I’m Jane Coaston. This is “The Argument.” Last week, I called up my colleague, friend, and fellow sports aficionado, Jay Caspian Kang.
What’s your sense of all this Bengals stuff?
It feels incorrect.
Seeing Bengals Super Bowl stuff, obviously, I want to get something, but I’m like, I feel like wearing it will break it.
When he’s not helping me sort through my complicated feelings about the Cincinnati Bengals going to the Super Bowl— a sentence that feels wrong, somehow— Jay is a writer at Times Opinion and at the Times Magazine. And lately, he’s been writing a lot about affirmative action in college admissions. It’s a topic that’s been in the news a lot lately because the Supreme Court just agreed to hear two big cases that could spell the end of race conscious admissions policies that go back to the Civil Rights era. Whether or not affirmative action is the right way to make college more equitable is a big debate, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to have on this show for a while now.
If we believe that all these practices are just to make the campus a better place, then I think that’s fine. You can make those arguments. I just think that we shouldn’t make these arguments that these are somehow like massive, restorative, social justice programs at this point.
So I think you and I are both pretty invested in these questions for personal reasons. As long and short time listeners of the show know I went to Michigan, and I remember thinking a lot about my presence at Michigan and the role that affirmative action may have played or more accurately is perceived to have played in how I got there. It was this weird thing I felt like I was always kind of operating against unintentionally and intentionally. And I’m curious for you as to your own college experience of how affirmative action played into that college experience or how you thought about it at all?
Yeah, I mean, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have gotten into— the school I got in to into Bowdoin were it not for some sort of racial awareness whatever you want to call it in the admissions committee. I mean, there are almost no non-white people at Bowdoin when I was a freshman in 1998. But I think that if you’re Asian at those schools at sort of elite schools, you don’t really think about it as much even if you objectively can say, hey, I did this. I’m here because of affirmative action. And I think that’s mostly because society and your fellow students don’t actually think of it that way, right? They assume that you did better. And so if the truth is the opposite, they don’t know. I think that I would have had a better college experience if the school had been more diverse. I agree with all that.
So I’m about to have this conversation about the pros and cons of affirmative action and what affirmative action even means. And so I thought, who better to give me the lay of the land than you, the person who just been writing about this. So the Supreme Court just agreed to hear these two big cases against Harvard and University of North Carolina. I know these are complicated lawsuits about affirmative action, but briefly can you explain what they’re about?
It sort of depends how the court decides to hear them. But the original case from Harvard is this guy, Ed Blum, who is behind a lot of conservative activism. I don’t know how to exactly describe him, but I’ve always said he’s sort of a conservative legal activist. He’s a private citizen who gets together money and legal resources. You know, his obsession for his life has been to go after race based preferences. And his first big thing attack on this was against the Voting Rights Act. Holder versus Shelby County was his doing.
This is something that sort of guts the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Leads to a lot of the problems that we see today with voting rights, a lot of the questions we have about voting rights. And then he sort of switches over to affirmative action. He starts to go around to Asian-American community groups and starts to ask them, hey, would you like to participate in this lawsuit against all these different schools? He starts this group called Students for Fair Admissions. And Students for Fair Admissions sort of blankets the country with lawsuits, claiming discrimination against Asian students, some against white students, but mostly, just sort of bringing into question affirmative action.
I think that something I’m really struck by, and you’ve written about this, is that one of the biggest things that Harvard is being criticized for, I think, rightfully, is their use of personality scores and ranking Asian kids lower on the scale of personality including subjective traits, like likability and courage and positive personality, which one— let’s just say that the likeability scores, and a lot of people I went to college with, arguable, real arguable. It’s this weird backdoor racial ranking. What did you think about that when you first saw that because you’ve written about it in your newsletter?
It didn’t really hit home to me until I went to the trial. Right, so this trial went on in 2019. And I spent like a month in Boston basically going to all these court proceedings and reading all of the documents. So the way that they describe it is just like, well, if these people are up late at night talking in their dorm room, and there’s three of them in their dorm room, you know, what will foster the most diverse type of conversation where everybody has something to say and bring to the others? I think that type of classifying of people, that type of hypothetical conversation, this idea that we just want to have everybody be almost like one of those little dolls.
