The Myths and Realities of Affirmative Action

Today’s post comes from Rachel Christmas Derrick, a widely published writer and communications consultant specializing in socio-economic development, youth empowerment, and education. Rachel originally posted this piece on The Independent School Diversity Network’s website.

You may recall that Wendy Van Amson, one of the co-founders of The Independent School Diversity Network (ISDN), was the very first person GCP interviewed after our launch (“What Parent’s Can Do: Wendy Van Amson”, 2/11/2011). Please check out ISDN’s updated and impressive website here, where you can find lots of interesting and helpful information.

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Asians and Whites Against Blacks and Latinos?
The Myths and Realities of Affirmative Action
and College-Bound High School Students

by Rachel Christmas Derrick

A high school teacher recently gave a student a lower grade than she expected. She told him after class, “I can’t get grades like this! I’m not brown. If I was, it wouldn’t matter, but since I’m white, I won’t get into college with grades like this.”

Two close friends were discussing where they were applying. The Asian-American student said to the African-American student, “Of course you’ll get into your first choice—you’re black.”

A white mother lamented, “I didn’t know what to say to my son when he told me that a less academically gifted classmate, who’s Puerto Rican, got into a highly competitive college where my son was wait-listed.”

“Most of the white and Asian students I hear talking about affirmative action really dislike it,” Hunter College High School history teacher David Joffe says. “They rarely reference the historical or, for that matter, the current socio and political contexts that make race-based affirmative action, in my mind, still necessary. When it’s discussed in terms of increasing diversity, many white and Asian students see it as meaning fewer of them in favor of more black and Latino students. So they view it as anti-white and anti-Asian.”

These uncomfortable issues, which high schools across New York City and across the country are grappling with, were at the core of a thought-provoking discussion at a recent Hunter PTA meeting.

As at the Department of Education’s specialized high schools, the student body at Hunter is mainly Asian and white, with African-American and Latino students vastly under-represented. Of the students accepted in March 2013 into the DoE’s specialized high schools, only 5% were black and only 7% Latino. The percentages are likely even lower at Hunter. This is way out of proportion to the city’s population, which, according to the 2010 Census, weighs in at 45% white, 25% black, 28% Hispanic, and 12% Asian. (These figures add up to more than 100% because Latinos can be of any race.) The percentages of the city’s school-age black and Latino children are higher still, with white kids actually in the minority (since the white population is older).

The paucity of brown faces at Hunter and the city’s other high schools for gifted students has led more than a few children and others to conclude that African Americans and Latinos just aren’t as smart or as driven as Asian and white students. However, the truth about the disproportionately low numbers of black and Latino students at schools like Hunter, and at top independent schools, actually lies in a complicated concoction of racial, socio-economic, political, curricular, and geographic challenges.

For example, the locations of “feeder schools” play a key role in the low numbers of black and Latino students in high schools for gifted students. According to Sharon Gordon, a social worker in East and Central Harlem for many years and the former director of a Head Start program in East New York in Brooklyn, “there are very few, if any, G&T [Gifted and Talented] elementary school seats for kids in these Harlem and Brooklyn neighborhoods or in the Bronx [all predominantly black and Latino areas]. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t very smart kids from these and other schools in regular ed classrooms, but they wouldn’t get the same academic stimulation that their peers in G&T classrooms would get before applying to specialized high schools.”

Hunter parent Andy McCord explains further: “Very few school districts produce most of the students at the [gifted] high schools, including [the mainly white] 2 and 3 in Manhattan and a couple of [heavily Asian and white] districts in Queens. Some districts produce none.”

To enter Hunter, which accepts students in 7th grade only, children must leave middle school before completing their 6th through 8th grade programs. Gordon, a Hunter parent, says, “I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve worked with who might have had a chance to get into Hunter in 7th grade but the middle schools they were attending discouraged them from applying because they didn’t want to lose their high test scores for the rest of middle school!” So, along with geographic obstacles, self-serving guidance is a problem as well.

