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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    ‘Color-blind’ admissions unfair

    You may have heard that the racial achievement gap in this country is shrinking.

    We’ve managed to reduce the difference between white and black students’ standardized test scores since the Civil Rights Era, but at the current rate, it could be another 50 years before black and white students share average scores.

    So why does the Supreme Court seem so convinced that “color-blindness” is upon us?

    The Court heard Schuette v. BAMN on Oct. 15, which questions the constitutionality of a Michigan voter referendum banning the consideration of race in college admissions. But given the Court’s own precedent that affirmative action programs must justify their own permissibility by demonstrating that there are “no workable race-neutral alternatives” for achieving diversity, it seems unlikely that the Court will overturn Michigan’s voter proposition. This should upset anyone in favor of justice and equal opportunity.

    In 2011, the average white student scored two grade levels above their average black or Hispanic peer in both reading and math on the NAEP, the national test used to measure educational results across state lines. In 2008, there was a 21 point gap between on-time graduation rates for black or Hispanic students and white students.

    These educational inequalities lead to lifelong inequalities in poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only one in ten white households made less than $15,000 in 2011, whereas one in every six Hispanic households and one in four black households are forced to make due with less than $15,000 a year.

    Unless you believe that these difference arise due to natural differences in work ethic or intelligence, in which case you are inarguably racist, you have to acknowledge that black and Hispanic students are significantly less likely to achieve at a level commensurate with their ability.

    Many opponents of affirmative action acknowledge this reality, but argue that the university is not the place to remedy it. We should be working to improve K-12 education for minorities, they say, but affirmative action does more damage than good by creating a “mismatch” between underprepared students and elite universities.

    “The mismatch hypothesis makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, but it has been consistently debunked in the empirical literature,” said Nolan Cabrera, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education who specializes in the study of race and racism.

    “The idea that we are hurting minority students by admitting them to universities that are beyond their academic abilities is simply a myth. It is a powerful myth because it plays into common sense misunderstandings of what affirmative action is (i.e., that a student was admitted because of his/her race). This is a stark contrast to affirmative action in reality (i.e., consideration of race and gender after identifying qualified candidates).”

    Jeffrey Milem, Ernest W. McFarland Distinguished Professor in Leadership for Education Policy and Reform and former President of the Association for the Study of Higher Education whose research was cited by Justice O’Connor in the Court’s last major affirmative action case, also said the scholarship supporting the mismatch hypothesis is small and not particularly compelling.

    “That argument assumes that the only thing that has a bearing on a student’s success is their inner characteristics,” he said.

    The mismatch hypothesis ignores adverse situations on campuses themselves. Milem cited research showing that, in the University of California system, students who transfer from community colleges because they didn’t meet initial admissions standards often outperform the wealthier, whiter populations who gain admittance as high school seniors.

    Research has consistently shown that members of underrepresented minorities are far less likely to receive interviews for employment or offers of mentorship from professors, even when they have the same qualifications as their white peers. So-called “color blind” processes unintentionally but undeniably result in discrimination against students of color. If we are truly committed to equality, we must acknowledge that these students are entitled to admissions standards that will fairly evaluate their potential.

    But in 2003, in the Grutter v. Bollinger case that represents the most recent major ruling on the issue, the Supreme Court declined to define affirmative action as a right, enshrining it in precedent instead as one valid option for universities pursuing diverse student populations as an educational goal. And while it is true that racially heterogeneous campuses lead to better outcomes among students of all ethnicities, the fact that affirmative action had to be framed by the Court in terms of its benefit to white populations is evidence of the racial privilege at play in this issue.

    The supporters of affirmative action in this case are relying on a 1982 decision, Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1, which overturned a voter referendum against busing in the struggle over integrated schools. The Court may have to overturn the precedent in Seattle in its quest against affirmative action, erasing a major milestone in the quest for racial equality and eroding the progress we’ve made over the past 50 years.

    At a more practical level, there will be an immediate decline in diversity in higher education.

    “When affirmative action was eliminated in California, Texas and Michigan, the flagship schools saw precipitous declines in minority enrollments,” said Milem. “To date, there have not been programs replacing affirmative action that have been as effective at promoting minority and female access to higher education.”

    That’s a loss for higher education that this country can hardly afford.

    Jaqui Oesterblad is a junior studying global studies, political science and Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Follow her @joesterblad.

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