times columnist John McWhorter. In this post from last month, in light of the most recent legal challenge before the Supreme Court, McWhorter makes the case for keeping affirmative action, but retooling it to focus on addressing economic disadvantages instead of race.

A particularly strong insight from McWhorter is that it’s not the role of Black students to round out the education of their white peers.

The emphasis is provided by me. Here goes:

By John McWhorter

Back in 2009, I and the sociologist Dalton Conley debated affirmative action with N.A.A.C.P. chairman Julian Bond and Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. In my closing statement I suggested a scenario in which I had a daughter who got into nearly every college she applied to while her similarly credentialed white friends got into schools only here or there. If that happened, I said, the reason, “given the fact that she will not have grown up under anything you could call disadvantage,” would be that:

There are administrators beaming at the fact that by admitting my daughter they are sticking a thumb in the eye at white people who don’t feel guilty enough about their supremacy. If the idea is that the administrators are beaming because my daughter is going to make the campus more diverse; if they are beaming because by admitting my daughter, they are showing that racism is not dead … I will feel that my daughter is being condescended to. I will feel it as a mark of disrespect to me and my ability to get past the ills of the past and to pass on those abilities to my daughter.

The debate was civil in a way that debates, sadly, frequently no longer are, and it was part of a long line of such debates over affirmative action that has since continued, and soon promises to return the issue to the fore.

Affirmative action — broadly speaking, policies that seek, affirmatively, to achieve racial and gender balance in areas such as hiring, contracting and university admissions — has been controversial since it was instituted in the 1960s. It’s frequently thought to have originated, in a formal sense, with President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 and has proliferated throughout American institutions over time. It was controversial at the time of that 2009 debate and it still is, such that in its upcoming term, the Supreme Court will be considering challenges to affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

John McWhorter

I now have that daughter. (I don’t remember what made me so sure I would have a girl, since she wasn’t born until a few years later, but here we are, and she’ll be applying to college in eight years, I assume, with my younger daughter doing so three years later.) And not only do I stand by what I said more than a decade ago, I feel it more deeply now.

It’s not that I’m opposed utterly to affirmative action in the university context, admitting some students under different grade and test score standards than other students. I just think affirmative action should address economic disadvantage, not race or gender.

When affirmative action was put into practice around a half-century ago, with legalized segregation so recent, it was reasonable to think of being Black as a shorthand for being disadvantaged, whatever a Black person’s socioeconomic status was. In 1960, around half of Black people were poor. It was unheard-of for big corporations to have Black C.E.O.s; major universities, by and large, didn’t think of Black Americans as professor material; and even though we were only seven years from Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court, the idea of a Black president seemed like folly.

But things changed: The Black middle class grew considerably, and affirmative action is among the reasons. I think a mature America is now in a position to extend the moral sophistication of affirmative action to disadvantaged people of all races or ethnicities, especially since, as a whole, Black America would still benefit substantially.

And that informs my perspective on racial preferences as they might apply to my own children now, in the 2020s. My daughters are lively young people taking their places in this thing called life, learning how to deal with problems (including growing up during a pandemic), embracing what they love, discerning what they don’t, figuring out who they are on their way to becoming thriving individuals.

I shudder at the thought of someone on a college admissions committee, in the not-too-distant future, reading their dossiers and finding their being biracial (in their case, half Black and half white, or “mixed,” as we might have said in my day) — and thus, officially “diverse” and even, according to our strange retention of the retrogressive “one-drop rule,” officially “African American” — the most interesting thing about them. Or even, frankly, interesting at all.

I don’t want an admissions officer to consider the obstacles my children have faced, because in 2022, as opposed to in 1972, they really face no more or less than their white peers do.

I don’t want that admissions officer to consider that, perhaps here and there, someone, somewhere, underestimated them because both of their parents aren’t white. In the 2020s, that will have happened so seldom to them, as upper-middle-class persons living amid America’s most racially enlightened Blue American white people, that I’m quite sure it will not imprint them existentially any more than it did me, coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s.

I don’t want the admissions officer to consider my children’s “diversity.” For one thing, their diversity from the other kids in their neighborhoods, classrooms and lives is something of an abstraction. They wear clothes from Old Navy, watch (and rewatch) “Frozen” and “Encanto,” and play a lot of Roblox, just like their peers. And I will never forget a line from a guidebook that Black students at Harvard wrote two decades ago: “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate and Timmy.” Yep — and if we salute the enterprising undergrads who wrote that, we must question the general thrust of the sundry amicus briefs that will be offered in the Harvard and U.N.C. cases, about how kids of color are vital to a campus because of their diversity, echoing the statement of Harvard’s president, just this week, that “Considering race as one factor among many in admissions decisions produces a more diverse student body which strengthens the learning environment for all.”

“Diversity” has become one of those terms (and ideas) that makes us feel cozy inside, like freshly baked blueberry muffins and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” But how would you feel about looking a Black undergraduate in the eye and saying, “A lot of the reason we wanted you here, on our campus, is your differences from most of the other students and the life lessons they can learn from them”? Someone says, “I want my kids to interact with Black students before they go out into the world.” I ask, “Just what was it about Black people that you were hoping your kids would learn?”

There are ripostes to this, of course. Some would say that we need to maintain racial preferences in admissions until we’ve eliminated inequalities between Black, Latino, Native American and white America — no differences in wealth, educational opportunities, health outcomes or access to the ballot. (Note that Asian Americans are a somewhat different case, broadly speaking, that we might take up another time.) I understand that argument but consider it flawed, for two very straightforward reasons.

First, where is the evidence that maintaining racial preferences in admissions, at the nation’s most selective universities, is the only, the best or even a reasonably effective way to rectify those inequalities? In individual cases, certainly, some students of color will receive, and capitalize on, opportunities that they otherwise may not have had. But the persistence of the wealth gap, after generations of affirmative action, suggests that somewhere along the way, we’ve missed the mark, policy-wise.

Second, if you’ve raised your kids amid economic adversity, you most likely will understand and even support having those circumstances taken into account in their evaluation by a university, even if you’re not part of a racial minority. But suppose that those aren’t your circumstances, that you’re middle class or above and aren’t Black, Latino or Native American. How would you feel about your kids being admitted to a university because of their “diverseness” from other kids rather than, well, their selves?

Welcome to the 353rd day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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