And here we go again. Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard for bias in its admissions against Asian students. Asians, it turns out, are scored overall as having the least estimable personalities, often knocked down in the stack by notes designating them as not quite interesting or quirky enough despite top-notch grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities.
Slander of hard-working Asian children, pure and simple, and why? Because it makes space for black and Latino students, who are much less likely to be designated as too “unexciting” to deserve admission. Black students are rated highly on personality in the top eight deciles, Asian applicants in only the first decile. Overall, a dossier that would give an Asian student a 25 percent chance of admission gives a black student a virtual guarantee (95 percent). Being black gives a Harvard applicant a bonus twice as big as that for a student of any other color under the income bracket of $60,000.
Recall that we are usually told that whites harbor subconscious but powerful biases against blacks as people. If this is true, then it only makes clearer how artificial and sinister these “personality” rankings at Harvard have been, in directly contravening how Implicit Association Tests so commonly indicate black people are perceived. This is, in a word, a hustle. Yet all indications—such as a memo from Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust—are that Harvard will respond with dissimulations, pretending not to be doing to Asian students exactly what was done to tamp down Jewish admissions until well into the previous century.
So, black and Latino students are preferred over Asian students with the same qualifications, despite that last time I checked Asians are “of color,” often attest to experiencing discrimination, and would often contest that they have not experienced “disadvantage” growing up. What exactly is the rationale for this? There is one, kind of, but it’s a signal that it’s time for enlightened America to hit reset on affirmative action once and for all.
Mind you, gleaning what the rationale is requires almost Talmudic exegesis. Our answers will be couched in a smokescreen web of buzzwords and catchphrases reminiscent of medieval scholastic debates on theology. Considering how racial preferences have been discussed since the 1980s, Thomas Aquinas would find his intellectual abilities well suited to parsing the actual meaning of words like diversity, segregation, racism, qualifications, holistic, “welcoming,” and even education.
Hacking our way through this damp, heavy overhang of rain forest vines, holding some stray ones back for a second and gasping for air, one may glimpse a patch of sunshine through the canopy above. That is, we are to think that racial preference policies in admissions consist of identifying equally qualified candidates and then, from among them, making sure that a representative number of the admitted students are black and Latino, for the most part. All claims that opponents of the current orthodoxy are racists who want to bar brown kids from opportunity and resegregate America’s universities are founded on an assumption that this is how racial preferences work in admissions. And indeed, few would or should have any problem with them—if this were the way the procedure actually worked.
The heart of the endless debate over racial preference policies is that it has been revealed at countless institutions since the 1990s—Rutgers, the University of California, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas, among others—that actually, black and Latino students are admitted with adjusted standards. That is, there is a bonus for being black or Latino factored into whether these students even reach the final pool considered. Only at the very top universities such as the Ivies does admissions actually use the “thumb on the scale” process claimed to be the one everywhere, in which race is taken into account only amidst a pool of candidates with truly comparable qualifications. Beyond these few institutions, matters are what we like to call more “complicated.”
We learn the truth at those rare but inevitable times when someone happens, for some reason, to actually use clear, honest, adult language about these matters. These Candid Moments come usually in private, but give away the game. Ten years and change ago I spoke on racial preferences for a black student group at a selective (but not Ivy-level) school, making my usual argument that today, affirmative action should be based on socioeconomics, not skin color. A black professor actually said, straight out: “If ‘spunk’ hadn’t played a big part in their evaluation, then almost none of the black students in this room would be here. Is that what you want?”
I might add that this man was genial about this; it wasn’t an angry moment. But he was spelling out that for the black students, grades and test scores had indeed played a crucially lesser role in their admission than for other students on campus. He clearly supposed that there were larger factors that justified the brown subset of that school’s student body being cherished for their spunkiness rather than their nerdiness. But what are those factors? And do they hold water in 2018?