And it’s a small world where everybody represents a little thing. And they’re like all screaming their heads off in whatever language they’re speaking, right? I don’t know. I think that that is a really weird thing to want to engineer. And I do think at the point where they basically are saying across the board, Asian students don’t have much to contribute to those conversations, and the implication being because they’re all grinds who just spent all their lives in Kumon studying to get into Harvard. I don’t know. It’s hard to not be offended by that type of stuff.
Personally, I just don’t see much value in any of that. And I do think there needs to be this wider cultural shift that just begins with a larger investment in community colleges and state institutions. But yeah, I think that that’s sort of the baseline where we have to start We have to basically say, all right, well, what we’re talking about is a few elite schools with affirmative action and the social justice element to it is not really that strong, you know? And it’s just about making these places like sort of cosmetically diverse, and that’s what it is. And then we can start to have a conversation about the value and defending it or not.
So today on The Argument, should we end affirmative action? Ian Rowe is the former C.E.O. of Public Prep, a non-profit charter school network. He thinks it’s time for race-based affirmative action end. Instead he thinks class-based solutions are the better strategy. But my other guest, Natasha Warikoo, who is in favor of preserving race-based affirmative action on college campuses. She’s professor of sociology at Tufts University, and the author of “The Diversity Bargain, And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.”
We are talking about affirmative action today, which is as any Black kid who’s ever gone to college would know, it’s sometimes my least favorite subject of conversation in the entire world. And we’ll get into why that is because we can have a conversation about what affirmative action has come to mean in the collective imagination and what it actually is. But we’re having this conversation because the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about whether colleges can use affirmative action in their admissions.
But I think what these cases are is us trying to have a conversation about race without having a conversation about race. And so we keep having these conversations by going in the side door or the back door or the patio door. So I like going through the front door. And I think we should start out just being straightforward. So Natasha, should we consider race in applications to colleges? Do you think that there are legitimate reasons to think about race or to consider race in college applications?
Absolutely. I think it’s incredibly important to be thinking about race when we think about college applications. And I’ll just state three reasons why I think that’s true. I think the first is that race plays a role in the opportunity structure in the United States today. You know, we know that there are racial disparities in terms of what neighborhoods families live in. And so what schools children have access to in terms of ability to pay for private schools, extracurricular activities.
And we know that even in terms of families with the same income, they have different levels of wealth. So even Black, upper middle class families compared to white upper middle class families have a lot less wealth accumulation that happens over generations. And this shapes you know, again, the resources available. We know that there’s discrimination. So I think the main reason to me is that there are ways in which race plays a role in the opportunity structure. That is not just about a coincidence of class. That’s a remnant of past discrimination.
And the second reason is that it plays a role in the education of everyone on campus. White and Asian-American students as well benefit from going to a college campus where there is a quorum of underrepresented minority students. And so they hear different perspectives in the classroom, in their discussions. And the research suggests that that makes for growth for everyone. And the third one is that if we want a diverse leadership, we want diversity in our C.E.O.s, in our Congress, in our Supreme Court, we need to create a pipeline. And part of that means affirmative action because of the underrepresentation that otherwise exists. And so I think those are the main reasons, and we know that it works. So absolutely, yes.
Well, Natasha, I will respectfully disagree. Race-based affirmative action has certainly had value, and it is “worked” to some degree. But I would shift our focus now to economic disadvantage because, you know, if we want to create a more equitable society, I think if we focused on giving those who are economically disadvantaged of all races, then we’d be allowing more and more young people to get on the rung you know, on the economic ladder. I’m someone who runs a network of public charter schools, and my schools almost serve almost exclusively low income Black and Hispanic kids.
