Friday, December 28, 2007

Reflections on Affirmative Action

I've been mentioning sports a bit in my blog lately, which I think is a very good topic to intersect with the topic of affirmative action. You see, apparently, along with missing the story about the trans sports commentator, I also missed a story about former NFL football player and current Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh accusing the University of Michigan, his alma mater, of lowering academic standards for athletes--particularly in admissions and steering them towards "easier" majors. Another interesting thing, though, is several football players from several colleges have not and will not be playing in this season's bowl games because they are academically ineligible or are involved in academic scandals. This is not the first time, either.

These are big stories in the sports world, for sure, but how many people outside of sports who would claim to care about academics or fair admissions standards know about these stories (you see how I didn't know about the Harbaugh story?) or are up in arms about them, using them to say that this is the reason why we should stop admitting "dumb jocks" or lowering the standards for them? I mean, other than Harbaugh?

All I really want to know is--why is it okay for someone--usually black, but often white and occasionally Latino or Asian--who may or may not care about a good education to make 1000 (on the old 1600 scale) on the SAT I or a 17 on the ACT and have a 2.8 GPA but be given a scholarship to schools out of their academic league, such as Michigan, Duke, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, UCLA, UC-Berkeley, USC and so forth all because he can play football or basketball...but a black kid who has, say, a 3.7 GPA in an advanced curriculum, a 1250 SAT I (on the old 1600 scale) or a 25 on the ACT, has written a great personal statement about his or her life struggles, has strong recommendations from teachers, leadership positions in organizations, community service experience and such a strong desire to attend one of the best universities in the nation that he/she is willing to borrow $30000 a year...should be denied admissions to these same schools? And why do some of us complain when the latter student is admitted but we have nothing to say when the first student is, with a scholarship to boot?

The same can be said--and is more often said--with legacies, i.e. people with a parent who attended the school, often having donated money to the school or being famous. But I think using athletics sinks in better with people who are dead-set against affirmative action, because many of these people will not be sports fans and getting into schools that one academically doesn't deserve to happens more with sports or, at least, is more visible. Athletes play games, representing their universities, weekly for months, oftentimes on TV.

Sure, there are positives to the practice of admitting athletes who don't make the grade academically. But the same can be said for minorities who, by many people's very narrow standards, don't appear to make the grade academically. There are just different lines of reasoning to support each. Athletes contribute to the school. Their sports bring in a lot of money, and they entertain people. You don't get that with black students who don't play sports, sure. Indeed, most people don't really feel there is a benefit to them, personally, in having minorities at university--and that's what matters. Remember, everyone's selfish. The US is about "what does this do for me?" Okay. But minorities who attend universities contribute, too--to society. Nowadays, it seems that everyone has something to say about blacks and crime, blacks and hip hop culture, blacks and sexism.

Look--black people who attend and graduate from good schools generally don't commit crimes, generally don't fit in with hip hop culture nor become rappers, generally don't even agree with so-called hip hop culture and generally are more aware and understanding of gender issues. So, perhaps...if you really want this stuff to slow down, you'll want to make good education as accessible to blacks as possible. People love to generalize that education doesn't matter to blacks. Well, education doesn't matter, in general, to the majority of people in this country. But if you really knew, you'd know that racial & ethnic minorities take education for granted a lot less than whites do. That's because whites can spend their days as a teenager skateboarding and getting drunk, then spend college days getting drunk and hooking up, and still fall into a good job. The difference with blacks than with everyone else is that blacks don't see college as a possibility, not just because of admissions but because of affordability and--believe it or not--simple things that everyone else takes for granted such as knowing how to apply for financial aid, knowing all the different forms you have to fill out, knowing how to fill out those forms and then having to pay for many of those forms on top of everything else you have to pay for.

I saw personally when I was applying to law school--and continue to see now that I'm trying to figure out how to pay for the Bar exam and the Professional Responsibility exam (not to mention how I will get to those exam designations or how I will afford to live this summer as I prepare for the Bar exam)--that everyone else, but especially whites, take so many expenses and hurdles that are present in application processes for granted and are clueless that these things are not simple for everyone else. My brother-in-law's sister and brother could not get the help they needed in trying to apply for financial aid, and they have the kind of parents who refuse to help with those things and who don't know when their kids are in danger of failing until the last minute. But all kinds of people have bad and/or uninvolved parents, especially today, not just black parents. And it's hard to expect people who never went to college and never thought of attending college because they didn't have to opportunity to, to understand the importance of it or know enough about the process of applying to help their kids do it.