The Affirmative Action 1.0 justification, which made sense 50 years ago, was that black people can’t be subject to truly serious competition because all but a squeak of us are poor—or at least, too poor to be able to be expected to really ace a test. A lot of black people weren’t crazy about this line of reasoning even then, but in 2018, with the dramatic burgeoning of the black middle class directly as the result of these policies, this sense of black as shorthand for poor is catastrophically antique as sociological reasoning.
Suddenly all understand what an obsolete, condescending dismissal of the civil rights revolution this is when someone like Donald Trump implies that black America is one huge, violent, depressed ghetto. Bring on the objections to “pathologizing” the inner city, and newer claims that the very term is obsolete, that the conditions in question are now a cross-racial problem, and so on. All well and good—in 2018, while proportionally more black people are still poor than whites, to baldly equate black with poor is a hopelessly ignorant flub. But to understand this pulls the rug out from under the idea that brown skin requires lowered standards.
Because this was already clear as far back as the Carter Administration, starting with the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978, the custom of the country has been to defend this fiddling with cutoffs for brown people as necessary in a quest for “diversity.” All know that this term, whose meaning has narrowed in a way that would be opaque to a time traveler from as recently as 1970, refers not to all of humanity but to black and Latino people. Geographical, political, religious, and even Asian diversity are tacitly understood to be “not what we really mean”—the one-legged Mormon lesbian from Idaho is less “diverse” than the middle-class black boy from Cleveland.
We hear that having a certain number of black and Latino students is vital to a good education. However, all quietly know that diversity has nothing to do with French irregular verbs or systolic pressure—i.e. the actual content of most courses. Some will trot out assorted studies showing that “diversity” has some kind of larger benefit in education—a current favorite is one that suggests that “diverse” study groups are better at arriving at solutions to problems. However, what looms over all of this is whether these rather vague benefits—and never mind that many studies of campus “diversity” show no benefit and even downsides—justify the endless bitterness and doubletalk that adjusting qualification cutoffs for black and brown students entails.
Many seem to think that they do, but it’s unclear they are truly examining the matter from a critical distance. For example, black students, so cherished in their “diversity,” often complain that they actually don’t like being singled out for their views on race issues in class.
Or: New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio thinks he is Doing the Right Thing by eliminating or at least downsizing the role that the entrance test plays in gaining students admission to the city’s elite public schools like Stuyvesant, with a special percentage of admittees admitted despite having scored a certain amount below the traditional cutoff. The idea here is to raise the sadly minimal proportion of black and Latino students at these schools. But after upping the brown figures with this method, get ready for the news stories a few years from now with black and Latino students complaining that other students think they got into the school with a lower test score than theirs—with it considered blasphemous to venture that they probably did.
Note: why not tell these students they were admitted because they are “diverse”? For one, because few things illuminate the weakness of that argument more than trying to tell an actual “diverse” individual that it’s why they were admitted. Plus, the argument will seem even weaker in a school full of equally brown-skinned South and Southeast Asians.
Folks, the dog won’t hunt—at least not anymore. Is all of this anger, hurt, confusion, and lying really worth continuing forever? Or even for the next ten years? Let us remember: In 2003, to the comfort of many—you could almost hear a big sigh rising out the living rooms of the Acela corridor intelligentsia—Justice Sandra Day O’Connor decreed that racial preferences would be necessary for another 25 years. That was now 15 years ago. We’re way past the halfway point, and what exactly will happen during the next ten years that justifies maintaining this fragile business for that much longer?
One of the most pernicious aspects of the culture of racial preferences is that it has taught all of us to think of black people as inherently less intelligent than other people. Oh, not overtly, of course. But the problem is clear in assorted cultural tropes that could owe their existence to nothing else.
Consider the conception of “welcome” that has become so entrenched in these discussions. “If you don’t admit me, then it means you don’t like me,” we instruct the young black student to think. This notion of welcoming would make sense if it were done after actually comparing people with the same grades and test scores. But when the “welcoming” is amidst changing qualifications for brown people, then it can only mean that the whites “welcome” people despite their lesser dossier stats—with the implication that this lesser performance is eternal, an inherent facet of the body of black and Latino students.