And so this idea of relying on race-based affirmative action that this sort of back end Band-Aid will solve the problem, I think does a disservice. We need to strengthen the preparation of kids so that they can perform at the highest level. We’re not running our schools based on whether or not affirmative action is going to exist. They’ve got to be able to compete at the highest level. And when you look at the actual data of Black kids getting into elite colleges, what is very interesting is that the vast majority, something like two-thirds or 70 percent are Black kids from economically advantaged backgrounds.
So what that’s indicating is that even in the effort of trying to achieve more Black acceptance, the kids that are getting in, I don’t think are the ones that originally affirmative action by race was intended to serve. And unfortunately, the way that affirmative action has worked by race, it has tended to help create that perception because the idea is that, oh, well, if you’re Black maybe the reason you’re here is because of affirmative action, as opposed to your own merit. And those are some of the unintended consequences I think that have been built over time.
I want to go back to something, Natasha. You made the point that affirmative action helps to benefit the education of everyone that it benefits everyone on a college or university campus to be exposed to people of different racial perspectives. However, my thought here is having been one of those people, there were many moments in which I was the only Black person people had experience with, which I used to joke was, oh, that’s going to be tough for you. There were moments in which I felt as if why does this need to be my job here.
And my concern from that viewpoint is that we are asking something of Black and Hispanic students that we are expecting them to carry out a sort of ambassador role to white students that we may not ask of someone else. And I remember thinking this both in high school. I’m at a private high school where there were very few African-American students and to a University of Michigan, relatively few African-American students were. I did feel the role and responsibility of like I have to be, not just myself, but like the best possible iteration of myself. I have to represent myself in the very specific way. That seems like a lot of pressure to put on kids in those situations. To act as if you being there is good for other people, but is it good for them?
Absolutely. And I totally see what you’re saying, and I do think that happens and that’s a problem. And I think there’s two things that I would say to that. The first is that what affirmative action, I think, when it’s practiced well, it tries to do is to make sure that you’re not the only one that— there is a quorum of students so that there isn’t just that one Black student. And the topic of race comes up, and suddenly, everybody’s eyes shift to that person. And that’s incredibly problematic. I think that’s we’re trying not to do when we practice affirmative action.
But I actually talk about exactly what you’re saying in my book, “The Diversity Bargain.” I did these interviews with students on these elite college campuses. And white students talk about this that they— if I agree with affirmative action, but why do all the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria? I call it a diversity bargain because they support affirmative action, but only in as much as it benefits themselves, and then they’re expecting the minority students to be integrating into white spaces at all times, right? They don’t notice all the other tables of white students sitting together.
So one of the things that I think is absent from that conversation is a lack of attention to inequality. And they’ve been fed this narrative, I think, by their colleges, right? The colleges talk about the benefits of diversity, benefits to everyone, but there’s not enough discussion of race and racism and racial inequality. And, you know, just on the point of economic exclusion because Ian, you brought it up, we shouldn’t think of these as either or.
Absolutely, particularly, elite colleges have done a terrible job of being inclusive with respect to social class. Their whole financial model is based on students paying more than the median household income to go to their college and not being on financial aid. But I don’t see these as either or. You know, I don’t think we have to choose between class-based considerations and race-based affirmative action. I also don’t think we have to choose between middle class and upper middle class African-American kids and working class and poor African-American kids. There’s not a certain number of slots for Black kids, and like, if you let in the kids of doctors, you can’t let in the kids of the janitors.
I think that we need to think of disadvantage and representation in a more holistic way. And I think that gets away from this like you’re here to educate the white students. You’re not there to educate the white students. You’re there to get an education and to, you know, further your own goals. And I think that it’s problematic when we teach white students that they’re Black and Latinx peers are there for their benefit because they’re not.
I would love to wish that there isn’t some like ceiling on the number of Black or any students that get into on a given year, but I think there is. And if you look at the data, the predominant demographic of Black students getting in are middle and upper class. Their kids typically— well, oftentimes, they’re immigrants, right? Oftentimes they’re recent immigrants. Or their native born Americans who are affluent children of married to parent households.
