Friday, June 25, 2004

"Descendants": Class Dismissed in Affirmative Action

When you look at colleges and universities today, even elite ones, you are likely to be struck by a pleasing sight of multiracial and multicultural collections of students. On the surface, institutions of higher learning have come a long way from the days of legal segregation. Sara Rimer and Karen W. Arenson of the New York Times, however, give a report that confirms what many have long suspected: the dearth of "the descendants" -- i.e., the descendants of American slaves -- at the most selective colleges in the United States.
While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard's undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard's African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them -- perhaps as many as two-thirds -- were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.

They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves. Many argue that it was students like these, disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and decades of racism, poverty and inferior schools, who were intended as principal beneficiaries of affirmative action in university admissions.

What concerned the two professors, they said, was that in the high-stakes world of admissions to the most selective colleges -- and with it, entry into the country's inner circles of power, wealth and influence -- African-American students whose families have been in America for generations were being left behind.

"I just want people to be honest enough to talk about it," Professor Gates, the Yale-educated son of a West Virginia paper-mill worker, said recently, reiterating the questions he has been raising since the black alumni weekend last fall. "What are the implications of this?"

Both Professor Gates and Professor Guinier emphasize that this is not about excluding immigrants, whom sociologists describe as a highly motivated, self-selected group. Blacks, who make up 13 percent of the United States population, are still underrepresented at Harvard and other selective colleges, they said. . . .

Professors Gates and Guinier cite various sources for their figures about Harvard's black students, including conversations with administrators and students, a recent Harvard undergraduate honors thesis based on extensive student interviews, and the "Black Guide to Life at Harvard," which surveyed 70 percent of the black undergraduates and was published last year by the Harvard Black Students Association.

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania who have been studying the achievement of minority students at 28 selective colleges and universities (including theirs, as well as Yale, Columbia, Duke and the University of California at Berkeley), found that 41 percent of the black students identified themselves as immigrants, as children of immigrants or as mixed race.

Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton sociology professor who was one of the researchers, said the black students from immigrant families and the mixed-race students represented a larger proportion of the black students than that in the black population in the United States generally. Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College, says that among 18- to 25-year-old blacks nationwide, about 9 percent describe themselves as of African or West Indian ancestry. Like the Gates and Guinier numbers, these tallies do not include foreign students.

In the 40 or so years since affirmative action began in higher education, the focus has been on increasing the numbers of black students at selective colleges, not on their family background. Professor Massey said that the admissions officials he talked to at these colleges seemed surprised by the findings about the black students. "They really didn't have a good idea of what they're getting," he said.

But few black students are surprised. Sheila Adams, a Harvard senior, was born in the South Bronx to a school security officer and a subway token seller, and her family has been in this country for generations. Ms. Adams said there were so few black students like her at Harvard that they had taken to referring to themselves as "the descendants." . . .

Mary C. Waters, the chairman of the sociology department at Harvard, who has studied West Indian immigrants, says they are initially more successful than many African-Americans for a number of reasons. Since they come from majority-black countries, they are less psychologically handicapped by the stigma of race. In addition, many arrive with higher levels of education and professional experience. And at first, they encounter less discrimination.

"You need a philosophical discussion about what are the aims of affirmative action," Professor Waters said. "If it's about getting black faces at Harvard, then you're doing fine. If it's about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then you're not doing well. And if it's about having diversity that includes African-Americans from the South or from inner-city high schools, then you're not doing well, either." . . .

In Professor Guinier's view, there are plenty of other blacks who could also succeed at elite colleges, but the institutions are not doing enough to find them. She said they were overly reliant on measures like SAT scores, which correlate strongly with family wealth and parental education.

"Colleges and universities are defaulting on their obligation to train and educate a representative group of future leaders," said Professor Guinier, a Harvard graduate herself who has been studying college admissions practices for more than a decade. "And they are excluding poor and working-class whites, not just descendants of slaves." . . .

While Harvard officials ignore the ethnic distinctions among their black students, Harvard's black undergraduates are developing a body of literature in the form of student research papers.

Aisha Haynie, the undergraduate whose senior thesis Professor Guinier cited, said her research was prompted by the reaction from her black classmates when she told them that she was not from the West Indies or Africa, but from the Carolinas. "They would say, 'No, where are you really from?'" said Ms. Haynie, 26, who earned a master's degree in public policy at Princeton and is now in medical school.