This is, quite simply, calling brown students dim. Yes, Lyndon Johnson said, “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.’” But ladies and gentleman, is this quotation not now a bit elderly? It works beautifully today for a brown student who grew up disadvantaged. But only a small fraction of today’s black and Latino students at selective universities grew up in anything like poverty, as we know from endless reports of how grievously few poor people of any kind gain admission to selective schools.
And no, residual racism does not qualify as any kind of mic-drop here. Say that an upper-middle class black student is hobbled from tippy-top performance by the residual racism of 2018 and you are calling her a weakling. You are also leaving a perfectly valuable objection from assorted non-black people working with obstacles such as poverty, illness, family tragedy, and even racism (as some Asians can legitimately claim) as to why they don’t deserve the same special treatment or why this black student does.
Even sadder is that this sense of blackness and school has percolated into too many black Americans’ sense of themselves. On schools like Stuyvesant, a black New Yorker casually tells the New York Times that “the exam is built to exclude blacks because it’s heavy on math and black people can’t do math.” In academia, some black professors have been arguing that fields requiring heavy-duty quantitative analysis are racist in failing to hire or promote black professors whose work eschews numbers, the idea being that non-quantitative analysis constitutes a valuable alternate (“diverse”?) perspective. Again the idea that it is somehow logically impossible for black people to be number-crunchers. A hundred years ago civil rights leaders would unhesitatingly have sought to get black people the skills they needed to break in, not indignantly demand that the powers that be change what they think of standards.
And then, there is the tendency for black teens to associate doing well in school with “acting white.” Often when I refer to this, it elicits indignant claims that the “acting white” idea has been somehow debunked. It has not, and I am unmoved by these objections. The facts are painfully clear in countless books and articles, and detractors are nimbly working around, rather than with, the reality because they find it inconvenient to see a black community problem attributed to something other than white perfidy. If it makes them feel any better, the “acting white” charge began when black kids were alienated by white teachers’ scorn for black students amidst desegregation orders in the 1960s, and is maintained by whites’ tacit assumptions that serious scholastic ability is diagonal to what being black is.
One of the ways I know this is how so many of us are quietly thinking is shown by Candid Moment No. 2, which tragically but usefully illustrates my larger point. The spring after racial preferences had been banned at UC Berkeley in 1998, a student in one of my classes was a black undergraduate who was working in the minority recruitment office spending time with black prospectives. This was the first body of black applicants who had been admitted without racial preferences. She very casually said to me that she and the other people at the office were worried that black students who performed at that high a level wouldn’t be concerned with maintaining a sense of black community at Berkeley.
There it was: She expected me to spontaneously understand that the black nerd probably isn’t “really black.” That statement was unimaginable from a Chinese-American or Jewish student, and neatly explains why even black people are so often comfortable with the idea that they require “welcome” for doing very well rather than excellently. Black students aren’t supposed to be too good in school, was this woman’s message, delivered, I might add, quite calmly. And in fact, some years later I heard, unbidden, from two black students who had entered Berkeley with that class, telling me that they had indeed encountered a cold shoulder from more than a few of the older black students who were suspicious of them for being post-preference admits.
Much can be said about how slavery, Jim Crow, and white racism have conditioned a people to underestimate their own cognitive abilities. However, the nasty truth is that racial preferences, in being maintained so far past their sell-by date, now maintain rather than break with toxic preconceptions we should be long past. To wit, lowering standards for black and Latino applicants is now a retrogressive rather than progressive approach.
Or, racist, at least. I know of no more vivid indication of racism today than the idea that brown people are human history’s first who can only truly compete under ideal conditions. I know of no more vivid hypocrisy on the part of those who style themselves black people’s fellow travelers than to earnestly dismiss claims that black people’s average IQ is lower than other peoples’ while in the same breath nodding vigorously that a humane society must not subject the same people to challenging tests. Moreover, I know of no more tragic indication of a people’s internalization of the oppressor’s racism than a bright black NAACP lawyer arguing with proud indignation that if black people don’t do well on a test it’s society’s job to eliminate the test or make it easier.