So, you know, a lot of privilege going on, but again, when affirmative action by race was originally designed, I don’t think— and we could say this is great, this is real progress, but I don’t think that this was who it was originally intended to serve. It’s almost like we have to acknowledge the progress and now shift to, well what are the other sort of assistance levers that we want to create. And I would argue that class now supersedes race. And I think it is hard to do both simultaneously, by the way.
I’m curious about that, Ian, because I think the data reflects that the experience of being a middle class African-American and the experience of being a middle class white person is different in United States. It doesn’t seem to me that there is a way where we can block off race and class in this way because people who are middle class African-Americans and Latinos often live in poor neighborhoods and working class white Americans.
And most Black children, regardless of income, attend schools for about three-quarters of their classmates are poor. And that means that a lot of resources in college prep courses are limited. And I do think that there’s something I want to get at here that we are asking in a sense, we are asking affirmative action to make up for a lot of things that have gone horribly wrong way earlier. But I am curious, Ian, is there a way to block off or to think about race in class separately given that African-Americans and Latinos experience poverty differently from white people?
100 percent I agree with you. It is a very unfair expectation that affirmative action is going to make up for all the past failures frankly to educate low-income kids of all races. That’s why I call it the sort of back end Band-Aid. Again, just trying to localize this to the district that I’m in, you know, we had more than 2,000 students in our elementary and middle schools. We had more than 5,000 families on our waitlist to get in. And in New York City, right now, today, there’s a cap on opening new charter schools. So if you had a great idea to open a fantastic school, you literally could not do it.
And so when you talk about the experience is different, yeah, a lot of that experience in K to 12 is different because school choice exists for a lot of middle and upper class families. You know, they can choose to move to the suburbs, they can go to a private school or religious school. But if you’re in a low-income community, and this exists across race because go to parts of Ohio or Appalachia, they don’t have good school choice either. So I think one of the ways to address the issue that I think you’re legitimately raising, how do we ensure every single parent in the country has the power to choose a great K to 12 school for their kid regardless of race, income level, gender, zip code. That’s the fundamental injustice I think we’ve got to address. And that affirmative action at higher ed will never solve that problem.
Can I just jump in?
Again, I don’t see these as either or. I mean, certainly, affirmative action is not the one silver bullet that’s going to solve racial inequality in American society. And I don’t think anybody would suggest that. I think it’s one tool among many that we have to try to start addressing systemic racism, racial exclusion, and the ongoing impact of slavery, residential segregation, and the way that it continues to play a role even in the lives of upper middle class African-Americans and Latinx Americans. We need to sort of think about addressing this in multiple levels.
So we have affirmative action, we need to have better resources and more supports for community colleges and open access colleges where a lot of your students are probably attending when they do go to college, Ian. So I don’t want to treat this as like, well, if we support charter schools, we can’t support affirmative action or vise versa. I think we need to attack this that a lot of levels and provide better educational opportunities. And meanwhile, there are 17-year-olds today who have already are almost done with their education and they deserve a fair shot as well. So I really think that we need a multi-pronged approach to racial inequality in education.
And when you say fair shot— I mean, I went to Cornell University years ago. I was in the College of Engineering. And a number of my classmates, my Black classmates, some of us did well, but others didn’t do so well. Not because they weren’t talented or because they couldn’t succeed, it’s just that they were, in my view, I mean, I don’t have all the evidence, but in my view, they were accepted more so because of their skin color than their capacity to achieve at that particular school.
But doesn’t— I know— I think you’re getting into a little bit of the idea of mismatch theory.
Which actually I have beef with mismatch theory because it has come up, I believe, it’s come up in multiple Supreme Court cases with regard to university admissions. The argument is that using racial preferences or non-academic preferences to quote Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, it will serves some intended beneficiaries who end up admitted to schools for which they are relatively unprepared and struggling rather than thriving at different schools where they would be at least as well prepared as their classmates. I knew a lot of white kids who got into really good schools, failed out after the first semester, and wound up transferring to a less good school, and it worked out.
