Earlier this week the Supreme Court took up affirmative action by agreeing to hear challenges to the admissions process at two US universities. Today, NY Times‘ columnist John McWhorter has a piece arguing that it’s time to end affirmative action, though he still favors programs that give preference to students based on income.
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.
McWhorter makes the column personal by talking about his own daughters. The oldest is still not in high school so they are years away from applying to college, but he says that when they do, he doesn’t want the admissions panel judging them based on their skin color:
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…
“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?”
Finally, as a parent, he asks readers to consider what it would be like to have your upper middle-class student “admitted to a university because of their ‘diverseness’ from other kids rather than, well, their selves.” The implication is that it’s a bit dehumanizing. College admissions, with their personal essays and records of personal achievement, are an area of life where people should be judged as individuals, not as generic members of a group.
Indeed, that was one of the arguments that came up in the lawsuit against Harvard on behalf of Asian students. Harvard won in court eventually but the plaintiffs made a compelling argument that Asian applicants were being treated as interchangeable drones by the school, i.e. kids who excel at academics but often lack outstanding personality traits.
Personally, I agree with McWhorter that it makes some sense to account for kids who excel despite economic disadvantages that other applicants may have, but economic disadvantages affect every demographic. There are plenty of poor white kids in West Virginia whose families have never been to college who shouldn’t be deemed privileged over upper middle-class black and Hispanic kids who attended private schools and had coaches to help them with their college applications. And as McWhorter points out, because a lot of minority kids are economically disadvantaged, there will still be a way for universities to take that into account.