Ten myths about affirmative action

September 19, 2011

University of Wisconsin graduate student Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a member of the Teaching Assistants' Association, unravels the lies of affirmative action opponents.

STUDENTS OF color in the incoming freshman class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison must have had a disorienting second week of the semester. On September 13, they were greeted by a small group of old, suited white men at podiums, telling them they don't belong here--and over 850 angry students telling those men they're wrong.

The press conference held by the misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) and the debate with their uninspiring spokesperson Roger Clegg later that same day left me less than impressed with the argument that the university's affirmative action policies discriminate against white people.

But what did impress me mightily was the students who again and again stood up to share their stories, their anger that men like Clegg don't think they matter, and their determination to assert that they do. Inspired by those students, here is my defense of race-based affirmative action. Put aside that the richest country in world history treats education like a scarce commodity to be fought over. Race-based affirmative action is simply a matter of justice.

Students taking a stand to defend affirmative action at the University of Wisconsin in Madison
Students taking a stand to defend affirmative action at the University of Wisconsin in Madison

Here are 10 myths that people like Clegg spin about affirmative action--and the facts that dispel those myths.

Myth Number 1: Students of color admitted under affirmative action aren't admitted on merit.

If there was one phrase Roger Clegg kept using at his debate that made the entire audience hiss, it was "lowered expectations." That's what Clegg says affirmative action means for minority students. But what he calls lowered expectations, I call recognition of a higher achievement.

According to the Black Commentator, "Wisconsin, and in particular the Milwaukee area, justly merit the invidious distinction of the Worst Place in the Nation to be Black." One reason? The staggering extent to which the criminal justice system in this state is directed at young Black men and their communities.

Sociologist Pamela Oliver has shown that Wisconsin's racial disparity in sentencing people convicted of new drug offenses dramatically dwarfs the disparity in every other state--including New York under its infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws.

What you can do

The struggle to defend affirmative action at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is ongoing. Join activists for a discussion of what's next at a forum titled "Power to the People: Fighting Racism at the UW Campus," on Tuesday, September 20, at 6:30 p.m. in 1101 Humanities.

To read more about the affirmative action issue at UW, read the Education Optimists blog, coauthored by UW education professor Sara Goldrick-Rab.

In short, succeeding in high school under these conditions is a real achievement--one that frankly dwarfs managing to study SAT vocabulary in a well-funded suburban high school where students are expected to go to college.

And speaking of the SAT and other standardized tests, it's worth understanding some of the reasons for the racial discrepancies in test scores. As Adam Sanchez explained for SocialistWorker.org, since standardized tests are created to sort students, they only serve their function if some students consistently perform better than others.

This has two implications. First, test designers need questions that lots of students will get wrong, and the easiest way to do this is to use questions that draw less on classroom experiences that all children share than on home experiences that only some did. (The need for variation in scores is also why the exams are timed, even though this makes them much more artificial.)

Second, test designers need questions to agree on who the high-scoring students are--otherwise, everyone would score somewhere near the middle. This means that before new questions are added, they are vetted to make sure that they pick out the same students who already are scoring well on the tests. (In testing parlance, such questions are "reliable"--which doesn't mean they are "valid" at capturing real intellectual merit.)

These reasons help to explain why the best predictors of standardized test scores are parents' wealth and education.

Myth Number 2: White students are admitted to college solely on merit.

Underlying all the attacks on affirmative action is the idea that without it, college admissions are race-neutral and meritocratic. But as my fellow UW student Paul Pryse wrote after the last attack on affirmative action at UW:

As many as 15 percent of freshmen at America's top schools are white students who failed to meet their university's minimum standards for admission, according to Peter Schmidt, deputy editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. These kids are "people with a long-standing relationship with the university," or in other words, the children of faculty, wealthy alumni and politicians.

According to Schmidt, these unqualified but privileged kids are nearly twice as common on top campuses as Black and Latino students who had benefited from affirmative action.