Racial preferences were a fine idea in the 1960s and 1970s when they arose, as a temporary strategy for giving a race just past Jim Crow, most of whom were still poor or close to it, an unprecedentedly abrupt, sincere, and even rule-bending leg up at a crucial juncture in American social history. Any who brand this article as “anti-affirmative action” reveal themselves as having failed to read up to this point.
However, even in a society where racism itself is not extinct, this approach fails as an open-ended strategy. While racial disparities certainly exist, there is now far too much black success, and far too many different kinds of people in our population since the Immigration Act of 1965, for it to ever again make sense in any real, lasting way to maintain different standards for black and Latino people, specifically, in perpetuity. This regime is now supportable only via doubletalk, agitprop, silencing, lies, suspicion, condescension, and recurrent challenges in court stirring up hollow, manipulative justifications that sound more Orwellian by the decade. None of this is worth what has evolved from a pragmatic strategy of reparation into a craven, self-oriented display of anti-racism that persists only because no individual person or institution has the guts to call it for what it has become and move on. Racial preferences should be thought of as a kind of chemotherapy, targeted very specifically for a sternly limited period of time, due to the massive collateral damage that comes with its healing properties.
Part of the very definition of certain administrators’ jobs has become to gracefully manage the tightrope equipoise of making racial preferences sound constructive rather than gestural. Candid Moment No. 3: a selective university President once told me that they agreed with the kinds of things I am writing here but simply could not, as part of their job, say such things in public. It’s time to let this all go, and we don’t need another ten years to admit it.
Do I oppose affirmative action? Not at all. But I suggest that what we now “affirm” is disadvantage suffered by all kinds of people. Few will resent or question adjusting standards because of true, obvious and incontestable obstacles to success. Those who do will mostly be educable; the sliver who continue to resist will classify as mere static—there’s always some.
A preference policy based on disadvantage will take in plenty of brown people— enough to foster “representative” populations of brown people on college campuses, as Richard Kahlenberg has documented, including in his under-consulted The Remedy. But it will not take in brown students born of parents two generations past the old days and doing just fine, and that is progress, not bigotry. It’s time we brown people who have overcome, in any sense the world and history would recognize, stop being given a hand up on the basis of our supposed “diversity.” And even the fact that we might run up against a nasty time trying to relax at a Starbucks leaves that logic intact—unless black people are human history’s weakest renditions of the species.
So no, I do not think universities should foster a brown subset of students admitted as much because of their “spunk” as because of their scholastic chops. But I must be grilled the same way I am grilling so many others—how do I feel about what that room at that selective school would look like if admissions were barred from using Spunk Points?
First, I have every expectation that in an America where the only way black students could gain access to the very best schools was to submit applications equal to other students admitted, then after about a generation, the black American community would master the skill set necessary to do this and pass it on to the next. Non-black administrators so horrified that letting Spunk Points go would mean “resegregation” would surely put their hearts and souls into the effort. Anyone who thinks those people will actually reveal themselves as closet racists happy to let campuses “resegregate” might consider investing in some Xanax. Accuse me of being a Pollyanna and I ask back: Why do you have so little faith in black people? Are you not perhaps demonstrating exactly the internalized sense I just described of black people as uniquely and eternally handicapped in the noggin? And, I will also ask: Why would we expect a people to do excellently when the larger culture teaches them that for them, doing pretty well is excellent?
Second, I think my interlocutor that night was painting with rather broad a brush. Eliminating racial preferences does not yield the purely white and Asian campus we are so often warned of. At Berkeley after preferences were banned, the number of black students first went way down—and then went back up, and stayed there. The number has never been as high as in the old days. But meanwhile, at solid but second-tier UC San Diego, the year before racial preferences were banned there had been exactly one black freshman honors student in a class of about 3,200. By 1999, with many black students who would once have been admitted to Berkeley and UCLA now attending schools like this one, one in five black freshmen were making honors, about the same proportion as white freshmen.