Yet, the obstacles remain, and non-blacks remain clueless or uncaring about them. Everyone should be treated the same in admissions, only we're not treated the same in every other aspect of life. We should forget the past, only the past still affects the present. Martin Luther King Jr says people should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin...only taking race into account in admissions is about judging people by their character, not their skin color. For so many minorities, their race shapes their character. Those admissions officers at Michigan or Harvard who read the personal statements blacks submit will tell you that, because a lot of blacks cannot write about the person they've become without writing about how race played a role in getting them there. It's not as if admissions officers see that an applicant is black or Latino and admits them on the spot just because of that. All the factors I mentioned above in comparing an athlete to a black academic student play a role, which means admissions officers look at the totality of the person--every person. It is society that still judges people by their skin, not their character...which is the main reason why I consider racial stereotypes and generalizations racist.

I realize that I am not discussing affirmative action and Asians & Latinos (or women and queers, etc), pretty much just blacks. I am also using "minorities" at times, but this is not really an inclusive discussion. As a black person, I know more how affirmative action affects blacks, and I do believe that it is more--if not solely--necessary for blacks than others. However, I do believe that "affirmative action" is not the correct term for what colleges and universities do, particularly the more prestigious universities. "Affirmative action" is the guarantee that those schools will not discriminate on the basis of race. Schools use a diversity policy. In using such a policy, I believe that it is absolutely correct to consider each and every applicant on an individual basis, using several criteria in order to assess each person's total background. I am quite familiar with some schools' admissions process, particularly Michigan, Michigan Law and Harvard & Harvard Law.

Before the affirmative action ban in Michigan, Michigan Law had the best admissions process of any program in the nation, because, the way they did things, a white or Asian student who had a compelling total package but a low LSAT score had as good a chance of being admitted as a black student who did--and, indeed, Michigan Law has admitted many white students with lower GPAs and/or LSAT scores. Michigan Law doesn't have perfect racial & ethnic representation, but they have really good diversity in the true sense of the word because diversity to them was not and is not just about race.

Unfortunately, now diversity will likely continue in every sense but racially--they will still have tons of white queers and white women, white kids who grew up poor and white kids who were adopted by minorities, white kids who are from places as diverse as Germany, Montana, Canada, Alabama and New York, and Asian kids, too...but they won't have that many black or non-white Latino kids. In other words, anyone can go to Michigan Law except blacks and Latinos, unless they're [likely] an (speaking in terms of social class) uppity black or Latino, many of whom will choose Harvard or Columbia instead now because Michigan Law will not be the best school they get into. This is not what admissions policies should be in the US; the way Michigan Law did things prior to 2007 is the way every school and every program in the US should do things.

I have a joke about schools like Michigan now, or schools in lily white states (or states I tend to think of as white) such as Idaho, Delaware and West Virginia: the only black people there are the schools' athletes (or in Michigan's case, I say "the only black people who will be there after a while are the black athletes"). It's sad, but that's probably not all that far off. As much as I love college football, if I could choose between affirmative action and great but academically unqualified athletes, I would choose affirmative action. I just don't know how it makes sense that a black guy who doesn't care about the school's academics, prestige or job appeal can be more embraced by the university and the entire country than a black male or black female who will work hard and give 100% to the classroom...all because the former can throw a ball but the latter didn't perform as well on a test made predominantly by white males with a historical purpose to demonstrate that some groups of people are superior to others. I believe that blacks who want to be in college for college's sake should be the ones who have the doors opened and the red carpet rolled out for them...not athletes.

I think this phenomenon picks up where I was starting to go before, which is that many blacks don't view college as accessible or helpful...unless you're a black male going to play a sport. Because, in truth, unless you're upper-middle class+ and black, and/or have parents with a college+ degree, college is not that accessible to most blacks. But if you can play a popular sport, as I said, it doesn't take much for a college to call you. Suddenly, you don't have to know anything about researching colleges, financial aid forms, application fees or how you might go about paying back college loans. Suddenly, you don't have to worry whether or not you can get a job upon graduation, because you have the chance to go Pro and make millions if you can just stay healthy and at the top of your game. Is it any wonder that paths such as athletics and music are such popular choices for black males? To many, they seem like the only paths for black males.

By the same token, is it any wonder that black females outnumber black males in college? After all, if black women didn't rely on college...there's not much else out there they can do. Going Pro isn't the same for us, and, as women, we're taught about needing stability and we're more practical than to run around trying to score record deals or an agent who will get us auditions for movies/TV shows, even if we can sing or act. hard is it to make a hit rap song, do you think? Now answer the same question for black women. Becoming a rapper might be harder than it seems, but I believe the reason so many black males want to do it is because they also believe it's not that hard. Still, more black women might attend college, but the best schools still don't see anywhere near as many black women as schools held in less esteem do--and, as I said, black females at schools like Michigan and USC tend to be from the middle and upper-middle classes+. Those schools still remain much more accessible to black male athletes whose application package would be much less impressive than the non-high-falutin' non-athletic blacks' application packages.