There's no such thing as a race-neutral college admissions policy in America. "Colorblind" just means the advantages and disadvantages are rendered invisible.

Myth Number 3: Affirmative action hurts students of color by putting them in environments for which they aren't prepared.

This might have been Clegg's single nastiest argument of the night--that because UW-Madison employs affirmative action, it admits students who are, in Clegg's words, "guaranteed to fail."

Students of color do have a harder road at college than most white students, but it isn't because they're unqualified--it's because discrimination and hostility don't stop at campus gates. Campus cultures have been improved by the victories of antiracist student movements over the past 50 years, but they are still alienating at best and vicious at worst for some students.

Only this past summer at UW, a fraternity hung a life-size black-clad Spiderman doll by its neck from the balcony of its house on fraternity row. If Black students find inhospitable a campus that mere months ago saw the echoes of lynching, only a racist would think that the answer is to keep them off that campus--for their own good.

Myth Number 4: Maybe affirmative action was important once, but those days are long past.

It's hard to imagine anyone making this argument seriously, but then again, Clegg--who, under student questioning, said he wasn't sure whether Black students on average attend less well-funded schools than white kids--didn't seem to be joking. Here are just a few relevant facts:

The median Black family has just 5 percent of the wealth of the median white family (with Hispanics much closer to Blacks than whites)--this is one of the most important ways that advantages and disadvantages are passed down over generations.

Another is segregated schools. A majority of Black students in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and New York attend schools that are over 90 percent Black and Latino, and most white students attend schools that are overwhelmingly white. Here in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee school district, with 77 percent Black and Hispanic students, spends $3,081 less per student than the nearby Maple Dale-Indian Hill district, where 80 percent of students are white. The average Black or Latino K-12 student in the country attends a school in which most students are poor.

Meanwhile, one of the most-ballyhooed areas of progress--the narrowing gap in high school graduation rates between Black and white students--has been shown by sociologists Stephanie Ewert and Becky Pettitt to be a statistical lie: once you include prisoners, the progress disappears. The biggest change is that now the Black students who don't graduate high school are locked up.

Myth Number 5: Affirmative action policies in colleges distract attention from disparities earlier in the pipeline.

This one--which Clegg also threw out at the debate in Madison--is just bizarre. Have you ever heard any proponent of affirmative action say, "Well, I would support equal access to quality K-12 schools, but I'm too busy defending affirmative action at colleges?"

Affirmative action at every level helps future generations at every level. Many students of all races are being taught by teachers who may have benefited from affirmative action programs--and who had their sense of education's power and importance shaped by the struggle for affirmative action and civil rights at their colleges.

On the other hand, we might ask those making this argument about their commitment to reforming "the pipeline." I was next in line to question Clegg when the debate unceremoniously ended, with a long line of students still waiting to speak. My question was simple: Since he and his organization apparently want schooling to be colorblind, what have they done to combat residential segregation, by far the biggest contributor to different schooling for different races?

Myth Number 6: Eliminating affirmative action would be fairer to Asian students.

This might be the CEO's most important left cover for their position--the idea that UW-Madison is discriminating not only against white students, but Asian students as well.

As Chinese-American student government leader and Student Labor Action Coalition member Beth Huang pointed out at a pro-affirmative action rally on campus here in Madison, this argument lumps together very diverse populations into the category "Asian." In particular, Wisconsin has a large Hmong population--settled in the Midwest as refugees after the CIA had recruited them into its "Secret War" in Laos--who are largely segregated and impoverished, and should be beneficiaries of affirmative action.

However, it's also true that some "holistic admissions policies" used at universities--such as privileging certain kinds of extracurricular experiences--can function to limit the number of Chinese and Chinese-American students on campus. The main beneficiaries are not other students of color, who remain underrepresented on campuses, but wealthy white students.

Proponents of affirmative action should fight efforts to divide populations that historically have faced discrimination in the United States.

