Identity politics is propelling the latest fight against affirmative action at Harvard. But it’s important to remember why that action was needed in the first place.
Affirmative action is back on the table for further examination. The Trump administration is making some noise about investigating bias in admissions at high-ranked universities.
There is a constant tug of war in this country over who gets access to a good education, to jobs, to all kinds of resources, and the arguments are about merit, fairness, history and the present. It’s a mess created by not treating everyone fairly in the first place.
It’s easy enough to tie a knot in a length of thread, but just try untying it.
Monday, I wrote that untangling some of today’s problems would be easier if we had a better understanding of our history. I want to share a note from a reader whose response to that column included a mention of affirmative action.
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Jerry Bunce identified himself as a white man who is aware of the privilege that goes with being part of that demographic. He retired from a long career at Boeing, then taught leadership classes at Bellevue College before retiring from that job. Here’s what he wrote:
“I was having lunch at Costco in Issaquah one nice day a few years ago.
“An older white male (around my age) was looking for a seat and I motioned that he could sit at my table. We started to chat.
“He owned a small business in the area. After a while he made a comment that his sons would have a hard time finding a good job because Affirmative Action meant that all the jobs were going to African Americans. I was shocked knowing that was not true.
“I thought for a minute and said to him that the wealth of this nation was built on the backs of slaves.
“He was so shocked and offended. He reacted as if I had just sucker punched him in the gut. He got up and left after sharing what he thought of me.”
All the jobs are going to African Americans. And, yet, the unemployment rate for black Americans is routinely twice the rate for white people.
There is a similar disconnect between some people’s perception of college admissions and the reality.
Originally, fighting bias in admissions meant allowing previously excluded groups a place on campus, but for some Americans the fight has been, and continues to be about, preserving advantages for some that were acquired over generations.
It wasn’t until 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated K-12 public schools were unconstitutional. That ruling would affect expectations for other institutions, including colleges.
Some universities decided to compensate for past sins by reserving a certain number of positions for black students, Native Americans, Latinos and women. That drew opposition.
The University of Washington was sued early on by Marco DeFunis, a white man who was denied entry to the UW School of Law. His case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974, but by then a lower court had ordered the UW to admit him, and he was close to graduating. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case.
The court took a case from California, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, and in 1978, in a divided ruling changed how affirmative action worked by deciding race or sex could be a factor in selecting students, but it would be illegal to set aside a specific number of positions. Universities could make diversity a goal but could no longer try to compensate for past wrongs or the lingering consequences of those wrongs.
Some states went further than that. Washington voters in 1998 passed Initiative 200, which ruled out taking race or sex into consideration at all in admissions.
The latest case against affirmative action, the one that got the administration’s attention, claims Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans and in favor of black and Hispanic applicants. Harvard denies the accusation.
The case is being put together by Edward Blum, who has brought other cases on behalf of white applicants, but this time recruited Asian Americans to file a case.
Asian Americans deserve protection from bias, but this case smells like an attempt to pit Asian Americans against other groups for the eventual benefit of the people Blum usually champions.
Universities have moved on from picking students by scores and grades alone. They look for a mix that will improve learning for all their students. They’ve always made selections based on something special a student might bring — athletic talent for instance. And schools also set aside room for legacy admissions, students related to graduates. Ivy League schools devote 10-30 percent of each entering class to legacy students. Nearly all of the fighting over admissions is about access to a few top-rated schools.
Harvard accepts only 5.2 percent of undergraduate applicants. So most people regardless of race or grades aren’t going to get in. The student body is 43.4 percent white, 13.4 percent Asian-American, 7.7 percent Hispanic, 5.1 percent black, 0.2 percent Native American.
I don’t see how that mix could look like “reverse racism” unless a person is just more comfortable with regular racism.