Letters

Readers react to articles on Monday's Supreme Court decision and the ever contentious debate over affirmative action.


Salon Staff
June 27, 2003 12:37AM (UTC)

[Read "Right Ruling, Wrong Reason," by Joan Walsh, and "A Difficult, Divisive Issue," by Laura McClure and Mark Follman.]

The article by Joan Walsh was a well-reasoned assessment of the recent Supreme Court decision. But I think she relies heavily on a few premises that fail under closer scrutiny.

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For instance, she neglects the inherent racial biases that persist in standardized testing and the generally inferior state of public schooling in minority communities. If a student from one of those schools strives to the same level as a student of similar aptitude at a better school, it is possible the level of achievement will not be equal, given the disparity in resources and learning opportunities. She also fails to look at the larger educational benefits accrued from a diverse student body, which besides simply improving leadership skills and getting along with others (two goals I would call important), also builds citizens who are well-rounded and who understand the complexities that exist in diverse communities -- by introducing them to disparate opinions and ideologies that can broaden the scope of their knowledge and understanding. Would we really want lawyers who are taught within a relatively homogenized environment, where the law is seen only through the eyes of the majority?

Walsh also argues that if affirmative action is "evasive or dissembling," thereby requiring a more gray than black-and-white execution, we should scrap the system altogether. But a similar argument could be used for almost all social programs, which rarely present themselves as clean, neat systems.

Finally, I have to ask why affirmative action is a "necessary evil." I understand the unfortunate byproducts of its use, but to call it an "evil" seems excessive, as its general purpose is to mitigate the evil of past racism, and of racism that persists even today.

-- Richard Van Heertum

Joan Walsh's contention that white students should be ready and willing to sacrifice some of the educational advantages inequitably enjoyed by us as a result of historical and present racism is exemplary, except for one glaring omission: What about the extraordinary, codified "affirmative action" historically and presently enjoyed by rich and upper-middle-class white children of alumni? (George W. Bush, being but one example.) What about the near total lack of advice and assistance in understanding the college admissions process, scholarship applications, etc., that is faced by every would-be student from a poor family, from which no members have ever gone to college, whether white, African-American, Asian or Latino?

As the first member of my family to attend college, I remember the following conversation with a fellow student in my freshman year, a white girl from a very wealthy family:

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"I hate affirmative action! It's so unfair!" she said. "The only kid in my senior class who got into Georgetown was the black guy."

I said, "He was the only African-American in your class?" She said he was, so I asked her, "So what did you do?"

"Oh, Daddy went to Northwestern. So he called them up and I got in after the application deadline."

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Stunned, I said, "You don't think of that as a quota system?"

"No way! Daddy's given them a lot of money over the years; we've got a right to get something back. They owe us."

Well, they owe us poor people, too. Maybe even as much as they owe minorities.

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-- Ellen Lingar

Here we go again -- yet another round in the fight over affirmative action that completely misses the point. Why is it that whenever this issue comes up no one ever addresses the question of why so few black and Hispanic students are able to compete on their own merits in the first place?

Racial preference in higher education is a tonic for white guilt. It does absolutely nothing to address the inequities that underprivileged kids of all colors suffer through the 12 years of school that precede college.

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I live in California and voted for Prop. 209, mostly on ideological grounds, but also in hopes that its passage would force this state to trace the issue of minority preparedness back to its source. No such luck.

Using race as a proxy for privilege (or the lack thereof) will only prolong its use as a proxy for competence.

-- Bob Fesmire

I agree with Joan Walsh's argument that "diversity" can often be a feel-good way of dodging difficult questions about race, class and opportunity in America. However, I disagree with her argument that we really ought to worry more about the white and Asian aspirants to higher education and professional school whom Walsh claims are necessarily disadvantaged by affirmative action. Racial preferences are still required in higher education because we as a society are unwilling to address the root causes of inequality, which are to be found in our shameful system of K-12 schools.

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I would argue that white and Asian applicants have generally already reaped 13 years of a higher-quality public education before applying for college education than their African-American and Latino peers. Thus, we should expect that their grades and test scores (like their graduation rates) should be higher. Affirmative action is a weak 11th-hour remedy to right a wrong of this magnitude, but right now the American public and its feckless political leaders are unwilling to consider other alternatives.

-- Ann Little

Joan Walsh says she supports the continuation of affirmative action (meaning racial preferences) not because of the nebulous and unproven benefits of "diversity," but to "right the wrongs of hundreds of years of racism." If so, will she renounce affirmative action for underrepresented groups who were never subject to these vicissitudes?

Hispanics have just surpassed blacks as the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. So why should Hispanics receive preference over Asians in college admissions?

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-- Dave Touretzky

Regarding the debate on affirmative action in higher education, I am reminded of the same debate that flares up every few years at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. For decades Virginia has taken race into account when admitting students. Despite a disparity in SAT scores between white and black students when they enter, all students graduate from Virginia at the same statistically indistinguishable rate (87-92%), regardless of race or admissions SAT score. Numerous elite universities, including Washington University, Vanderbilt, Harvard and Brown also graduate black and white students at virtually identical rates, while admitting black students that John McWhorter would describe as sub-par.

Once the field is leveled, it is possible for all to flourish. High school achievement, as measured by SAT scores, is not a predictor of graduation rate or graduating GPA several years later. Likewise, undergraduate GPA is no predictor of future professional success. SAT and GPA measures, however, are the primary statistics cited as proof of the inferiority of black applicants to whites. And let's be honest, when John McWhorter and others say blacks are admitted "under the bar" set for whites, they are talking about the inferiority of black applicants to whites. The graduation rates of blacks at these top schools say otherwise.

On the other hand, family income and zip code correlate very strongly with high school GPA and SAT scores. If students are to be admitted based solely on grades and test scores, then we should start sorting applications by ZIP code to save ourselves time. Or just ask what daddy's salary is to quickly eliminate all those inferior applicants that are "under the bar." To focus solely on test scores and GPA as a measure of the academic potential of an applicant is dangerously misinformed and narrow-minded at best.

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-- David Manka

The Supreme Court tried to compromise on an issue that allows for no sensible compromise. Either racial discrimination in college admissions is legal or it is not. In a bit of patented nonsense, the justices held that it is legal unless a college does too much of it, whereupon it becomes illegal.

The court's decision does not matter all that much in the practice of affirmative action at colleges, however relieved administrators sound today. Even if the court had handed down a clear repudiation of such practices, most colleges would have continued to give preferences to minorities under the table, as became the practice at Berkeley, for example, immediately after the passage of Prop. 209.

The very concept of law is crumbling in our generation. Can an amendment to the Constitution be tossed aside whenever the government thinks it has a compelling interest in doing so? What lunacy will proponents of affirmative action not call down on us? Should the government suppress free speech when it thinks there is a compelling public interest? What meaning do laws have unless the courts uphold them?

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Joan Walsh is right about this much: The Supreme Court is living in a fantasy world.

-- Michael Clark


Salon Staff

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