In latest debate over affirmative action in Texas, we’re still not hearing enough about how the experience of being a person of color changes who a student is, in a way schools should be proud to consider in admissions decisions.
Here we go again. The Supreme Court is back in session, and affirmative action is on the docket for a second time within the past 10 years. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, will certainly revisit many of the arguments made in the 2003 Michigan Law School case where the court narrowly decided that race can be a factor in college admissions. One side will argue that it is unfair to admit “less qualified” students simply based on their race, and the other will discuss the value of diversity. We’ll hear how economic affirmative action makes more sense (it doesn’t) and how we really need to focus on changing the educational system (we do).
Inevitably, opponents will even cite Martin Luther King Jr.’s wish that Americans be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” as an argument that admissions should be colorblind. Here’s what no one ever says (even supporters): The experience of being a person of color can have everything to do with one’s character, and that’s OK. Being a member of a racial minority group shapes us in challenging, wonderful, and complicated ways that colleges and universities should be proud to consider.
This latest case might have been summed up best by the words of Professor Gary Orfield of the University of California at Los Angeles: “we’re going to be making decisions about the whole country based on the application of one white woman to one campus.” Every time a white student brings their college rejection letter all the way to the Supreme Court, it’s with the earnest belief that they could not have been passed up because they weren’t the right candidate, but because race is an invalid measure of an application’s strength. They don’t stop to think that they were passed up for a student athlete, a legacy student, or some kid who might have a lower SAT score, but happens to be an accomplished violinist. It’s because society can accept these as factors to value, but race seems arbitrary and unfair (as if being born to Harvard parents was the result of hard work and determination).
Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that race affects a person’s character? That looking at the world through race-tinted glasses isn’t always a bad thing? Barack Obama describes struggling with his identity in his book Dreams From My Father. Ultimately, his blackness shaped his worldview, brought him to the South side of Chicago as an organizer, and has helped him connect with communities who never saw the White House as belonging to them too. Condoleeza Rice has often brought up her childhood friendship with one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church as shaping her, and how the image of her friend “Denise with the dolls will always be near and dear to my heart.” And to claim that race does not shape a person’s character is to ignore the works of Maya Angelou.
We’re told, however, when it comes to admissions, it’s insulting to have our race considered as a factor. When I applied to Princeton University for graduate school, I had no problem indicating my race, and it was probably a factor in my admissions. I don’t find that insulting, but the point. I excelled, graduated, and now work on revitalizing low-income communities. My race was not only a factor in my admissions, it was a factor in why I applied. It was the center of my personal statement and why I do the work I do. How can we pretend that being a black woman from Oakland has in no way shaped my decisions?
Even those who uphold affirmative action, often do so without fully valuing the experiences that come from being a person of color. In her 2003 opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor eloquently stated the need to spread education and that diversity is worth considering, but concluded that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today” as if diversity and race will no longer be significant to our lives. Perhaps she is right that the weight given to race as a factor will change, but the idea that it should no longer be a factor only acknowledges the regret that many “supporters” feel in defending the practice. Or as Justice Kennedy put it, affirmative action is just something that should be “allowed as a last resort.”
Having to ponder, experience, and face the consequences of being a person of color shapes you in ways that no activity you simply sign up for can. From a young age, children of color are confronted by issues of race and are presented with a full picture of the world that many white children are not exposed to and don’t fully understand. And coming from the middle class does not erase the effects of race as many would like to think. A 2003 study by Princeton Professor Devah Pager underscores this point when she revealed that “black men without a criminal record are as likely to get a call back for a job as white men with one.”
To clarify, I don’t think someone should be admitted to school solely based on their race. I think that a strong candidate should demonstrate a hunger to learn, the potential to handle the academic rigor they are pursuing, will take full advantage of what the school has to offer, and will add something unique to the student body. I do think, though, that just as a number of non-academic factors are considered in admissions, race is not only a legitimate factor to consider, but indicates a student who has had to think critically about the world and her place in it.
True diversity means valuing different perspectives, but also acknowledging that these perspectives are essential to ensuring that our institutions progress and don’t just cater to a majority. I hope the Supreme Court follows precedent and upholds affirmative action as an admissions practice, but I also hope we can get to a place where we aren’t afraid of our differences, but value them for what they are.
Tracey Ross is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and completed her Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University. Her writing focuses on women, race, and urban policy, and has been featured in Racialicious, Next American City, and The Hairpin.