In addition, some of the brightest black and brown students, who might otherwise have gone to Hunter or the city’s specialized high schools, are drawn to the bells and whistles of independent schools. But these private schools can offer hallelujah financial aid packages to only some of the many families that can’t afford the hefty tuition.

Against this backdrop of unequal access to the city’s most stimulating academic environments, the topic for discussion at Hunter’s annual Queens PTA meeting was the myths and realities of affirmative action for college-bound Asian students.

The first speaker, the head of a college Asian-American Studies program, began by asking for a show of hands of parents who believe that being in a diverse environment is important for their children’s wellbeing and future. Several parents who raised their hands said that, to be truly successful in life, our children must learn to value and interact with people who offer different perspectives, come from different cultures, and have different backgrounds.

Quite a few parents in the mostly Asian audience, however, did not raise their hands.

The Asian-American Studies director said that she holds the often unpopular belief that, in addition to its role in increasing diversity, affirmative action is necessary because a society must right wrongs that have been done to its individuals, even if righting those wrongs doesn’t directly benefit (or doesn’t appear to benefit) all members of that society.

She reminded us that we need to teach our children that no matter how bright they are or how hard they work, they won’t always get what they want (such as admission to their first-choice college). No college is going to accept every “qualified” Hunter student because no school wants that many Hunter students. And because there are already relatively large numbers of Asian students at elite colleges, there is a great deal of competition among Hunter students for those colleges.

Therefore, she said, we must teach our children how to be resilient. We must help them (and ourselves) understand that there are amazing opportunities for our students in an array of colleges, not only at the “top” schools.

One audience member, who wasn’t buying the merits of affirmative action, brought up the “mismatch theory” mentioned in a recent New York Times article. The theory goes that when top colleges “lower their standards” to admit black and Latino students, these students struggle and/or drop out. Thus, affirmative action fails the African-American and Latino students it is intended to help as well as the “more qualified” white and Asian students who are passed over to admit those “less qualified” black and brown students.

The other speaker, an attorney for an Asian-American civil rights organization, explained that the mismatch theory has been broadly debunked, on a number of fronts. In fact, when colleges use a variety of indices to choose students to admit (instead of relying only on their grades and test scores), these schools are able to identify students who ultimately perform very well in college and beyond. Colleges select students who they think are the best fits for their incoming classes. No admissions team wants to make themselves or their college look bad by accepting students who are doomed to flounder or crash and burn.

He addressed the basic premise held by far too many people—that affirmative action is anti-white, anti-bright, and means lowering standards to admit black and Latino students. He talked about the current University of Texas case in which a white woman is claiming that she did not gain admission because of affirmative action and her race. Her case is weak, he pointed out, because there were other white applicants with similar or worse academic records who were accepted. And no one ever talks about “discrimination” or “lowering standards” when top schools give preference to children of donors, legacies (children of alumni), and athletes.

Affirmative action is not actually about lowering standards at all. Instead, it’s about new definitions of what “qualified” is. There are many ways of measuring and predicting academic success in addition to grades and test scores. The more all students explore their passions both in academic realms and beyond, the more attractive they become as candidates—and the more successful they will be as college students.

True, a white student with high grades or test scores might be turned down by a college that accepted a brown student with lower grades or test scores—but this would be due to pivotal factors such as exceptional personal essays, demonstrated leadership abilities, unusual extracurricular activities, stellar teacher recommendations, sustained community service contributions, or the student’s geographic, cultural, or socio-economic background.

By the same token, a college might accept a Finnish-, Portuguese-, and Mandarin-speaking Chinese-American student with lower test scores than a Chinese-American student who was turned down. Or they might select a nonprofit-starting, short film-making white student over a white student with higher grades.

We should not forget that there are also black and Latino students with both impressive resumes and high test scores and grades—and not just from middleclass and upper-middleclass families or in private schools. Part of what affirmative action is designed to do is to identify and attract students like these.

