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.

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It's official: The Supreme Court will be revisiting the grand old issue of affirmative action this year. Abigail Fisher, who is white, is arguing that her grades and test scores would have admitted her to the University of Texas if she were black or Latino.

The larger issue, as always, is racism. Does racism justify different admissions procedures for brown-skinned students? Interestingly, a recent story in the New York Times about Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School sheds light on an issue we will be discussing this year.

Stuyvesant is one of New York City's few top public high schools, a magnet school shunting students into Ivies. To go there is to have arrived. Forget what you might know about the low quality of a public education in New York City when it comes to Stuyvesant, which is one of the exceptions. It is what Philadelphians will liken to Masterman, St. Louisans to Parkway and so on.

But back to those "different admissions procedures" that affirmative action is about. In practice, they do not solely mean outreach efforts. Nor do they only mean giving brown students the nod when grades and scores are equal, as a kind of thumb on the scale. Almost nobody would have a problem with these things.

What gets dicey is when color is used in a way that admits brown students over white ones with better grades and scores. Many are taught that this never happens, but it's a smoke screen. At the University of Texas, since Grutter v. Bollinger allowed the use of race in a "holistic" fashion in 2003, being black or Latino has been treated as an admissions bonus, one element in one's "Personal Achievement Index."

That is, there has been a "black bonus." In the past, similar "black bonuses" -- although no one puts it that way -- have been revealed at the University of Michigan (being black adds 20 out of 100 points needed for admission), the University of California, Rutgers and other schools. This is even the second time the practice has been challenged at University of Texas.

The common idea is that these policies are necessary to counteract racism's downward pull on black aspiration. Not cross-burning racism, of course; subtler. Societal. Institutional.

The upshot: Black underrepresentation must be because of what someone, or something, else is doing.

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Here's where Stuyvesant comes in. Many years ago I had a discussion with a black woman -- educated and not given to rhetoric or friction -- who didn't understand my view that racism is no longer black people's main problem. She mentioned a New York school much like Stuyvesant and said, "I walk by there and you can just see the racism. The neighborhood is full of black kids, and there's barely a black face in the whole school."

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