Marques J. Redd, a 20-year-old from Macon, Ga., who graduated in June and was one of the editors of Harvard's black student guide, said that Harvard officials had discouraged them from collecting the data on who the black students were.

"But we thought it was one aspect of the black experience at Harvard that should be documented," he said. "The knowledge had power. It was something that needed to be out in the open instead of something that people whispered about." ("Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?" June 24, 2004)
If colleges and universities want to, it should be possible to correct this problem, by creating a system of affirmative action that takes both race and class into account. Michael Berube, in fact, proposed one such formula, modelled ironically upon the rules of a sport once considered a ruling-class preserve -- golf:
[T]here is a way to "norm" the SAT, not only for race but for sex, income, region and level of parental education. (Every one of these variables is critical. Rural students average 998, while suburban students average 1,066. Boys outscore girls by 43 points. Most important, children of parents who have graduate degrees outscore children with parents who didn't finish high school by a staggering 272 points.) And the best way to do it is by taking a page from a sport whose country-club associations belie its deep structural commitment to redistributionist justice: golf.

Golf is proud, and rightly so, of the fact that its handicap system allows hackers to play alongside champions. And if only the SAT were as well organized and as egalitarian as the U.S.G.A., every high-school student would be assigned a handicap. We already have all the numbers we need; all we need to do is to combine "region" and "parental education" with the race-gender-class triad, and we can issue remarkably precise handicaps -- more precise even than golf handicaps, since the SAT's permit neither mulligans nor "winter rules."

The system would be complex, but certainly no more complex than the process by which every single golf course in the United States, from Pebble Beach to Van Cortlandt Park, is assigned a course rating. And it would be controversial, but no more controversial than the U.S.G.A.'s epochal decision in the mid-70's to base handicaps on 96 percent rather than 80 percent of a player's 10 best scores in the last 20 rounds. Golf traditionalists screamed that the 96 percent standard was an index of creeping socialism, sort of like a 96 percent top tax rate. They were right. And golf has been a better game because of it.

Take a black girl from rural Alabama whose parents make under $10,000 and did not graduate from high school, and put her up against the wealthy white boy from Lake Success whose parents have Ph.D.'s. Before she sets pen to paper, she could be facing an 848-point SAT deficit. If we assign her only 80 percent of the parental-education gap (217.6 points), 60 percent of the income gap (155.4 points), 30 percent of the racial gap (61.8 points), 20 percent of the regional gap (13.6 points) and 10 percent of the gender gap (4.3 points), the 452.7 point handicap will help us gauge her true talents more accurately. Fair enough, no? The reason we'd have to scale the percentages is that the various categories overlap, but I don't see any problem there -- certainly it's easier than scoring a golf match on the Stableford system.

Would there be the occasional injustice? Of course, just as there is in every round of golf and every SAT test. Because I play only 8 to 10 rounds a year, for example, it has taken me two years to expunge the horrible 94 I shot on a short, easy course in the middle of a 40-m.p.h. wind. And August's rains doubtless explain why I recently followed a sparkling 38 on the front nine with a 48 on the back. It wasn't fair, I tell you. I couldn't even get the club on the ball in that soggy rough. But I digress. The important thing is that golf -- a game, notably, in which success has long been tied to race, sex and income -- has much to teach the College Board. Thanks to golf's handicap system, I can someday fill out a foursome with Tiger, Annika and Michelle Wie, and the U.S.G.A. will give me about a stroke a hole. And that's the kind of diversity of which any campus, and any country club, can be proud. ("Testing Handicap," New York Times Magazine, September 21, 2003)
So far, Berube's proposal has found no institutional taker. While a complex handicap system is no substitute for universally excellent free education from kindergartens to graduate schools in a classless society, it seems certainly worth a try until we arrive at such a utopia, especially since the original formulae of affirmative action have become largely dismantled by legal challenges from white students who did not think they benefited from them and enlisted the assistance of right-wing law firms like the Center for Individual Rights. Berube's handicap system can give working-class whites, as well as Blacks, Latinos, and women, a stake in promoting affirmative action.

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