Among high-achieving students, no matter what their race or ethnic background, there is often a sense of entitlement: “I deserve admission to an elite college. I’ve worked hard and done well, so I’ve earned it.” When it comes to admission, however, no college owes any student anything. Schools each choose the students they wish, regardless of their number of A’s or impressive activities. There are never any guarantees, no matter how outstanding a student may seem.

“As a parent of a white senior who is getting an incredible number of waitlists from selective schools and a few acceptances so far from slightly less selective schools, the hardest thing to get my head around is how hard it is for everybody,” McCord, who also has a child at Bronx Science, says.

In the audience at the Hunter PTA meeting, the question on many minds was, How does affirmative action help top Asian students, whose high grades and test scores already make them attractive to the best colleges, and who already attend some of the top colleges in relatively large numbers? Although the meeting ended before we could delve deeply into the answer, I offer this response:

First, we need to remember how things got this way. Without the hundreds of years of free labor of the enslaved Africans who helped build this country, the United States would never have become as wealthy and powerful as it is today. To make slavery work, Africans were torn away from their homes, from those they loved, those who spoke the same languages, and those who shared the same religions, all so that they could be broken and more easily oppressed.

This early cultural annihilation and enslavement (along with the subsequent racial discrimination, segregation, public lynching and burning, and other social, psychic, and physical violence against black Americans) is directly related to the lower socio-economic status and self-esteem of most African Americans today compared to that of most immigrant groups.

Asians came and still come to this country not in chains, but as willing, hopeful immigrants believing that this is the place where they could and can forge better lives for themselves and their families. Certainly they too have faced terrible racism, from the early Chinatowns out West destroyed by fire to Japanese internment camps. But they could always draw on the support of fellow immigrants from their countries.

No matter how hostile their surroundings, Asians could be strengthened and inspired (even if secretly, at times) by the familiar languages, foods, spiritual beliefs, and customs of home. Once Chinese Americans and successive Asian groups were allowed to naturalize and immigrate with family members, their shared cultural backgrounds and cohesive communities made it easier for them to believe in and instill in their children the belief in the value of a good education as the gateway to success.

Latinos also came and continue to come as hopeful immigrants, and those who look more European have fared better in this country than those with the most African and Indian ancestry. However, most Latinos of all races have faced ethnic discrimination that has resulted in low self-esteem for many, despite their cultural pride and close-knit communities. Moreover, many still are not recognized as American by some, because of the stigma of immigration and low socio-economic status.

White people, on the other hand, particularly males, have always reaped the automatic benefits of doing nothing more than being white. Of course Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other groups have not had an easy time. But simply because they were not black, Latino, Asian, or Native American, they have always had a much better chance of making the hard work of the American Dream pay off than those who are now under-represented in the country’s best schools.

Clearly, black and brown students have been left out or pushed out of the cream of the educational crop for far too long. Yet affirmative action is not about white and Asian kids with good grades and high test scores having to selflessly step aside to right the wrongs started by past generations.

It’s not Us against Them.

Affirmative action is about leveling the playing field, so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of a more just, more equitable society, a society in which everybody feels valued, safe, and welcome to strive for better opportunities.

It’s about helping all students understand that, no matter what college they attend, the more they interact with people from varied backgrounds, the more enlightened, capable, and successful they themselves will become.

It’s about encouraging students to fortify themselves now, since, for the rest of their lives, they will also be competing with or measured against others. Like it or not, they will be judged continually for a variety of accomplishments and characteristics—whether they are in college, applying for a job, vying to rent a coveted apartment, or bidding on a house.

It’s about teaching them to broaden their perspectives, instead of falling prey to the stale belief that the sole key to a happy, prosperous future lies in attending one of the three or ten most popular schools.

At the very least, affirmative action challenges students to think creatively about how to distinguish themselves in a crowded, competitive field, a skill that will certainly serve them well throughout their lives.

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You may contact Rachel at rcderrick.nyc@gmail.com.

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