As a scholar of race and education, I am enjoying the national public debate over affirmative action. Like any professor who discusses race in their classrooms and publishes on race, I simply enjoy when we discuss race in public.
With the Michigan appellate court striking down the state’s ban on affirmative action in mid-November, the discussion, or the debate rather, will only continue — a continuing debate of race that is healthy for America.
During this debate, I have felt like that brother who becomes excited every time he sees his sibling reading since he is notoriously averse to non-fiction books. However, whenever I look down and read the fine print of the affirmative action discussions, my excitement turns to concern, like the brother when he walks over, looks down, and sees the title of his sibling’s novel. Is that the only thing he likes to read? What about something non-fiction?
The title of our affirmative action novel reads: “Racial Preferences in Admissions for Blacks — Good or Bad.” Is that the only discussion we like to have? What about something based wholly on reality?
Many of the supporters and virtually all of the opponents of affirmative action fail to discuss racial preferences for Whites. Both sides presuppose that, with affirmative action in place, Blacks have more racial preferences in admissions than Whites. That is the faulty premise loudly powering the engine of the debate. That is the fiction we have all been reading.
Let’s define racial preference. A conservative website seeking to “stop the divisive emphasis on race” defines it as the granting of “favorable treatment on the basis of race.” I will use this definition. When there are “racial preferences” in the admissions process, a student is more likely to receive “favorable treatment” due to the color of his or her skin. I say more than likely because, as we all know, thousands of Blacks every year are rejected from colleges who use affirmative action policies.
So is it really true? Does affirmative action really give Blacks more racial preferences in admissions than whites? Is it really better to be Black than White when applying for a college that uses affirmative action?
The fact that we even have to ask these questions and debate the answers demonstrates the invisibility of White privilege, demonstrates we have taken White preferences for granted in the 21st century, demonstrates we are severely colorblind to racism.
The sad truth is Whites receive more racial preferences in admissions than Blacks, which is why they are over-represented in higher education. Why else would they be over-represented, particularly at the highly selected institutions? Why else would there be a racial achievement gap?
I am sure some would argue Whites are naturally superior students, not they receive favorable treatment in the K-12 system (and the admissions process). But that is a racist argument.
So is the K-12 system racist? Do White students receive “favorable treatment” in the K-12 system?
I can sit here and provide you with all of the facts that validate the racial inequality in the K-12 system. But no matter what statistics I provide, some Americans are so blind to racism and reality in education they will never concede its existence. Other people would argue it is not racial inequality but class inequality. Then, when you show them the data on the racial achievement gap within classes, they either concede racism in education or fall back on racist beliefs, saying those middle-class Blacks need to work as hard as their White peers.
It is indisputable there is racism in the K-12 system, which is why the opponents of affirmative action have adroitly separated K-12 racism from the college admissions process. And many of the supporters and sensible observers seeking truth and racial justice whatever the outcome have followed suit only to be cut by the spade of reality.
But how can we talk about racial preferences in admissions without talking about the favorable treatment Whites receive in K-12? How can we say Blacks receive more favorable treatment on the admissions test, all the while knowing Whites receive significantly more favorable treatment in preparing for the test in K-12? How long will we debate whether a small curve for one group is good while ignoring the inferior preparation that same group has received?
The minor racial preference for Blacks not only supplements for the major racial preferences for Whites in K-12 preparation, but the major racial preferences for Whites in the chief admissions considerations. Yes, Blacks receive a small curve from affirmative action. But Whites receive a larger one through the major so-called race-neutral admissions factors.
In my previous blog, I discussed how the SAT is biased against Blacks. It is far from race-neutral. Let me give another obvious example of this truth. A student’s performance on college prep courses is now the number one consideration in the admissions decision. An AP Report to the Nation released earlier this year by the College Board found that 79.7 percent of Black students (compared to 61.6 percent of Whites) from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course did not take one because they were either left out, or their school did not offer those courses.
I am sure some would sensibly say K-12 and the major admissions factors are not intended to give racial preferences to Whites (like affirmative action does for Blacks), even though their outcome is racial inequality. In response, I would sensibly say the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 did not order racial preferences to Whites. The case handed down the doctrine — “separate but equal.” And what was the intention, the outcome, despite the rhetoric of equality — separate but unequal.
Despite the fiction we are reading, we are believing, at least we are talking about race. Like the brother may walk away thinking after seeing the novel’s title, at least my brother is reading a book.
Hopefully the fiction may one day lead to non-fiction. Hopefully, our fictitious conversations may lead one day to a real and constructive national public conversation on affirmative action and who really receives the racial preferences in college admissions. Because, it is not Black people.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.