Myth Number 7: White students are only harmed by affirmative action policies.

As it happens, the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action programs in general--by far--have been white women. But this article is about race-based affirmative action, and my case is that these race-based programs are essential for white students--for the sake of their own education.

As we waited in line to question Clegg last week, the student in front of me told me that she had multiple white students in her classes tell her they'd never met a Black person before. Can it really be in these students' interest to have African American students kept out of college, so the country's Black population remains an abstraction to them?

As left-wing education expert Jonathan Kozol points out, research shows that "the strongest opposition to integrated schooling among white people is among those who have never experienced it." Kozol cites studies showing that "60 percent of young people of all races feel not only that they will receive a better education in an integrated setting, but that the federal government should make sure that it happens."

Myth Number 8: Anything that smacks of "quotas" is rigid and suspect.

Quotas became a dirty word in the 1990s, when Democratic President Bill Clinton led the effort to get rid of them--in the name of "mending, not ending" affirmative action. A series of Supreme Court decisions then sharply limited the ways that colleges are allowed to use race in admissions.

But what a quota really means is that there is accountability to stated diversity goals. Here at UW-Madison, the university's 10-year diversity initiative, Plan 2008, fell far short of its goals--which the college's Academic Planning Analysis division attributed to a lack of increased financial aid. Today, the university is less than 4 percent Hispanic, less than 3 percent Black, less than 2 percent Southeast Asian and less than 1 percent Native American. And a third of these students never graduate.

In the same 10 years, the university recruited faculty of color, but failed to increase its rates of granting tenure to them. Faculty of color often face a dilemma in which they are expected to mentor many students of color and serve on every diversity committee, but are not really rewarded for this work in the tenure system.

A system that enforced more accountability to its stated diversity aims would force departments and the university administration to address this kind of discrepancy. Without this accountability, it is far too easy to never question the basic operating and funding structures of the university, while bemoaning the lack of progress on diversity.

Myth Number 9: If we had class-based affirmative action, we wouldn't need race-based affirmative action.

Racial and economic disadvantages in education are deeply intertwined, but that doesn't mean the racial disadvantages can be reduced to class.

Because of residential segregation, even when a Black and a white family have the same household income, it's very likely that the Black family's children go to far worse schools. The "war on drugs" has led to an all-out assault on Black communities in particular. And in the current era--to quote sociologist Matt Desmond, commenting on his study of evictions in Milwaukee--"eviction is for Black women what incarceration is for Black men." It should be obvious that these processes have a tremendous effect on children.

Moreover, the most important dimensions of class--wealth, not income--are the hardest to account for in college admissions, especially when it comes to ensuring racial justice.

One reason wealth is harder to measure is that many government programs are designed to make sure the poor--as opposed to the rich--don't get benefits they don't qualify for. One result is that it is generally easy to verify whether someone is officially living in poverty, but not always whether another family has been living paycheck to paycheck, while still another with the same income has valuable assets.

Myth Number 10: We have to choose between class-based and race-based affirmative action.

Have you ever noticed that the only time Republicans seem to care about how poor kids will get to college is when they can use this concern as their battering ram against racial justice?

There is every reason to support affirmative action based on both race and class. And although I began by setting aside the way education is being made a scarce commodity, there's every reason to fight that, too.

Beneath the attack on affirmative action is the idea that not everyone is entitled to a good education. But the money is there for quality, integrated schools--in the military budget; in the bailouts going to the banks; in the taxes never paid by corporations and the extremely wealthy. Any social organization that requires children to spend their childhoods competing to see whether they'll be among the lucky few to attend the right schools isn't rational.

So at the same time that we fight for justice in college admissions--and justice means affirmative action--we should fight for more educational opportunity for all students. The rallying chant of this defense of education should be: "Black, Latino, Arab, Asian and white, rich or poor--education is a right!"

Or maybe it will be the cry that we came back to last week, over and over again: "Power to the people!"

Further Reading

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