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Reading Kevin Drum's post on class-based affirmative action, this bit popped out at me:

Beyond that, there's another benefit: for all the good it does, there's no question that race-based affirmative action has drawbacks as well. It makes employers suspicious of minority graduates, wondering if their degrees were really fairly earned. It provokes a backlash among working class whites. And it's open to abuse on a number of fronts. Class-based programs don't solve all these problems at a stroke, but they go a long way toward addressing them. [Emphasis mine]

I have no doubt that this is true, but I've always found it a little odd. Even if affirmative action were little more than a glorified quota program -- which, it should be said, it isn't -- it's still the case that it only applies at the point of admission. Once in school, affirmative action doesn't give you a better class schedule, provide a more lenient curve or improve your grades; put another way, there are affirmative action students, but there's no such thing as an affirmative action degree. Genuine academic success -- the kind that gets you high marks at elite institutions -- is almost always the product of intelligence and hard work, and it's absurd that some employers would believe otherwise.

That said, this kind of unfounded bias against affirmative action students is almost certainly the product of unconscious biases. You would never see students question the qualifications of a legacy classmate, nor would you see an employer question the value of a degree earned by a legacy graduate. This despite the fact that legacy status is often a huge advantage for prospective students; in 2008, for example, Princeton University admitted a whopping 40 percent of its legacy applicants, an acceptance rate four times higher than the rate of its general applicant pool. At Dartmouth College, which admitted 13.2 percent of its applicants in 2008, its legacy acceptance rate was up to 2 and a half times greater than its general acceptance rate, and on par with its acceptance rate for African Americans.

That legacy admissions work as de facto affirmative action for the children of privileged whites isn't a secret. It isn't even news; by and large, it's accepted as a normal and mostly inoffensive aspect of our society. We don't question the qualifications of legacies because we mostly expect wealthy white people and their children to be capable and competent. By contrast, we don't expect to see those qualities among minorities; well-spoken black people are often described as "articulate" for the simple reason that we expect otherwise. If affirmative action students are viewed with suspicion, it's because affirmative action gives some people reason to indulge their suspicions about minority ability.

Which gets to a point Adam Serwer made earlier today at his blog; it's not that Americans are particularly offended by affirmative action, it's that we are offended by affirmative action for the "wrong" kind of people.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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