Part II: What’s So Bad About Race-Based Affirmative Action?

Michael J. Strickland is a senior at the University of Michigan in the class of 2019. He is also an officer of the University of Michigan Black Student Union. Michael is a passionate civil rights advocate who has recently completed a Research and Policy internship at a government relations shop in Washington, DC. The first installment of this piece can be found here.

In part one, I discussed some of the public misperceptions behind the recent repeal of race-based affirmative action guidelines by the Trump administration. In our country’s effort to promote universal fairness, we have entered a period in which some white people are confidently asserting that the college admissions process unfairly favors blacks. In this alternative reality, any effort to level the playing field for black people on the basis of race is viewed as an unfair act of discrimination. This deliberately ignores the ways in which college admissions remains, as it has always been heavily favorable to white Americans. In my view, race-based affirmative action, especially the limited manner in which it can be legally applied today does not come close to remedying the imbedded racial imbalances in higher education.

Given the general criteria used in college admissions biases resulting from the effects of social and economic-based disparity are already baked into the process and black Americans are disproportionately affected by these factors. Take the SAT an example. The SAT is routinely used by admissions officers but it favors students from wealthy families who on average consistently outperform students from other income categories. In fact, there is a gradual increase of about 40 points (avg.) on the SAT for every $20,000 in incremental income earned. If this test so heavily favors the wealthy then why is the SAT still used in college admissions?

Additionally, families with wealth have the outsized ability to donate large sums of money to a university with the unwritten expectation their child will be admitted. This is not an uncommon practice. Just ask Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who was accepted to Harvard after a multimillion-dollar pledge by his father. How is this fair to the students from low income or even middle-income households? And, why wasn’t Abigail Fisher as concerned by these students from the wealthy elite who were admitted at the Univ. of Texas instead of her? These wealthy students were also admitted in her place and not because they were black but because they had more economic privilege.

And yes, to answer the questions likely to be brewing about how I am conflating race and socioeconomic status in my arguments here. Yes, I am aware that there are millions of low-income white applicants who face hardships when applying for colleges and Abigail Fisher is one of those students. However, according to a 2017 Census Bureau study the average black family earns only $5.04 for every $100 a white family earns. Additionally, poor whites are far less likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods as compared to black Americans. In fact, only 7% of poor whites live in poor neighborhoods compared to 23% of poor blacks. To anyone with a basic understanding of America’s racial history these should not be a surprising statistics, (there has been employment discrimination, educational discrimination, as well as limited access to other institutions and resources for black Americans — the list goes on). And for those reading that are less familiar with America’s racial history there is an abundance of research discussing the lingering effects of slavery and its role in the development of systemic economic strife in the black community.

Our country and economy unfortunately still suffer from the burdens of slavery and decades of subsequent oppression of black people. So when it comes to addressing issues of systemic racial biases lodged within the college admissions process we cannot have a meaningful discussion about disparities in opportunity and at the same time ignore the blatant intersectionality of this country’s socio-economic divides. It’s just common sense.

I mean, of course, there are white people that suffer the consequences of being poor in America, and of course, there are black people who benefit from the privileges of being upper middle-class or higher. However, the reality is that black people are disproportionately harmed by policies and practices that favor the wealthy because widespread wealth in the black community for the most part is just plain fantasy.

Between the persistent and intersectional nature of wealth and whiteness and the influence of network effects, it is my belief that the advantages provided to white students are too numerous to count. In spite of the historic Brown v. Board decision educational experiences for black students have continued to be substantially separate and unequal. According to the U.S. Department of Education nearly two-thirds of all public school students attend schools where the predominant racial group matches their own race or ethnicity. Additionally, 44.1% of black students go to a mostly black school despite only making up 15.5% of the U.S. public school population and most of these schools are located in major cities and are funded well below schools in their neighboring suburban districts. This modern-day racial segregation is further reinforced by a private schools system which also favors families with high socioeconomic standing and here again, they are overwhelmingly white.

We, as citizens of this county cannot be passive as this administration urges universities to abolish the consideration of race in college admissions. Personally, I don’t think it is even possible for an admissions team to be race-blind and at the same time conduct a holistic evaluation of its applicant pool. Perhaps one day if America actually lives up to its founding principles of equal opportunity or if our education system invests in supporting the best interests of every student then maybe a case could be made to do away with race-based affirmative action. This is not the world we live in today and therefore without significant guidance on how to navigate the use of race in admission, we will stifle our chance to create an all-inclusive society where upward economic mobility is attainable for everyone regardless of their race or class. As a society, we must ask ourselves if we are content to have this shot at improved access and opportunity taken away. Hasn’t the Trump Administration taken enough from us?