How can we say here that for African-American students, not to borrow a conservative trope, but what about the right to try? I went to a school that I could have easily not done well at, and I wound up doing really well. But if we were to say to any other student, it might be too hard for you to go to Harvard. Well, yes, it’s really hard to go to Harvard. They’ll tell you about it a lot. I find the idea that the hardness is the problem, and not the fact that they might be restrained from trying. I find that to be a little concerning.
Can I jump in with some of the data on this question? Because there is a lot of research on this idea of mismatch. And it’s pretty definitive that the higher the status a college, the higher the graduation rate. And actually, some of the research suggests that students who may have benefited from affirmative action. So they’re looking at students who have lower than average SAT scores on their campus and comparing their graduation rates to students who have a similar SAT score but maybe went to a lower status college. And they are actually more likely to graduate college.
And I think this is because there are more resources. The higher status you go, they tend to have richer alums, paying for— and so there’s more supports. And Ian, I think, I don’t know when you were in college, but I also think that these colleges have come a long way in building in academic supports, bridge programs for students to come who may not be as academically strong because they didn’t have the background to be successful on these campuses. And so this idea that they would be better off at a lower status college is actually not shown in the data. The data actually suggests the exact opposite.
I mean, you’re right. The problem of mismatch is not something unique to Black kids, right? I mean, the problem with mismatch actually is a problem across kids of all races. That’s why you hope that an admissions process is taking into account all the factors that will make a kid be successful in a particular environment and not just look at one so that they don’t elevate race so much that they ignore all the other things that might indicate. You know what? Maybe this kid could do better. And by the way, not at a necessarily lesser school, just a different school. So for me the mismatch is a universal problem.
I think the challenge becomes when universities become so motivated by a few singular characteristics that they ignore all the other things that could make a kid successful. And again, if I were to elevate something over other things, I wouldn’t have it be race. It would be economics. And then you’d have to look at a whole bunch of other factors, geography, size of school, study, preparation. When I went to Cornell, the summer before— we had six weeks at Cornell. We took CSS 101, so we took one of the hardest freshmen classes but we took it early. And we had a chance to acclimate to the campus, meet each other, get comfortable. Those are the kinds of things I think can be helpful. But even that should be done on what kind of kid, regardless of race, would be successful in this environment.
The other thing I think we should have to acknowledge here is that college itself is not for everyone, and that young people should have a choice. So for example, even in the high school that we’re launching this International Baccalaureate model, there’ll be a diploma pathway. So at 11th grade, a student can choose a more traditional pathway where they’re on path to enter and thrive in a four-year degree, or university. Or in 11th grade, they can choose what’s called the careers program. And in that model, we’re going to have apprenticeships and internships with real companies.
And the idea is that at the end of your four years of high school, you would have an industry credential with labor market value. So that at the end of four years of high school, a kid could be licensed as a phlebotomist and go out and make 100 plus bucks an hour, and then have the option of going to college at some point in their future. So I think the other thing to recognize is that the college for all push, and frankly, I used to be, I used to be college, college, college. What other possibility could there be? I think we’re recognizing that we got to help kids K to 12 be academically prepared, as well as have more options that they can choose in their post-secondary experience.
And I know that there are other countries where they have a much better system of vocational schools—
—Germany, for example, which is frequently used as the example. But I will say that all three of us went to college. And there is just as there is an economic class, there’s a cultural class issue here, in which many of the people really it’s like, oh, college is not for everyone. I notice that many of the people who say that are people who went to college. And that so much about colleges and universities has markedly little to do with what you learn at colleges and universities. I graduated from Michigan with a degree in history and political science. I wrote my honors thesis on Nazi propaganda before and after the Battle of Stalingrad.
Now that issue has come up more than you would hope it would. But it is more about, like, I had a springboard into something else. Now, colleges and universities do not need to be that springboard. But right now, such as things exist, we don’t have that. Now we should and we could, but I think that would require a reconsideration of the American educational system in a way that I think would be on par to the G.I. Bill, to the shifts that happened after the Second World War, which is really when you start to see what college for all became.
