Affirmative action and the traumatized twentieth

By Alan Bean

As this excellent article in Colorlines suggests, simple racial inequality has no bearing on the affirmative action debate, and for one simple reason:

 In order to argue that affirmative action is necessary to remedy past discrimination, schools would have to present evidence showing that they’ve previously discriminated against the groups they’re now going to great lengths to admit. Doing so would open them up to litigation from students of color who’d been denied.

With equity off the table, universities have only one legally acceptable argument: affirmative action creates a diverse student body and diversity is intrinsically beneficial to students. This argument makes sense to white administrators who would feel uncomfortable presiding over a homogeneous student body.  According to Colorlines:

Among those who’ve lined up to extol the economic, social and educational benefits of racial diversity this time around are whole organizations of social scientists, Fortune 100 companies from Starbucks to Halliburton, and universities like Harvard and Yale, who’ve all filed amicus briefs in support of the University of Texas. Social science researchers have indeed found links showing that racial diversity improves student attitudes about people of other races; leads to stronger cognitive outcomes and is even linked to greater job placement.

The only argument the Supreme Court will listen to is the one that appeals to white liberals.  Historically challenged white conservatives are more concerned about the ravages of “reverse discrimination”.

Affirmative action assists students of color who have a shot at competitive colleges and universities, and that’s a pretty small slice of the population.  Students who benefit from affirmative action programs generally come from relatively affluent and privileged families.  You don’t gain admission to competitive schools without solid credentials.  Affirmative action does not elevate mediocre students above their level of competence.

On the other side of the issue, most of the white kids whining about being excluded on the basis of their skin color fail to make the grade because, like the young woman who filed suit against the University of Texas, they don’t have the test scores to compete at the elite level.

Frankly, I’m not that impressed with the academic measures used to assess academic preparedness.  My verbal score on the Graduate Record Exam is in the 99.9th percentile; my math score is merely average.  Other students have my problem in reverse.  None of us would gain admission to Harvard, Yale of Stanford unless our parents were alumni with deep pockets.

Still, being denied admission to the top tier of American colleges and universities is not that big a deal.  Anyone who can afford the cost of tuition can get a good college education in the United States; the problem is that, with each passing year, a smaller slice of America can handle that expense.

I am far more worried about the young people of color who are dropping out of high school either because they aren’t academically gifted or, more likely, because they have been traumatized by the existential consequences of growing up poor.  These kids are so beaten down by the time they reach high school age that no one knows what to do with them and they don’t know what to do with themselves.  So they take to the street corners, make a few bucks slinging dope, go to prison, experience the systematic disenfranchisement we call The New Jim Crow, go back to slinging, draw the “go straight to jail” card once again, and so on, and so on.

Those are the kids I worry about.  To them, affirmative action is irrelevant.

White America should be cutting poor students of color more than a little slack.  Given the tragic racial history of our nation, it’s the least we can do.  I hope the University of Texas convinces the Supreme Court justices that race should be considered in the admissions process.  But the fate of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the talented tenth” cannot be our primary concern.  It’s the traumatized twentieth that worries me.