Last week saw college ingenuity at its finest. A State of the Union drinking game awarded points for catch phrases based on the probability of President Bush using them. In their wisdom, the game’s creators decided that any mention of “affirmative action” merited three sips, two for any reference to Martin Luther King, Jr, and six if Bush used MLK to defend his affirmative action position.
Translation: there was no way the president would touch the subject with a ten foot pole.
Unfortunately, by not bringing up affirmative action in his address and by not using the ideas of MLK to justify it, Bush didn’t just disappoing college-age drinkers across the country; he missed a golden opportunity. King identified the problem eloquently on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. He had a “dream that [his] four children [would] one day live in a nation where they [would] not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King’s message was clear: there is a definite and important distinction between one’s race and one’s personal merit. Otherwise, why would he have bothered to hope that his children would live in a world where the former had no implication for the latter? Indeed, it is precisely the conflation of the two that defines racism.
This designation of merit based simply on one’s pigmentation is at the heart of the problems surrounding the University of Michigan. A scientific formula determines who is admitted and who is rejected. 100 points are required for acceptance, and points are rewarded for different qualifications; a perfect SAT score gets 12 points, and the personal essay receives 3. But if a prospective student can tick that magic box — the one that designates him as a “minority” — he can add 20 points to his score. As a result, a minority student need only be 80 percent as qualified as a white student to gain admission.
Of course, proponents of affirmative action will often justify this disparity with a slew of pro-diversity rhetoric. They will claim, for instance, that minority students have had to face racism and other challenges that may have prevented them from achieving at the same level as their white colleagues.
If this is the justification for the “minority bonus,” Michigan has some explaining to do. In the first place, it is absurd to argue that the information relayed by a check mark could say more about an applicant than his own words. If the Michigan admissions committee had any pretense of lessening unfair disadvantages, they would give much more weight to the essay. The essay is where students are specifically asked to share information about themselves not discernible from the rest of the application (e.g., their struggles against racism).
Or they would give more weight to the high school counselor’s recommendation, which asks for school data that can easily tell an admissions officer if the student has overcome a dismal academic setting. But Michigan goes one step further: the form asks the counselor “Do you know of any socio-economic, personal, or educational disadvantage that may have impacted this student’s academic achievement?” This too is a more meaningful assessment of a student than skin color.
As if this weren’t enough, the admissions guidelines also stipulate that the committee may award up to 20 points to a student who has endured either personal or educational disadvantage. No student, however, may receive points for being both an underrepresented minority and a disadvantaged student. By having these two separate categories, Michigan is admitting that there is not necessarily any connection between minority status and disadvantage. Furthermore, because the university refuses to award points in both categories, the policy suggests that even if there is an overlap, it doesn’t matter. Just being a minority is good enough.
By assigning the essay three points, the counselor form five and the magic race box 20, Michigan sends a clear message: an applicant’s qualifications depend far more on an admissions officer’s assumptions about his race than what the applicant deems important about his own experience, or how a counselor assesses his achievements and character. Morever, by separating race points from disadvantage points, Michigan concedes that there is something about race — just skin color, pure and simple — that affects an individual’s qualifications. Isn’t it precisely this kind of race-based preconception that leftists and minority activists have railed against for decades?
Defenders of affirmative action will also argue that the presence of minorities is essential to a quality education. Any truly educated person, they say, must be exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking. The pro-affirmative action camp will point out that since America is a diverse nation and that students will thus have to work and identify with people of all races after graduation, exposure to minorities should be an integral part of a student’s education.
If this is the reasoning for affirmative action, its supporters are in for a rude awakening: 82 percent of “real world” America is white, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Yet while only 18 percent of the U.S. population is composed of ethnic minorities, many universities tout “high minority enrollment rates” — 35 percent at Michigan, 30 percent in Yale College. If anything, such an aggressive approach to favoring racial minorities in the admissions process provides a skewed view of post-graduate life, not a more realistic one.
Another common claim is that affirmative action is necessary to redress the past discrimination and wrongs which have kept minorities out of selective institutions. Affirmative action, they argue, is the best way to combat racism and make sure that discrimination has no factor in determining the outcome of a minority application.
This is also problematic. If affirmative action is being used to fix the problems of the past, then for the fairness of debate, we should call it by its proper name: reparations (another issue entirely). Furthermore, where does this system of apologetic advancement stop? Preparatory schools, colleges, graduate schools, and professional organizations all offer affirmative action — it is entirely possible for one person to have the same history of discrimination alleviated four (or more) times during the course of his career. Because as long as institutions consider the check in the color box as having some inherent value, without looking at the personal circumstances that go with it, skin color will always be seen as an integral part of one’s qualifications and character.
And this is precisely the kind of society King wanted to avoid. No popular (or possible) justification for affirmative action yields a convincing argument showing how these policies are not racist. For in each, the color of a man’s skin is considered independently of — and is given greater weight than — his personal circumstances or, as King put, “the content of his character.”
If Yale students take some solace in the fact that the University does not employ a cold admissions formula like Michigan, they should think again. It is true that Yale, while it gives racial preferences to minority applicants, promotes racism in a less blatant numerical form than Michigan. But now that Yale’s general counsel has announced the University’s intention to file a brief supporting Michigan in its upcoming Supreme Court battle, the University’s position is unambiguous: Yale believes in judging young men and women on the basis of race.
It’s a telling stain on a university that claims to be so tolerant and anti-racist. It’s an ironic stain on a university that honors Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as distinctly more important than any other federal holiday, including Veterans Day. And it’s a shameful stain on an institution that claims to lead in the 21st century — when Yale is blind to (and indeed, furthering) the racism that King identified and decried 40 years ago.
With affirmative action occupying such a prominent role, Yale’s course is clear: it’s a stain that must be cleansed, and now.
Meghan Clyne is a senior in Branford College.