With the University waiting to make its case to the Supreme Court and two rabid contingents of campus activists respectively screaming, “It’s not our fault our daddies are rich” and “Die, right-wing racist bigots, die” at students and each other, it’s a perfect time to decide whose sandwich board to wear. Let the debate begin!
But first, let’s set some boundaries:
Before anybody can thoughtfully discuss the race-related portion of the University’s admissions policy, the sugar-coated catch phrase has got to go. “Affirmative action” is a euphemism for “race-based preferential treatment,” which itself may or may not be a euphemism for “discrimination;” therein lies the real debate. Dancing around the issue doesn’t help either side; if race-based preferences are indeed just, there’s no need to distract the public with feel-good terminology and if they represent a flaw in the system, “affirmative” is definitely the wrong word. If I were in charge, I’d pick something completely arbitrary, like “Hank,” but I’ll hold off for now so as not to confuse anybody.
So “affirmative action” is out. Next: No yelling.
Next: The first conservative to say “reverse racism” when he means “discrimination against white people” will be taken aside and punched in the face, after which a panel of experts will explain to him that “reverse racism” actually means “tolerance.” Similarly, the first liberal to claim that it would be impossible to create a diverse student body without race-based preferences in admissions will be bound and gagged and banished to the third floor of the Frieze Building until the adults are finished talking.
There. Now we’re ready to have a discussion. I’ll start.
There are two main arguments for giving underrepresented minority students a leg up in admissions and I disagree with both of them.
The first argument is the old standby sports metaphor: Got to level that playing field. Racism has pushed a disproportionate number of minorities into inner cities and substandard public school districts; they and their children deserve much better. The second is the battle cry of University presidents, public relations officials, residence hall staffers and editorial boards at idealistic student newspapers who pledge all but the lives of their firstborn children to the cause: Diversity. We don’t want to be like Berkeley, they say; take away the race factor and the University will be whiter than a John Tesh concert.
In theory, this all sounds wonderful; I can imagine few horrors as great as having to spend all four years of my undergraduate education (and in turn the rest of my degree-holding life) associating solely with upper-crust white people. Unfortunately, the way the University’s now infamous admissions point system is set up, these impossible-to-disagree-with goals are only met on the most superficial of levels. What results is a university full of kids who look different, but whose parents all belong to the same country club.
It works something like this: To combat the whitewashing of higher education, underrepresented minority applicants get 20 points (one fifth the number required for acceptance) before anyone even glances at their class schedules or grade point averages. Applicants whose households fall below a certain income bracket also get that initial 20 points, theoretically to make up for the lousy schools, tired teachers and easy classes they had no choice but to deal with throughout their childhoods. But there’s no doubling up; poor minorities don’t get 40 points. So for students in poor areas, the diversity argument doesn’t apply; poorer students of every race get the same boost and while their wealthier counterparts’ playing field is the Big House, their own is in sorry shape.
The people who benefit most from this system are minorities from affluent areas. They went to great schools, took lots of Advanced Placement classes and had exciting arrays of extracurricular activities to choose from, all of which make for an impressive point total quite separate from the 20 extra minority points. No one who went to school in Birmingham (Michigan) needs help getting into college.
So why bother? The minority perspective? How different are the lives of two people who grew up across the cul-de-sac from one another in Bloomfield Hills, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds? While there are experiences unique to minority students, to say that the “minority perspective” somehow trumps the toeing-the-poverty-line perspective or any other is awfully presumptuous.
OK, I’m finished. Now it’s your turn.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.