At the start of this episode, you heard from me and Jay about how we thought about affirmative action in our lives. Now we want to hear from you. Have you felt undeserving because other people said you were a diversity hire or that affirmative action was the only reason you got your job? Are you worried that someone might take your spot or what you see as your spot at a college or university or even at your job? We want you to talk to each other about this. So we’re opening up comments on this episode’s website page at nytimes.com. I hope our guests in the show have done a good job demonstrating how to have a respectful debate, so please keep it kind. Come on, you can do it. You can also leave me a voicemail 347-915-4324.
I want to turn now to the specific affirmative action lawsuits that have been in the news recently. Both of them were brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions. The group is led by this guy, Edward Blum, he’s also behind the well-known Fisher versus University of Texas case where a white woman claimed racial discrimination after she was rejected from the University of Texas in 2008. He lost that one. But Blum’s arguments essentially hinge on the 14th Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act.
Basically, implying that colleges are violating the constitutional rights of white Americans when they consider race in a way that might help people of color. The Harvard case is drawing a lot of attention because one, people love hearing about Harvard, and it’s about Asian-American students. I want to say here that it seems pretty clear that Harvard did discriminate against Asian kids. But it does seem pretty obvious that they were doing something at absolute best, really sketchy and gross here.
I mean, discriminating on the basis of race.
And especially discriminating on the basis of race and then making assumptions based on that race that had to do with their personality.
So I will say before this lawsuit, I felt pretty confident that there were some pretty serious discrimination going on. I am 100 percent behind affirmative action, and sort of I understand why there might be differences in average test scores and G.P.A.s and all of that between Asian-Americans and Black and Latinx applicants. But when you see differences between Asian-Americans and whites, you start to wonder. And I will say, all of this data came out of that case so that you could sort of look at and analyze.
And when I looked at that data, what I realized was that there is this issue of this personality thing, but that seems to play a much smaller role. And there are a lot of other factors that seem to advantage white students over all students of color, including Asian-Americans, such as representation from all 50 states. And so when you’re looking for that student from Nebraska or Iowa, probably, it’s going to be a white student. Like athletic recruiting, again, you might think of athletic recruiting is like football players and basketball players, but there’s so many sports like squash, like—
-crew, water polo. So athletic recruiting benefits whites over, again, all students of color intended major. Again, people who are not from privileged backgrounds tend to want to major in STEM because they’re more secure fields or they’re seen to be that. And that privilege is white students over all students of color. And so I think that is part of what’s going on. I do think that there was this weird personality thing that was disturbing and did play a role. And Harvard didn’t do a very good job. And I think you could acknowledge and say, there probably is some kind of in place at racial bias going on there.
But I think the problem in this case that Blum has cleverly done is to equate that with affirmative action. That has nothing to do with affirmative action, right? Discriminating against Asian-Americans vis-a-vis whites is not the same thing as discrimination towards Asian-Americans because of affirmative action, which that is a whole— we need to separate those two issues. And what Blum has cleverly done is try to conflate them in a way that I think is incredibly problematic.
There’s a great paper from Boston University law about this issue that there’s kind of affirmative action 1.0, which is suggesting that Black kids are the beneficiaries of the system and white kids are the victims. And then this is kind of 2.0 where Black kids are presumed to be beneficiaries of the system and Asian kids are the victims. And I think that there’s this idea here that this organization knows that using a group of color as the purported victims, they’re going to get more sympathy. But it also makes white applicants, third party bystanders to a policy that is essentially putting to minority groups against each other.
Well, I think it’s a clever strategy. And I think the case that Students for Fair Admissions has brought at Harvard is likely spelling the end of affirmative action by race. And I think whether it’s a strategy or not, when you start to talk about race-based affirmative action, you start to see that races are being pitted against one another. And so it’s why I keep coming back to class being the thing that we should get to because I think if we actually focus on class, given that more Black kids are predominantly in low income, you would get at the racial makeup but without having what you have here, which is blatant discrimination on the basis of race.
But that hasn’t seemed to happen in the states that have banned affirmative action at public universities. We’ve just seen a drop in underrepresented minorities. When affirmative action has been banned at public universities in states, including California, Florida, and Washington state, it’s also banned in Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma. Studies done at 19 public cities and states that have banned affirmative action show a big drop in underrepresented minorities among students admitted to and enrolling compared to the state’s high school graduate demographics.
