Brooke Kimbrough always dreamed of becoming a University of Michigan Wolverine. Her score on the ACT—a college-readiness test—dwarfs the scores of most of her classmates. Earlier this month, she was part of a winning team at the National Urban League Debate Championship in Washington, D.C. Last week, she became a powerful symbol for exactly how Michigan's race-blind college admissions policies have failed.
In December, the University of Michigan informed Kimbrough that her application for admission had been wait-listed. Two months later, she received the letter that she had not been accepted. But instead of conceding defeat, Kimbrough decided to fight. Today she hopes that her story will highlight how Michigan's current approach to race in admissions fails exceptional students of color. Black students comprise just 4.6 percent of the 2012 freshman class; in 2008, the number was 6.8 percent.
Over the course of this year, I had the honor of working with University Preparatory Academy debate coach Sharon Hopkins, who guided Kimbrough and her partner, Rayvon Dean, to victory. Shortly after her team won the debate championship, I spoke with Kimbrough about her protest of the University of Michigan’s admission policy.
"This isn't about me," Kimbrough said. "That's not why I'm doing this. The real problem is when students are denied and don't speak up, don't question the system that failed them." To that end, Kimbrough has joined with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) to advocate for the rights of black students in admissions and on campus.
Nearly 15 years ago, Jennifer Gratz, a white high-school senior, was denied admission to the University of Michigan. Rather than keeping quiet, she also fought. Gratz began by mounting a coordinated legal and media battle to challenge her rejection. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, and its decision in Gratz v. Bollinger ended the university's system of preferential admission based on race. Encouraged by this victory, Gratz and other opponents of affirmative action went on to champion a statewide ballot initiative that completely banned any use of race as a criteria for admissions at Michigan's public universities.
At the University of Michigan, the years following the high court’s decision have seen a precipitous drop in the number of African-American students. For Kimbrough, who uses discussions of racial privilege and cultural politics in her debate competitions, her rejection from Michigan became an opportunity to highlight a concrete instance of colorblind discrimination.
While both Gratz and Kimbrough fought their decisions, Jennifer Gratz bristles at comparisons. "I fought for all applicants to be treated equally—as individuals, without regard to race," Gratz said in a comment on the Detroit News website. “This woman is standing up for group rights and asking for preferential treatment based on race while others are discriminated against, she wants unequal treatment. Ms. Kimbrough is fighting because she wasn't accepted; I fought because of discrimination in the admissions process, a major difference."
What critics of affirmative action like Gratz don't talk about, and what they are deeply invested in keeping hidden, is the racial violence and culture of white aggression that intensifies and pervades campus life for students of color when affirmative action policies are taken away. This dirty secret was blown apart earlier this year when University of Michigan's Black Student Union decided that they'd had enough, launching the viral Twitter campaign known as #BBUM (Being Black at U-M). Stories ranged from hurtful micro-aggressions to racial slurs to threats of physical violence. Overall #BBUM highlighted the dysphoria of a campus population of color whose number is in steep decline.
But so incensed is Gratz, 37, that she has challenged Kimbrough, 17, to a public debate on the issue of affirmative action, according to the Detroit Free Press. In an apparent attempt to appear gracious, Gratz, citing her potential opponent's youth and inexperience, offered to allow Kimbrough to include a BAMN representative on her side of the debate.
The attitude expressed by Gratz betrays a seemingly willful obliviousness to the fact that no group experiences more affirmative action than white people. Michigan's formal pro-white affirmative action policy, colloquially known as "legacy preference,” puts the children of alumni ahead of other applicants. It unquestionably favors the white and the wealthy, at the expense of the poor and the black. Outside of the U.S., legacy admissions mostly went the way of feudalism. But at many U.S. universities, and especially at Michigan, legacy admissions amount to an eternal parade of white pride.
Why does legacy preference work this way? Because it reinforces the demographic power of previous generations of whites that benefited from dozens of explicitly segregationist federal and state institutions. Those institutions, from the New Deal to the G.I. Bill, helped whites out of Depression-era poverty while explicitly disadvantaging blacks, locking whole communities into cycles of violence and misery. "When I think about the fact that my grandmother's grandmother was a slave baby—like, literally owned as property—and then I hear people talk about how whites don't experience affirmative action from legacy, it's so frustrating," Kimbrough said. "People want to put that behind them. They'd prefer not to think about it. The thing is that black people can't put that history behind us because we live it every day."
And legacy doesn't even scratch the surface of the biggest instrument of racial discrimination in so-called "race-blind" university admissions: standardized testing. Most scholars of education policy agree that the ACT testing process, like the SAT, favors wealthy white students from suburban environments at the expense of students who are poor black and urban. This favoritism is often deemed a "necessary evil" of education policy, done in the service of meritocratic apples-to-apples comparisons of students' analytical skills. There are many reasons for performance disparities, from cultural assumptions of the test writers to unequal access to prep materials and tutors.
"We don't have time to prep for the ACT the way some students do," Kimbrough explains. "I come from a single-parent household. We worry about keeping the lights on and food on the table. Even though I want to go to college, people have to understand that the ACT isn't a priority. Michigan talks about ‘holistic’ admissions. I wonder what's so holistic about it." Standardized testing is literally the example given in sociological texts to define the term "institutional racism".
It must be nice to live in the world of Jennifer Gratz. It is a world in which America somehow happened without colonialism or slavery, where we are born into bodies in which race is invisible (which is how the concept of race generally functions for members of the white majority). In Gratz's worldview, disparities in wealth and access to public goods have no bearing on the measure of that mystical quotient of "ability".
"Public universities are supposed to represent us," says Kimbrough. "Blacks and Latinos are 14 percent of the population, and yet our public universities can't represent us. We pay taxes for that university to stand as tall as it does. It's sad."