Diversity

This is part of a seven-part series on Race Relations that are being considered for submission.

I sat in the back of the auditorium, watching group after group put on songs and skits about math. When the time came, dozens of students walked to the front to be inducted into the Math Honor Society, my father handing them their pins. I felt like Charlie, pressing his nose against the glass window of the candy store.

I longed for that type of community – others as geeky and enthusiastic as I was. Back at my own high school, I and three other students gathered occasionally to take six-question quizzes, whose scores were sent into the local competition. The faculty was a mix of heroic superstars and the kind of shoddy teachers who couldn’t land the higher-paying jobs.

And I’m only middle class. The local public school had a gang problem, and my parents scrimped to send me to Catholic school. I’m well aware that many others were not so lucky. Still, I begged and begged for my parents to send me to my father’s school. It would have cost over ten thousand dollars per year to attend. Teachers there were not paid nearly enough to afford that, let alone to live in the district. Again, I should be grateful.

Growing up I always thought I was lucky. I heard tales of the tiny bedsit in the dangerous neighborhood where my parents started their marriage. Of my grandparents sleeping on a pullout in the living room so that their four kids could split the two “bedrooms”. When I met husband, I thought I was dammed near rich. With his immigrant father retired, his mother’s small paycheck supported all three of them. Were it not for Social Security, they would have been below the poverty line.

Then I got here. I realized that most people at HLS got to go the the high school they wanted. When it came time to apply to college, their parents pushed them toward Dartmouth, Yale. My own pushed me to the cheapest one I could find, the biggest scholarship. They reasoned that the prestige of my graduate school was the only one that mattered. Hmm . . . perhaps I did have an edge. In retrospect, they seem wiser than those others.

This week, Dershowitz said that Harvard doesn’t care about diversity. They want people of all skin colors, sure, but true diversity would include poor blacks. I have no basis on which to say that is true, but I do have reason to believe he would know. Economic diversity would require affirmative action. Being rich gives you an edge. It gives you great schools, great teachers. Tutors to help you get better grades. Guidance counselors who are not understaffed, who know how to get people into the ‘good’ colleges. The money to afford good test prep, even tutoring for the SAT. It may even mean parents with enough time to monitor your schoolwork. The middle class like me have some of these things, not all.

So if an admissions process were truly blind to income – even removing the ‘legacy’ admits, the rich would still dominate the class. In a school like Harvard with very few spots for many qualified students, all you need is a small edge. In cases where you are applying racial affirmative action, there is no reason to believe the effect is much difference. Sure, there are fewer wealthy blacks in general, but when you are looking at a small pool of spots held open for AA admits, there is still going to be, on average, the same result. Next up will be the middle-class like myself, who got some of these advantages. Even in cases where there is an equal amount of raw talent, the wealthier student will have the better test scores and grades, and will get in.

So why the emphasis on race? Are we really asserting that the effects of racism are stronger than the effects above? Are we assuming that blacks are poor? Or are we emphasizing ‘diversity’ instead of hardship, more concerned with looking like a Benetton ad than we are with allowing those who have been hampered by circumstance to catch up.

I have long since advocated scrapping racially-based affirmative action for a system that placed more of an emphasis on socioeconomic background. For one, this would help to satisfy our constitutional mandate to ‘narrowly tailor’ our programs to avoid race-based classification. In other words, if there is an alternate means to achieve the same goal that would place less, or no, emphasis on race, we must take that route. Poverty is still disproportionately a problem in minority communities. Since we have no proof that there are actual racial differences in ability, it is a combination of this fact with remaining and subconscious racism, that creates the need for affirmative action in the first place.

I would not discount race entirely. If it appeared as if an admissions system based on income would result in a disproportionate number of poor whites, we would need to revisit the question. Several factors may cause this – the effects of racism, difference in cultures that place different levels of priority on education (perhaps as a result of racism) and some would say, different levels of ability (more on that in a subsequent essay) If this were the case, we would indeed, from my perspective, have a problem. There would then be a need to compensate for these difficulties.

But until we see this, i will continue to believe that the higher qualifications of whites that would result in a mostly-white student body (absent affirmative action) are a result of different income levels. To the extent that they are: 1) we have a good proxy for race and narrow tailoring requires we use it, 2) we are being unfair to poor whites who have faced the same barriers.

And indeed if poverty is the cause of the problem, it doesn’t make sense to look for solutions outside of that paradigm.

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