Political Animal


March 29, 2013 11:59 AM Affirmative Action: Necessary But Not Sufficient

By Ed Kilgore

In all the well-justified furor over the Supreme Court’s review of voting rights and marriage equality issues, it’s easy to forget that when this term’s opinion roll out, the odds are high that the Court will strike a major blow against affirmative action programs for college admissions.

We are all familiar with the ideological dimensions of the affirmative action issues. But we have an original piece up on the website today, from Elias Vlanton, a distinguished public-school teacher in Maryland, that cuts through the hype and compellingly addresses the human element of affirmative action, and why it is an imperfect but essential way to deal with a persistently unfair and unequal landscape for college admissions. Here’s a sample:

Tramon, Morganne, Arnetta, and Anngie were all students of mine in Advanced Placement classes at Maryland’s Bladensburg High School . Bladensburg is neither a private school, nor a “we skim the cream of the crop” magnet public school. It is in one of Washington, DCs poorest suburbs, where family income ranks in the bottom quarter of the state, and a school where less than ten percent of any graduating class makes it through college.
This semester, while Morganne proudly posts videos of her next dissection and Anngie writes another long essay in French, the Supreme Court, in deciding Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, will determine whether my students deserve to attend the colleges where they are being so successful. In addition to attending a low-performing high school, my kids are all African American and Latino. They were accepted into their elite colleges as part of those schools’ commitment to the mission of promoting diversity in higher education, the very diversity that affirmative action attempts to encourage—and that Fisher seeks to declare unconstitutional….
My four freshmen—my odds-beaters—had SAT scores hundreds of points below the average of the students admitted to their colleges. They took far fewer AP courses, and participated in fewer extra-curricular activities (since our school offers few activities other than sports). What set them apart was their class rank: they were all in the top two percent of the senior class, a function of their love of learning, their desire to do well, and their hard work to rise to the top. Despite the claim that, on the merits of their applications, they were “unqualified” for admission to the schools where they are getting As and Bs, all will graduate with honors from schools that are among the best in the country—joining my former students who graduated from Bowdoin College, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Stanford University .
So Chief Justice Roberts, in the end, we agree: Discrimination is discriminatory. That is why colleges must be allowed to consider the social and economic circumstances of my students when making admissions decisions—as Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Middlebury have done. My kids don’t want a leg up; but neither do they deserve a kick in the chest.

Vlanton’s passionate essay is a reminder that while so many agonize over the “injustice” of affirmative action, our country is doing a terrible job (as Kevin Carey documented in his article in the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly) of providing anything like equal opportunity in higher education.

Yes, affirmative action programs are flawed, but not half a flawed as the “color-blind” system that will be left in place if affirmative action is discarded and something more systemic is not put in its place.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on March 29, 2013 12:17 PM:

    Today, with colleges and universities being run like coporations - for the financial benefits of the executives/administrators and the shareholders, I'm very worried.

    Why "scholarship" some poor kid, taking money out of bottom-line, when some rich @$$holes perfectly willing to pay top-dollar to have their little Biff and Buffy walk out with an elite school's name on their sheepskin?

    There is NO equality, unless there's an equality in opportunities.

    And, Meritocracy, my fat @$$ - we're now more like a Plutocracy or Oligarchy, run by wealthy Nihilists.

    And I'm afraid the only fix, might be Anarchy.

  • greennotGreen on March 29, 2013 1:16 PM:

    One reason for affirmative action is the promotion of diversity mentioned above. I attended a private university in the days before significant affirmative action or influx of international students. When I later attended a less-competitive public school, I learned so much from my class mates! I would hate for students today to lose that vital resource: the wealth of experience a diverse student population has to share.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 29, 2013 2:03 PM:

    A big problem with the affirmative action debate is the delusion that the American education system is a meritocracy. It's not. We do ourselves no favors by pretending that students succeed or fail based on merit alone. True, merit plays a little bit of a role in sorting the crop, but the more important reason why a student over here may fail while another succeeds is that he had the good/bad luck to be born to this family who lived in that school district that was/wasn't able to provide opportunities.

    In this country we have such an inequitable distribution of education based on not just race/ethnicity, but income and geography. Are we really a first-world nation who still provides quality education based on what zipcode or school district someone lives in? Or on how much money your parents earned? Or on whether a school can afford to hire quality teachers? Or on whether you know someone who knows somebody who can get your kid into the elite prep school? And, no, a LOTTERY is not an alternative way to determine who gets the goods. This is a sorry and inefficient way to identify talent in the future labor force.

    And I doubt a good portion of the anti-AA crowd is willing to lift a finger or "redistribute" one dirty penny to eliminate these inequities that make affirmative action necessary in the first place.

  • paul on March 29, 2013 4:02 PM:

    What Sgt Gym Bunny said. When we equalize funding among school districts, equalize resources available to students, set a reasonable minimum for living conditions so that students don't go to bed hungry or choose between extracurricular activities and medical care, make sure that white suburban kids are stopped by the police at the same rate as minority urban one, and so on for another couple paragraphs,

    then we can talk about how discriminatory affirmative action is. And sure, not all of it is about race; race is often a convenient proxy. So I'm perfectly willing to take, say, 1% of the income of everyone making over a million dollar a year to develop and maintain a set of sociological markers that would be more accurate than the current system (which already includes other characteristics) in figuring out who needs a leg up.

    Oh. You want to stop affirmative action and not spend a penny to put something more effective in its place? I see.

  • PTate in MN on March 29, 2013 4:31 PM:

    I would also like to point out that it would also help if Americans would stop being such incredible snobs about Ivy League colleges. Going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford or Brown--or having your child go there--is The Ultimate marker of High Status. Every movie, every TV show that wants to show that someone is bright or has arrived, has their character go to Harvard. Even in this essay, Elias Vlanton writes, "all will graduate with honors from schools that are among the best in the country—joining my former students who graduated from Bowdoin College, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Stanford University."

    Private schools, all. So Landgrant institutions don't count? Public colleges don't count?

    Parents aren't paying $$$$$ to send their kid to Harvard because they think their kid is going to get a superior education there. They are paying the big bucks to get admission to a very, very exclusive club.

    So on that day when high quality education can be delivered online at a fair price to anyone willing to do the work, then some of the angst about which college one attends will dissipate. Maybe you take your coursera course from Stanford, but everyone else can do it, too. Affirmative action will be a completely different thing in that world.

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