by Nicholas Lemann published in The New Yorker
Read original on The New Yorker's website
Lemann embarks on a judicial history of affirmativ...Show description
Posted 608 days ago
This was an excellent history of affirmative action from a law-based perspective. Lemann's angle seems reasonable, since this is tied closely to a potential Supreme Court case: "Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which accuses Harvard of discriminating against Asian American candidates."
Caitlin Flanagan has a similar, but much shorter piece focused more specifically on standardized testing in The Atlantic: The University of California is Lying to Us.
As somebody who has received financial aid nearly my entire educational life, I'm very aware of what it can do to help individuals move "upwards" economically. Under a financial aid based scholarship, I attended UNC Chapel Hill, a univeristy mentioned many times in this article and many others like it. Of course, this article focuses specially on the racial aspects of college admissions, and I am White, but I have had the luck and opportunity of aid that resembles affirmative action, and that is something that might make me more sympathetic to the efforts than somebody who only focuses on "meritocracy" as Lemann indicates.
Firstly, Lemann looks at the topic of standardized tests:
By the early nineteen-seventies, rejected white applicants at a number of universities were beginning to sue—charging that the schools had engaged in reverse discrimination. The plaintiffs based their legal arguments on two landmarks in the country’s historic quest for racial justice, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, both of which forbade racial discrimination. Those measures were aimed at helping Black people, but, the plaintiffs argued, they applied equally to white people who had been rejected even though their test scores were higher than those of admitted Black applicants. In these lawsuits, admissions based on standardized test scores had risen to the level of a constitutional right.
The problem here to me is that people assume standardized tests are the only mechanism for entry. Therefore, if somebody scores higher, then they have the right to enter over somebody else. This is ridiculous. Standardized tests should be an indicator of intelligence, a way to filter through a long list of applicants, but should never be the determining factor (unless all other characteristics are the same, which they never are). Students from wealthy backgrounds and those with more opportunity will always do better, and we will just cement an aristocracy if we abide by simply taking the ones with the highest scores.
Lemann then goes on to discuss the moral basis of affirmative action itself:
The Supreme Court’s most theatrically liberal white member, William O. Douglas, wrote a solo opinion that treated affirmative action as unconstitutional. The Fourteenth Amendment, he wrote, “commands the elimination of racial barriers, not their creation in order to satisfy our theory as to how society ought to be organized.” The feeling that issues involving race had obvious solutions, which had prevailed at the Court in 1954, had evaporated. Justices were predisposed to see affirmative action as presenting a bewildering conflict between two competing values: the impulse to integrate universities and the impulse to organize admission as an open competition in which each individual applicant would be judged solely on the basis of grades and test scores.
This made me think considerably about these policies. As a believer in them, we cannot merely assume that because we want them to do good for society they actually will. How many times in human history have arrogant people believed they solved and issue, only to realize that it made it worse. Neoliberalism? Mass incarceration? Assuming that our policies are good just because we want them to be is ignorant. Being skeptical about them, as many of the people are at the end of the article, who want to address issues based upon communities or class, is at least a way of looking at the problem from a different angle (I'm not saying that they are right or wrong).
On this topic, Lemann writes:
Élite universities routinely tip the scales in favor of athletes, alumni children, and so on. Nobody in the Harvard case is challenging the constitutionality of those practices. Only race would be eliminated as a preferred category.
Of course, the main target of affirmative action was race itself. But maybe, that was ignorant on our part. Why would we overlook all of those oppressed by a system and assume that they wouldn't have resentment towards those that are being helped by these policies? Is that not facetious, to say the very least? There may be those who are not racist, but who hold resentment, and just because we believe these policies to be good doesn't mean their actual outcome will be so. Could the rise of facism or right-wing resentment sparked by fear not indicate that maybe somewhere we went a little wrong in the pragmatic application of our principles? Discarding these thoughts are more harmful then helpful, and I think Lemann's overall summary was a really good one.