Thursday, August 3, 2017

Confirmative Action

Here are some hypothetical new college admissions for next fall's freshman class at Wassamatta U::

Jared, George, and Don, who all have lackluster grades and general subpar academic HS performance

Chris, who would never get into WU except for prodigious skills in a sport

Pat, a minority student who is a couple points low on their SAT scores

Which of these students, do you think, represents a problem to be solved?

Apparently according to the Trump administration, it's Pat. The New York Times reports today that the administration is ready to crack down on discrimination-- against white kids. (Here's a link to Slate's coverage of the coverage in case you've used up your free NYT reads.)

This bananas initiative is the natural outcome of the meeting of historical amnesia and that aggrieved  base always alert to the possibility of some excellent non-white person actually getting something that some mediocre white person felt entitled to. I mean, seriously-- we all remember what color a snowflake really is, right?

We've been down this road a variety of times. Remember Becky with the Bad Grades and her lawsuit against affirmative action? And Daniel Golden wrote an entire book about how the Very Rich buy their underachieving children spots in top colleges (Jared Kushner and the Trump children are not anomalies in this regard). To pretend that college admission is some sort of meritocratic system of stack ranking where the top of the stack gets in-- well, that requires us to jump a chasm of disbelief wider than Niagara Falls.

This is (to digress) one more reason it's absurd to talk about students being "on track" for college based on standardized test scores, as if those actually had something to do with being on track for college. It would be more realistic to check students' on trackiness for college by periodically checking their parents' bank accounts and income statements.

What we have now is a system that is riddled with confirmative action-- confirming that if you're rich or white or rich and white or athletic or maybe even brilliant, then you can have a spot. We have a long list of reasons that people can cut to the head of the line.

And that's fine. Colleges are mostly trying to put together a student body that makes the school look good, and many colleges embrace the idea of education as an engine of upward mobility and to do that, you have to include some people who are trying to be upwardly mobile and THAT means accepting people who don't necessarily have the kinds of navigating-the-system tools that let them stroll right in.

I tell my drama students that an audition for a role is not simply a competition to find the "best" actor. Directors have ideas about what they want, both for individual roles and for the ensemble as a whole. You may think you're great for the part, but you are never entitled to it.

But affirmative action is more than just a college casting a well-balanced ensemble for their production of This Year's Freshmen. It's an attempt to restore some justice. If you are organizing a marathon, and after the race has started you realize that some bad actors went onto the track and tied some of the runners' legs together, you don't just say, "Oh, well. Just run harder to catch up." You do something to restore fairness to the contest. That does not include saying, "Well, the marathon has been going on for a long time, so that little tied-up thing at the beginning shouldn't matter any more."

From the days of slavery, up through Jim Crow and our own modern era of systemic racism, a whole sector of American citizens have been systematically denied the tools of success. Some of that is hard to fix for a variety of reasons-- simply making poor people rich through an act of Congress is not doable for a number of reasons.

But affirmative action college admissions are the simplest thing in the world, a chance to help equalize opportunity with a simple acceptance letter (in fact, it's too simple, and colleges should be paying more attention to helping folks succeed once they get to campus). It costs pretty much nothing-- and that includes the opportunity for some mediocre white person to take a seat. If we're going to suspend the idea of meritocratic selection for all these other reasons, why not suspend it for a bit of justice as well.


  1. Sonia Sotomayor has written in her biography that affirmative action is merely putting someone at the starting line in a race they didn't even know was being run. Looks like your metaphor is in good company.

  2. I'm not opposed to affirmative action, but it does seem there are significant problems with the way it has been applied.

    "The largest, most aggressive preferences are usually reserved for upper-middle-class minorities on whom they often inflict significant academic harm, whereas more modest policies that could help working-class and poor people of all races are given short shrift."