Race-Blind Admissions Are Affirmative Action for Whites

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."


This author, like lots of liberals, uses race as a proxy for disadvantage, and there is no reason to do so: There are plenty of whites and Asians who are not advantaged, and plenty of blacks and Latinos who are (indeed, 86 percent of African Americans admitted to the more selective schools studied in the pro-preference book The Shape of the River came from upper- or middle-class backgrounds). So it is no surprise that the rationale for racial preferences endorsed here has long been rejected by the Supreme Court.

So, how about a vigorous assault on why it is wrong and immoral to judge people by the content of their character (by extension their capabilities) instead of the color of their skin? We may not have come as far as we hoped…

I'm inclined to agree that legacy admissions and standardized tests are deeply flawed, but surely the answer is to simply remove those policies. I think a truly equal admission process is still the proper goal, and the present racial disparity simply means we haven't reached it yet.

The whole point of standardized testing was to achieve a truly equal admission process. But in practice, as we have seen, standardized tests favor those in a position to prepare for them, with free time and engaged parents who can afford to pay for test prep. Do you have a way to prevent this? If not, on what basis do you propose to admit some students but not others?

The standardized tests aren't everything even right now. High school GPA, extracurricular activities, and application essays are all important, and I'm not entirely clear why they wouldn't be sufficient on their own. Or, alternatively, if you REALLY want a standardized test for some reason, provide free test prep materials and tutoring, perhaps integrated into the high school curriculum.

Nothing like total fiction, institutionalized racism is the new code word to cover for the failure of single-parents to raise children as effectively as two-parent families.

The problem in the African American community is the absolute devastation liberal social policy has wrought on it since LBJ's failed "war on poverty." Frederick Douglass would roll over in his grave to see how dependent the Democratic Party has made the African American community. When will Sophists like Edmund quick writing fiction about racism and realize the truth, all of the disparity between African Americans and other segments of American society is explained by the disproportionate number of single-parent families, teenage motherhood, and failure to graduate high school.

It isn't racism Mr. Zagorin it is the total collapse of the African American family and the falling respect for education in the African American community caused by the failed social engineering of the liberal Democrats that is to blame, of which you are obviously one.

What a sad failure of rational thought your argument is.

What a provocative and ignorant headline. Asians, not whites, get into schools the most if acceptance is blind. And of course acceptance should be blind, the scotus said "minorities are disadvantaged" by affirmative action. That is true, and it's true we are all disadvantaged by it. Academic competition makes our students smarter and they in turn make our society better that much better. Affirmative action only hinders that and leaves us unnable to compete internationally with countries who don't have such programs.

The ruli

Ms. Gratz says "I fought for all applicants to be treated equally—as individuals, without regard to race," This is America - NEVER will every applicant be treated equally - NEVER. This is a great country, but not one where true egalitarianism has ever existed. The powerful and the connected are the ones that have your seats - not the measly 4% of black students. Admission to the colleges that really count will never be done based on purely ranking test scores.

My Ass!

If the problem is legacy preferences which disproportionately favors wealthy people (who happen to be disproportionately white), then the solution is socioeconomic affirmative action which favors economically disadvantaged people (who happen to be disproportionately black).

If the problem is lack of SAT/ACT prep on the part of minority students, then the solution is more SAT/ACT prep, maybe paid for by tax dollars.

If the problem is the cultural assumptions behind the test, then write a new test (a new SAT is coming out).

If the problem is --
"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."
then the solution is -- make the ACT "a priority." There's nothing the government or universities can do to change personal and family priorities.

Race-based affirmative action is the laziest "solution" to the institutional problems you cite.


Chen Ni - Chattahoochee Class of 2006

Thanks for your comments. My responses, loosely in order.

- I am not a liberal. You don't know me, don't make spurious assumptions. Your statistics are about % of black students admitted, which at UofM is 4%. This drop in black student population literally contributes to an environment of physical insecurity for these students who are targeted by aggressive whites on campus. Your argument that some of the black students who are trying to enjoy the benefits of higher education on a campus hostile to their presence are wealthy is entirely irrelevant.

- Americans judge people based on the color of their skin, often to the detriment of black folks regardless of whether or not they are rich or poor. Even Oprah gets refused service for being black. The idea that the *only* form of discrimination black folks experience is class-based has been disproven time and time again

- For these and other reasons, race-blind class-based affirmative action would do nothing to remedy the problem of endangered communities of students of color on UofM campus or other college campuses.

- Blaming "Black culture" or the "African-American family" for racism is, on closer examination, both empirically flawed and historically suspect given the legacy of antiblack segregation, exclusion and violence. Here are the numbers and a summary of the debate between Coates and Chait on same question, for anyone keeping score

Chen, good to hear from you! I have largely dealt with your "solution" previously, but taking race into account positively to counteract the way that it substructures negative outcome is the only way to increase black enrollment in the here and now and counteract a culture of white aggression and antiblackness among undergraduates. I'll quote from the above Guardian piece, because the question is not about abstract fairness but how to create a community of scholars in public universities where black students are not a violently harassed 4% on campus. UofM recognized that this is necessary and promised 10% black student enrollment, but has never kept that promise. Here's the quote, which I think puts the relation aptly:
"So, yes, class and race are in many ways inextricably linked, but it's folly to focus solely on socioeconomic factors if you're looking for diversity in college admissions – they'll never serve as a magic proxy for race."

I wonder how long it will be before some white student rejected by some elite university asks for Affirmative Action because they were rejected. Some California universities are close to being majority Asian American. Sooner or later some White student will not be accepted and will go to court because there are too few "White students" in the university. They will not call it Affirmative Action but that will be what they willl be asking for.

Will the tipping point be 50%? My guess would be when the university becomes 66% Asian American.

This is what would likely happen if affirmative action policies came to an end.

Black enrollment at top tier colleges will go down; black enrollment at second and third tier colleges will increase slightly and the black graduation rate will go up. How do we know this? Just look at California.

For all the pontificating about race that occurs whenever affirmative action comes up, these are the most likely results if affirmative action policies come to an end.

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