Rethinking Affirmative Action at Colleges


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.

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."


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.


But not of the kind that you can supposedly just "see" in broad daylight as you walk by Stuyvesant in 2012. Everybody there wants more black kids to come. New York City's Department of Education wants more black kids to go there. No one, and nothing, is working to conceal from people of color information about tests and how to take them.

As such, treating racism as the problem in cases like this helps no one. Rather, in 2012 there is an information problem regarding how to make the best effort to get into Stuyvesant. That's a problem more easily solved than waiting for a society where no one perceives race at all, or even where all races face the exact same hurdles.


Stuyvesant is a microcosm for the larger issue: It does nothing for black people to treat racism as the most interesting reason that not as many black students qualify for top universities as we'd like. Getting the word out to black parents about how to make their kids top students is just as important, as the Minority Student Achievement Network has found.

This just in: A report in the New York Times this week reveals that this year there were 51 black students admitted to Stuyvesant, compared with just 36 in 2009. Overall, this year, 730 black and Latino students have been admitted to the eight super-selective high schools in New York, 14 percent more than last year. It shows that we can start getting where we want to be on our own steam. After all, who would say that institutional racism is 14 percent less pernicious in New York now than it was a year ago?


Are we as interested in the day when black kids don’t need a bonus as much as we're interested in showing how racism makes them need one? Do we really find identifying racism sexier than teaching ourselves how to get past it?

John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.