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Barack Obama and Affirmative Action



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The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted an e-mail interview with Barack Obama about higher education issues:  There are two Q+A’s dealing with affirmative action, which I’ve set out below, along with my comments (in italics).

Q. You have called yourself a firm believer in affirmative action. How big a role should race play in college-admissions decisions, and why? How much should socioeconomic status factor in to those decisions, and why?

A. Diversity enriches education. As America grows more diverse, it is essential that students be exposed to diversity in all its forms and learn how to effectively communicate, collaborate, and compete with people of all backgrounds.  [The real question is not whether diversity enriches education, but whether guaranteeing it is so important that it justifies racial discrimination.   It is very unlikely that the use of racial preferences is the only way that we can learn how to “communicate, collaborate, and compete with people of all backgrounds”; more specifically, it is unlikely that any marginal benefits in learning that message will outweigh the myriad social and human costs of such discrimination.] 

Some measures traditionally used to determine college admissions—such as college entrance exam scores—might not necessarily be the best predictors of college success, placing some very talented students at a disadvantage. [Obama quickly moves even further away from the issue of racial preference.  There is no evidence that the SAT, for instance, is racially biased against African Americans, so students who would benefit from it being afforded less weight come in all colors.]

One of this year’s MacArthur awardees—the “genius” awards—is an innovator named Deborah Bial. She proposed a model to identify promising students from disadvantaged urban backgrounds, using an alternative set of qualities as predictors of success in college. [“Disadvantaged urban backgrounds” does not equal race.  There are more poor whites in the U.S. than poor blacks; the overwhelming majority of blacks who benefit from admission preferences into selective schools come from middle-class or upper-class backgrounds.]

Candidates for this program are selected using a process based on qualities such as leadership, motivation, teamwork, and ability to effectively communicate. The students that are selected form a “posse,” and are provided with extra supports, and end up graduating form selective colleges with a very high success rate. [Assuming arguendo that this program is any good, we are still not talking about racial preferences, are we?]

This shows the validity of using less-recognized skills as indicators of likely educational success. And this would probably be considered affirmative action, by specifically choosing students from less-advantaged backgrounds. But maybe it just shows that the playing ground, using traditional metrics for college admission, is unacceptably uneven.  [No, it would probably NOT “be considered affirmative action,” if the program is open to students without regard to race, but based instead on socioeconomic status.  And Sen. Obama knows it.]

When properly structured, affirmative action programs can open up opportunities to qualified minorities—and can do so without diminishing opportunities for white students. Given the dearth of black and Latino Ph.D. candidates in mathematics and the sciences, for example, a scholarship program for minorities interested in getting advanced degrees in these fields won’t keep white students out of such programs but can broaden the pool of talent that we need to prosper in the new economy.  [It is dishonest to suggest that a program can provide preference on the basis of race and not hurt those who are not given the preference.  A racially exclusive scholarship might not “keep white students out” of a school, but it still discriminates against them.  Suppose the shoe were on the other foot:  Could a whites-only scholarship be defended as not keeping African American students out?  And, by the way, if we are trying to “broaden the pool of talent that we need to prosper in the new economy,” why should we care about the skin color of those we are adding to the pool?  A bigger pool is a bigger pool.]

We shouldn’t ignore that race continues to matter: To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in the socioeconomic disparities that we often observe turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience—and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right.  [Notice how we are no longer talking about how “Diversity enriches higher education.”  Few people really believe that diversity justifies preferences; the gut appeal was, is, and always will be that historical discrimination against African Americans now somehow justifies discrimination in their favor.  But, as a legal matter, the Supreme Court has rejected this rationale, as Sen. Obama knows; and, as a policy matter, it makes no sense to point to poor blacks as a reason for giving preferences to rich blacks over poor whites.  (By the way, in 2007, “racial attitudes” are much less a cause of “socioeconomic disparities” than illegitimacy rates are.)]

The very question suggests this is an either/or thing—either you want to increase opportunities for racial minorities or you want to increase opportunities for poor students of all races. I reject this. We can—and should—do both.  [Well, I suppose it is possible to do both--to give preferences to all “ racial minorities,” rich and poor (so long as they aren’t Asian, of course), AND to all “poor students,” regardless of race.  But (a) as a practical and historical matter, the poor white/Asian is likely to be treated worse than the rich black/Latino, and (b) in any event, the nonpoor whites/Asians are now being discriminated against on account of both race and income, and we still have no persuasive justification for, especially, the former (i.e., racial) discrimination. ]

We should work to build an America where the qualified white student from rural South Carolina who worked hard to beat the odds and the qualified black student from the South Side of Chicago who did the same can attend classes together, learn from each other, teach their classmates a thing or two and vice versa, and together go off into the world prepared for a diverse workforce.  [They may each be “qualified”--but is each “the best qualified,” or did others better qualified get passed over on account of skin color?  If so, those persons have been denied, on the basis of race, the opportunity to “attend classes together, learn from each other, [and] teach their classmates a thing or two and vice versa.”  They may, however, be better “prepared for a diverse workforce,” since likely they will face this sort of politically correct discrimination there, too–and President Obama’s civil-rights agencies will, you can rest assured, turn a blind eye to it.]

Q. On the same subject, you said in an ABC interview that your daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as people who are “pretty advantaged.” What did you mean by that? Should an applicant’s race play a role in whether he or she is admitted to a college if that person is from a middle- or upper-income background? Please explain.

A. My daughters are the children of a very talented and accomplished woman, and of a U.S. Senator. They are growing up in a neighborhood which provides the benefits of one of our nation’s great universities. They attend an excellent school. That seems pretty advantaged to me.  [No argument from me here, and I also appreciate the distinction drawn between being “talented and accomplished” and being a “U.S. Senator.”]

I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities.   [That’s good, but unfortunately a black is a black is black to many admission officers.  According to the very pro-preference book The Shape of the River (page 49)  by William Bowen and Derek Bok, 86 percent of the African Americans admitted to selective colleges in the authors’ database come from upper- or middle- class backgrounds, versus only 14 percent from “low” socioeconomic status.]

I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed. So I don’t think those concepts are mutually exclusive.  [What concepts? Is he saying that preferences should be given to poor whites AND rich blacks?  How convenient!] 

I think what we can say is that in our society race and class still intersect, that there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first-generation as opposed to fifth- or sixth-generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together [as we can] to help build this country.  [Again, we are clearly no longer talking about the “educational benefits” of diversity; we are talking about payback for historical discrimination.  There is no legal justification for such preferences, and while there may be “a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling,” there are many white and Asian kids like that, too--and it makes no policy or moral sense to discriminate against them, especially when the beneficiaries are likely to be African American kids who are not struggling at all.  Finally, racial discrimination is a puzzling way to be “bringing as many people together [as we can] to help build this country.”]


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