Natasha, we have seen that, for whatever reason, people will support the idea of underrepresented minorities getting a better shot. But when it comes into practice, specifically when it’s on the ballot, we’ve seen that blue state voters have wanted to ban it. Is that because of how these ballot issues are being put? Is it because of how people are like, yes, I want this but no, I don’t want this? What do you think is behind those votes?
When we look at public opinion polls, I think that gives you a sense of the complexity of how people feel about affirmative action in the United States. So Americans are famously like very wishy-washy on affirmative action. And if you ask the question in one way, 60 percent of people will agree with it. If you ask it another way, only 30 percent will agree. So I think that part of the problem is this overarching narrative of like it’s all about a diverse student body. And that that’s supposedly the only reason why we practice affirmative action. And there’s not enough attention to racial inequality and the way that race operates again, apart from class an American society.
And I think people don’t really understand that. And I think that’s a failure on our schooling system. Even higher education that students are hearing things like understanding what redlining was, what the G.I. Bill actually excluded a lot of African-Americans. All of these engines of social mobility how they systematically excluded, particularly African-Americans. And so I think when we don’t understand that, what we’re left with is, well, it’s supposed to— you know, it’s a diverse learning environment. And then what I found when my research with these students on elite college campuses, there is this what I call a reverse discrimination script.
When you say that affirmative action is to benefit you white student, then any setback you have, affirmative action is an easy thing to kind of pull. It’s a script to pull out of your pocket and blame. We asked all these students questions, students of color and white students, do you feel like you’ve ever experienced racial discrimination? And this white student said, well, if I hadn’t gotten into Harvard, I would have felt I had experienced racial discrimination. If this a Black kid at my school got in and I didn’t. And imagine the student going on to apply for a job or a graduate school and they don’t get in, that this is like an easy thing to blame. But I think the solution is not to pivot away from affirmative action. I think the solution is to really start talking about racial inequality, racism, racial exclusion because these are things that continue to have an impact on where people live, what their income is, how much wealth they have accrued. All of these things that matter.
I want to zoom out for a second. And it seems to be that there are two strategies when it comes to justifying affirmative action. And Natasha, you brought up one which is that it makes college campuses more diverse, which is good for everyone. We’ve talked about that. But there’s also the idea that it’s a form of justice for people who have been historically discriminated against. Which argument do you think is more effective?
Well, I think legally in the Supreme Court, the former has been the argument that has been upheld. And so that’s why legal teams have focused on that argument exclusively. And there’s a lot of data that shows the incredible positive impact that diversity on campus does have. And so I buy that 100 percent. I think the equity and reparations argument is even more compelling because it’s a moral argument. You’ve seen there’s this new book by Adam Harris called “The State Must Provide.” And it looks at the Morrill Act where a lot of these state schools were created. And he shows how these state schools in the South did everything they could to keep African-American kids out.
And now, the disparity between them and the H.B.C.U.s that were created so that they could have segregated education, where these schools have been building their endowments for decades. And they have alums and the children of alums and the grandchildren of alums who are donating all of these resources. And the H.B.C.U.s are struggling to stay afloat. And, you know, that continues today in the institutions. Not just in terms of individual families but the differences in the resources of these institutions is so vast. How can we not have reparations? And again, I don’t think that affirmative action is the only thing, you know. I think it’s one small policy. I also think that we should have reparations outside of education as well, but that’s a different issue. But I think all of these things are part of creating a more just society.
Ian, what do you think about the moral argument here?
Well, I think the challenge with that argument is that it doesn’t acknowledge just the tremendous progress that exists and the factors that determine success in our society. So for example, there’s a great racial wealth gap, right? And so I think was the 2019 survey of consumer finances, if you look just at race, the average white family has about $160,000 more wealth than the average Black family. And for some, that’s it. That’s the proof of the history of racial discrimination. And yet, if you look at the distribution within the Black community in terms of wealth, like Nigerians, like Ghanaians, like recent immigrants from West Africa from Caribbean, do extremely well, right.
