Lunch Break Tidbits: Discussing Affirmative Action on Al Jazeera’s The Stream

Yesterday I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream to discuss Affirmative Action policies in college admissions and hiring. Also on the panel were Ari Berman from The Nation, Jerome Hudson from the National Leadership Network of Black Conservatives, Michigan Daily‘s Yash Bhutada and libertarian blogger Kristin Tate. With only 40 minutes to discuss what is a highly contentious and layered topic in light of the Fischer vs. UT SCOTUS ruling, here’s a wrap up and slight elaboration on some of the points made on yesterday’s show.

  • Despite what Jerome, Kristin, and other Affirmative Action (AA) opponents continued to assert, AA does not only aid Black/African-American students in the college admissions and job processes. Kristin can focus less on being offended on our behalves as she continues to insist, because despite AA initially being enacted to even the playing field and aid based on “race, creed, color, or national origin,” it was expanded to include gender under Lyndon Johnson in 1967. While AA benefits Blacks as well as Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians, white women like Kristen and Abigail Fischer are actually the number one beneficiary of AA.

  • It’s important to remember that Affirmative Action does not operate as a series of quotas that The University of Texas –or any school– has to meet. Instead AA acts as the same sort of an application ‘plus’ in the same way that a being a legacy, playing a varsity sport, holding a volunteering position, or maintaining a high GPA would. It’s simply another piece of the applicant’s package that admissions committees can consider. One might argue that playing a sport or producing high grades should count as a skill or talent whereas race doesn’t qualify, but I don’t know… I’d argue that growing up non-white in America is definitely a honed skill.

  • On that same note, college admissions (and school admissions processes in general) don’t work off a set in stone rubric, and often don’t come down to the decision of one person alone. The scope of the admissions process changes from year to year based on the quality of the applicant pool– some years the overall quality of students is just better than others, which contributes to the competitiveness of the admissions season that year. Colleges aren’t necessarily looking to create an incoming class that consists only of the 10% percent of high school students who played three varsity sports and built schools in Kenya over the summer. Honestly that would make for a rather boring environment for not only the students, but the staff who has to teach and interact with them on a daily basis. They’re looking to create what’s sometimes described as a “dynamic” class. A class that’s going to be diverse in, yes, race and ethnic background, but also in interests, intelligences (because intelligence shouldn’t just be measured by how well one performs on the SAT), home locations, and socio-economic backgrounds. A class that will succeed academically, but one that will also fit in well with the current school community and will have left a distinctive mark once they’ve graduated four years down the line. Class and racial diversity do not have to be mutually exclusive; an admissions office can focus on one while also focusing on the other. That’s why colleges employ a wide range of admissions officers in a fully staffed admissions department!

  • This diversity of the applicant pool is crucial  to when it comes to examining the context of an applicant’s success, as pointed out by Yash during the show. A student of color who succeeds despite the odds being against them from a young age (let’s say, for instance, that a city decided to close 49 of 54 public schools that serve a majority POC population) who has the same profile of a white student in an affluent suburb where success is the norm should be viewed through a different lens. The contexts of their success are completely different and circumstances should be considered.

  • Jerome brings up the point that there’s a high dropout and non-graduation rate for Black and Latino students on campuses that practice Affirmative Action. It’s true. Back in May I dscussed the NYTimes data showing that Black students are lagging behind when it comes to enrolling in colleges with graduation rates above 70% and that Latino/as are more likely to graduate from 2 year or community colleges than 4 year institutions. That’s not necessarily because they don’t deserve to be there, due to being supposed Affirmative Action admits. It’s more likely due to a lack of resources and support systems on campus. It’s surprisingly hard to succeed in school if you can’t pay for it, or if you can pay for it but have to scrape by on ramen five days a week to do so, or if you’re thrown into a brand new environment and are seemingly bombarded with racist imagery while you’re there. Traditional higher education was not designed with students of color in mind– how could it have been when colleges didn’t even start admitting freed Blacks until 1835? African-American studies didn’t even become a field one could received a bachelors in until the 1970s, and other multicultural studies followed. Support systems (not least of all, a staff on campus who can explain financial aid in layman’s terms so students know what they’re getting themselves into)  and safe spaces on campus (starting with a strong, well staffed department of multicultural affairs that works to offer a variety of cultural diverse programs on campus) are crucial in an environment when even the study of your own history is a relatively new phenomenon. Let’s not attribute high non-graduation rates to Affirmative Action before we look at the environments fostered on campus. And if we are going to look at the percentage of dropouts, don’t forget to include white women.

  • We were asked about measures we would take to level the playing field if Affirmative Action were ever to be struck down by a high court. Here Jerome and I agreed on the idea that the public school system must be improved, though I would dispute the idea that we should move focus entirely from extracurriculars to academics. Like race vs. socioeconomic diversity, access to a good public education and resume enhancing extracurriculars can coexist. What we should be focusing on is the fact that in a city like New York, one block can make a difference between being zoned into a school with an A rating, vs. a school with a C rating. We need to focus on the fact that, as I’ve mentioned on the R before, even in supposed good suburban public schools systematic racism can run rampant when schools employ “leveling”, wherein students are placed in a class based on their intelligence beginning in middle school. Students in the lower levels –often students of color as shown in the documentary Deleveling the System– are taught basic and often below grade level work while students in higher levels are kept up to speed. This difference in work makes it hard for a child to advance out of their lower level class, and makes for a far less impressive transcript when the time comes to apply for college. These are just two examples of issues that students of color can find themselves facing in our current public school system.

  • Overall we need to change the overly simplified view that people have of Affirmative Action. There are no quotas and unqualified students of color aren’t stealing spots from more deserving white students. I don’t feel insulted to think that it’s a policy I may benefit from at some point in my life, because I understand that it’s a policy doing what little it can to help reverse over 200 years of institutionalized racism in America. It’s not perfect, but it’s doing what it can to help deserving students and employees get the leg up they may need.

Thanks to all the panelists, and to hosts Femi Oke and Malika Bilal for hosting and participating in a great conversation!