Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

I t was with great relief and somewhat to my surprise, that on Monday, June 22 the Supreme Court issued its decisions on affirmative action, which, although something of a mixed bag for supporters, nonetheless must be considered a victory within the current political climate. 

Despite the efforts of the Bush administration, and the clamoring of conservative talk-show hosts and think tanks, the Court, in a 5-4, vote upheld the University of Michigan’s Law School affirmative action efforts, saying that the attempt by the school to enroll a “critical mass” of students of color was perfectly legitimate and did not amount to a violation of white students’ equal protection rights. 

On the other hand, the Court struck down Michigan’s undergraduate policy, which also sought to enroll a critical mass of students of color, but did so by establishing a point-system whereby members of the above-mentioned under-represented groups would receive 20 extra points, on a 150-point scale, similar to the 20 points offered to all low-income students (including white ones), and the 16 points offered to students from Michigan’s mostly-white Upper Peninsula, among  others. 

Although I have defended the Michigan point-system elsewhere, I was not surprised to see it invalidated by the Court. Yes, the points for students of color paled in comparison to the points available mostly to whites (such as those for AP courses, having attended “highly competitive” high schools, having a parent who attended the University, and the Upper Peninsula points referenced previously); nonetheless, this Court was always likely to view the point system as an indirect quota, while conveniently ignoring the overwhelming whiteness of the other preferences. 

Although in one sense this part of the ruling could be seen as a defeat, supporters of affirmative action should see it more as a new opportunity to promote racial equity. First off, the only schools likely impacted by the undergrad ruling will be large, highly selective state institutions, for they are typically the only ones who occasionally use point systems to boost enrollment of students of color. Smaller schools and private institutions rarely go this route, preferring more individualized methods of evaluation. For those other types of schools, their current efforts are unlikely to be challenged. 

As for large schools that do use point systems, these types of instruments were always about institutional laziness. After all, when a school gets 25,000 applications for only 5,000 slots, they seek to make their job easier by paring down the possible pool of applicants. Since they don’t have enough admissions officers to examine each applicant in depth and learn important things about them—like what kinds of barriers and obstacles they had to overcome to attain a decent GPA and SAT score—they devise things like point systems, which assume that any person from an under-represented group likely has overcome race and possibly class bias and thus should receive some pre- ference. 

Don’t get me wrong, I happen to think this is a fair assumption—and certainly more rational than its opposite, which is that everyone has had equal opportunity and thus should be evaluated identically—but nonetheless, having an explicit numerical value assigned to minority status has always been more about making life easier for the school, than broadening opportunities for such students. 

What’s needed is properly trained admissions people who can evaluate applicants more holistically and take into consideration what it means for a black or Latino or Native American student to achieve, let’s say, an 1,100 on the SAT, whereas the white median might be 150 points higher. 

As several studies have indicated, students of color often underperform whites on standardized tests even when their grades and academic abilities are identical or even greater than their white counterparts. Black students, for example, with identical grades at identical schools, having taken the same coursework as whites, will generally score well below white students on standardized tests. 

The reasons for this are myriad, from possible cultural test biases to what researchers have termed “stereotype threat,” which refers to the fear that persons from socially-stigmatized groups often experience when taking a test that they know will be viewed by the dominant culture as indicative of their intelligence. When test-takers fear that doing badly may confirm—in some people’s minds—their “lesser abilities,” such students (including people of color, as well as girls and young women taking math tests) may do poorly thanks to the additional stress that they, but not the typical white or male student, would feel.  Now that colleges will not be allowed to use point systems to boost the admissions chances of qualified students of color, perhaps they will get down to training their staffs to understand the way that the stereotype threat has been documented to drive down the SAT scores of highly qualified students of color. If they understood the racist impact of so-called ability tracking in primary and secondary schools— whereby black and Latino students, and all low-income students are far more likely to be placed in remedial classes and far less likely to be placed in honors and AP classes, even when their previous grades and scores would justify being tracked high—then they could implicitly adjust for this fact as they evaluated the academic perfor- mance of certain applicants. 

If they were trained to evaluate people based on how much they have accomplished relative to where they started—then they could easily justify the admission of large numbers of students of color who have shown amazing potential and academic drive, even though they might not have done as well on some supposedly “objective” indicator of ability. 

After all, our educational system is much like a relay race. Certain runners have had a significant head start and others have been held back through no fault of their own. Surely no one would think it fair to expect the runner who started out four laps behind in an eight-lap race to hit the finish tape ahead of someone who started out with such a huge lead. Nor should we refuse to acknowledge that the student who started out behind, but closed the gap dramatically with their more favored counterparts, might actually be the better “runner” or, in this case, student. 

Now comes the hard part, that is, the part where schools are challenged to really consider the effects of racism on the quality of education received by the students applying to their institutions: the effect both for people of color, who will often come to them appearing to be less qualified, and for whites, who may seem more so, even when neither assumption is true. How many admissions officers, after all, realize just how miserable the SAT is at predicting likely success in college? According to a battery of studies, the SAT can predict, at best, perhaps 16 percent of the difference between any 2 students’ first year grades and has virtually no independent relationship to overall 4-year grades or graduation rates. 

How many admissions officers realize that even at highly-selective schools, students who score as low as 1,000 on the SAT (well below the median at such colleges) have an 85 percent chance of graduating, on average—roughly the same as their higher scoring counterparts? 

How many admissions officers know that black college graduation rates are identical to white rates once family economic status is controlled for? In other words, if blacks tend to graduate at a lower rate than their white counterparts, this has nothing to do with ability, as measured by test scores, but rather, is a function of their family’s economic ability to pay for college, among other non-merit factors. 

Bottom line: the Supreme Court ruling has validated not only the notion that campus diversity is a positive good in its own right, but also the underlying premise of all affirmative action efforts, namely, that not everyone has had the same opportunity to obtain certain outcomes, like a high test score or a high GPA in challenging advanced classes (since the latter are one-third as likely to be offered at schools serving mostly kids of color). As such, it is appropriate for colleges to consider these factors and to offer “preferences” on that basis. But these are not racial preferences as much as preferences predicated on an understanding of how racism operates and skews opportunity. 

If America’s colleges and universities will remember that basic premise and see to it that their admissions officers know it like the back of their hands, affirmative action can become more effective than it ever was before, without extra points, and without any ability of the conservative right to do a damned thing about it.   

Tim Wise is an anti-racist essayist, activist, and father.