Rethinking Affirmative Action at Colleges

As a new case heads to the Supreme Court, it's time to admit that disparities are about more than race.

(Continued from Page 1)

That's Stuyvesant if the city stands in for "neighborhood." These days, there are only 51 black students there out of 3,300, while 72.5 percent of the student body today is Asian.

I suggested to the woman that racism in the past can leave a culture with present-day problems that only they (we) can fix. It's the kind of argument that Stanford Law School's Richard Thompson Ford made in his book The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse.

Her response was deeply eloquent in its way. She sat silently for about eight seconds, jaw set, looking past me. Then she peacefully brought up another topic. I got the message and we moved on. Ford has told me that he has elicited similarly chilly reactions at times.

Stuyvesant admits based on a test, period. So if racism is keeping black kids out, then the test is racist.

Now, there was a time when you could say to a room full of concerned black people that standardized tests are incompatible with "black" thinking. However, those were dashiki days. The Times article quotes someone black saying, "The exam is designed to exclude blacks because it's heavy on math, and black people can't do math." Whatever she meant, I read the passage twice, making sure that it really was said by a black person, and wishing that it weren't. I moved on.

Stuyvesant is making all the classic efforts to get black kids to apply. Groups of black Stuy students are sent to middle schools in black communities every year to spread the word to students about the school and the test you need to take to get into it. And the city helps, making free -- note: free -- test-prep courses available to people without much money.

So there are terribly few black students at Stuyvesant despite New York's robust black population. But how would an argument like the one from the woman I spoke to hold up -- that "racism" is why?

Not all black people would put it as straight as the woman I spoke to did, but her way of thinking is typical of a kind of shorthand that many use when thinking about race and society. When the black numbers are low, then "you know what that's all about" -- the deck is stacked against you when you're brown.

But as the chatter starts up about Fisher v. Texas, it would be a shame if the black punditocracy fell into this way of thinking once again. It makes for good conversation and good copy -- you know what that's about! -- but it leaves people behind who need better.

Example: Stuyvesant's parent coordinator says that one problem is that brown people in underserved communities often don't know about the entrance test or, more important, don't know that kids who get into Stuyvesant prepare for the test rigorously -- or about how they do it. And it's understandable that the word hasn't gotten out in black communities about such things as test prep the way it has in Beverly Hills. There isn't even any problem with saying that the cause of this contrast, historically, was racism.