How this qualified as racism or resegregation was decidedly unclear, which was much of why stories like these were almost never heard beyond certain circles. Yet the myth persists even today in discussions of affirmative action that the issue is Yale or jail—that somehow only the tippy-top schools provide students with “opportunity.” I’ve often wondered how the batteries of teachers and administrators at schools beyond the Ivies and a handful of others feel about the discourse that lustily implies that to attend schools like theirs does not qualify as providing “opportunity.”
Candid Moment No. 4: In 1998 a young black filmmaker swore me to secrecy about a short he was directing in response to the ban on preferences. It’s now been 20 years, I doubt the film was made, and if it was, it is now a period piece unviewable by any but this man and his friends, and so I take the liberty of revealing the script’s plot. It opened with a young black man giving an anti-affirmative action speech in a sweater vest to a white audience, going home, and changing into his regular “authentic” garb of hoodie and big sneakers. He is a classic black conservative sell-out, openly cawing that he’s saying what The Man wants to hear because it’s the only way he knows to get rich in The Man’s America. A young black woman whose brother just got turned down by Berkeley after the ban has killed himself in despair, and she has hunted our opportunist down with a gun, corners him, but then at the last minute leaves him to escape growling “He ain’t even worth it anyway.”
Yes, that was the plot; I still have the script—and this director was a bright, poised, educated man (in fact, wearing a sweater vest when I met him). Yet he seriously sought to make a film in which being turned down by Berkeley was like being barred from earning a Bachelor’s Degree at any institution of higher learning in the world. But here in real life, the black people who were turned down by Berkeley and UCLA back then are now pushing 40, many of them parents, maybe a few years before realizing that the gray hairs are coming in too fast to bother plucking them out anymore. How many of them do we suppose would say that their lives were ruined by having to settle for the misery of making do with UC Santa Cruz or UC San Diego? In broader view, for all of the disgusted, howling hue and cry over the banning of racial preferences in University of California schools in the late 1990s, a generation later what damage to black advancement did the preferences ban effect? In which profession in California are there fewer black people now than there were then because fewer black students went to Berkeley and UCLA? The evidence is surely in by now, and none exists.
No more people thinking they’re doing black people a favor in asking “Then how come it’s okay for legacy students (or George W. Bush, as it was popular to substitute during the aughts) to get in under the bar?”—as if the very comparison wasn’t the quintessence of disrespect for black excellence.
No more “White students need to learn how to work with different kinds of people in the workplace”—upon which the question must be, but never is allowed to be: “Exactly what is it about black people that we are hoping people will learn?”
No more nonsense like New York Chancellor Richard Carranza declaiming that Asians think they “own admission” to schools like Stuyvesant. Just which Asians ever said that, or even implied it? And, how is it that Asian students are claiming they “own” a school when all they have done is do excellently on the test required to get into it?
The reason America can never truly come together in understanding racial preferences is not benighted racism rearing its head as always. It’s because the rationales simply no longer make any damned sense. The second you find that discussing affirmative action requires looking over your interlocutor’s shoulder into the distance and shaking your head a bit, claiming that the issues are “complex” and quietly hoping the discussion will now peter out, you know something has gone off the rails. That something is your conscience. Heed it.
Black Minds Matter, and it’s time we hit reset on how we show that we understand that. Pretending that black means poor in 2018 shows no such thing. Long live affirmative action. But let’s affirm disadvantage, and stop spitting in black America’s face by pretending that to be black is to be morally exempt from hard-core competition in getting into top schools even if you grew up no more “diversely” than the whites and Asians you’re competing against.
Educated white America—please open up to letting the lying go. You’re not only insulting us, you’re hurting us by suckling us on a pernicious web of unspoken assumptions that foster a sense that to be brown is to get a pass on really showing what we’re made of. Please spare my daughters, 15 years from now, being assessed in this condescending, fake way that only makes sense to you because it makes you feel good for a while.
We shall preserve affirmative action—as affirming disadvantage. Many reading that will guiltily note the internal sense of release, and shouldn’t resist it. What you’re feeling is what under another name would be called a sense of moral justice.