And so the question is why? Is it that they’re not subject to the same oppressive forces that seem to result in lack of achievement in other Black communities? Let’s dive into it. It’s not necessarily reparations for the people who are succeeding for the Black community that’s succeeding. It is often related to strong family structures, strong choice in education, usually some kind of faith or religious commitment, of value around entrepreneurship.
Well, there’s also if you are a first or second generation immigrant, that’s generally people who are coming in with a higher income.
But I’ve also had extremely poor immigrants of all races who have come, and by hook or by crook, their kid is going to have an incredible education. And so when you say the moral argument, my moral argument is that, you know, we try to sort of solve these things on the back end, whether it’s affirmative action by race or reparations by race with no reference to class because to me, poverty is definitely the thing that impedes from the beginning in addition to unstable family structures. And so, like you started the conversations, like we never want to have a conversation about race, I think we have to talk about race. And we have to talk about things like family structure, non-marital births, how all of that plays into the mix of impeding or creating opportunity for the next generation.
I keep thinking about how we’ve talked a lot about, oh, like the motivated parents, but I’ve known a lot of people in college whose parents had zero motivation, whatsoever. There is a sense and it’s an overwhelming weight I feel sometimes that there are many people, many I think white people, who believe that affirmative action is so endemic that there is not a non-white person alive with an elite job of any kind who got it through the right way. But I’m curious, Ian, the end of affirmative action in colleges, does that start this domino of ending affirmative action type practices in workplace, hiring, and elsewhere?
Well, given the current makeup of the Supreme Court and given the data that’s represented in the Harvard case, I cannot see a way that affirmative action by race survives at all. I think it’s dead. So I think it’s almost like we have to start thinking about what does the world look like in a post race-based affirmative action world? And what are going to be the levers? In my sense is most Americans will support the idea of a leg up based on economic disadvantage. So that’s my guess. I think it’ll create more pressure on K to 12 systems. There’s a lot of poor education going around. It’s just a disproportionately more Black kids have lower literacy in math rates. But I think we got to start with more stable families and more school choice.
Yeah, you know, first of all, I don’t think that we can assume that the court is going to rule in favor of Students for Fair Admissions. I think it’s an open question. I think it was a surprise that they took this case that the Supreme Court has ruled multiple times in favor of affirmative action. So I think we shouldn’t assume that it’s a kind of done deal. But in terms of the impact, I think that affirmative action also needs a reframing.
So, you know, I think there is this deficit model where we say, oh, you’re Black or Latinx, you must have gotten in because of affirmative action. You must have been lacking in some way. But I think we should reframe that because I can see another narrative of like, you are part of a group that is underrepresented on this campus and you’re here. You must be like doubly special and doubly amazing that you got here in spite of the fact that there are things that are holding your community back from places like this. The jury is out. We’ll see. And I think there’s a very strong case for it. And I want to be cautiously optimistic.
Well, thank you, Ian. Thank you, Natasha. It’s been great talking to you. It’s been great talking about this incredibly challenging issue, especially for me. I really, really appreciate your time
Oh, thank you it’s a great conversation.
Thanks so much for having me. I enjoyed this conversation very much. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Ian Rowe is the former C.E.O. of Public Prep, a non-profit charter school network. Natasha Warikoo is a professor of sociology at Tufts and the author of “The Diversity Bargain.” If you want to read more about the debate, I’d check out “Can Affirmative Action Survive?” by Nicholas Lehman in The New Yorker. “Affirmative Action is About Reparations, Not Diversity” by Kimberly Reyes in The Atlantic. And my colleague Jay Kang’s recent writing in The New York Times Magazine and The New York Times Opinion section. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes. And let me know if there’s something else about affirmative action that you’ve read and recommend.
The Argument is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon. With original music and sound design by Isaac Jones, engineering by Carole Sabouraud, additional mixing by Pat McCusker, fact checking by Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks this week to Kristina Samulewski and Kristin Lin.