Dear White People: We’ve Always Had Affirmative Action
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”—Gloria Steinem
Dear White People,
Days ago, I, like many of you, watched in horror the vile display of bigotry and hatred, violence and terror that unfolded in Charlottesville, violating the University of Virginia’s campus and college community, and shaking an already deeply divided and troubled America.
But how many of us had the same reaction of horror and outrage the week before when reports surfaced about the Department of Justice’s intent to investigate race-conscious admissions policies on college campuses, breathing new life into disputes about affirmative action? How many of us even paid attention?
Because it, too, represented an attack on Americans of color and a base — and baseless — assertion of White power and privilege.
And it, too, begs for some introspection.
Allow me to share a personal story of affirmative action and how it helped me.
“But wait,” you say confused, “You’re White!”
Yup. Stay with me here, White fam.
I don’t mean the affirmative action we talk about — I mean the affirmative action that we don’t. The one White people too infrequently acknowledge, but have always benefitted from.
When I was in high school, I was one of three White kids. I know there were two others because we were all placed in the same honors classes. Now, I don’t know their GPAs, but I know that I gained entrance to those classes with a .32 GPA, while friends locked out of those same classes had much higher grades, stronger work ethic, and frankly more smarts than me.
Cut to college.
I got into the University of California as a special admit, out-of-state transfer student from a community college because I could act my tail off and had a thing for Shakespeare. No one ever asked me how I got in or questioned my merit or assumed that I was an athlete. And certainly the DOJ never swept in to investigate and nobody ever accused me of taking their seat. Because I “looked” like I “belonged” there — because I “looked” like the majority of the student body.
Ironically, it was the same year the state of California passed Proposition 209, banning the use of race in the mix of factors to consider in college admissions. But if you could kill it in iambic pentameter on a Lady Macbeth monologue or if you were a legacy student or out-of-state-tuition-paying student, the wheels in the admissions office were still greased.
There are two troubling misconceptions driving the ongoing assault on affirmative action:
The first is that somehow the practice had so impacted admissions to our campuses that White students are now left shivering outside the gates of the academe. Um, not even close.
Consider the reality:
- At public flagship universities, only 5.2 percent of students are Black, 8.9 percent are Latino, while 63.4 percent are White. (Compare this with US population figures: 13.3 percent Black and 17.8 percent Latino.)
- At AAU elite research institutions, only 4.7 percent of students are Black, 11 percent are Latino, while 53.1 percent are White.
- And at selective institutions, just 5.5 percent of students are Black, 10.4 percent are Latino, meanwhile 59 percent are White.
The second, and perhaps more sinister misconception is this assumption that Black, Latino, and Native students are somehow not as prepared or as worthy of higher education as White students.
Maybe it’s the fact that our schools and our textbooks and literature choices aren’t exposing White kids to Black, Latino, and Native American scholarship and brilliance, scientists and thinkers, writers and leaders, doctors and artists.
Maybe it’s the fact that we too often live in still segregated communities and too many White people’s only source of exposure to anyone who doesn’t look like us has been on Monday Night Football and Love & Hip Hop.
Maybe it’s that privilege and ease of passage has so shaped White people’s experience that actually being rejected leaves us baffled and in search of someone to blame.
We grew up being told that we were the best and that if we worked hard (or even not-so-hard) we could get anywhere we wanted to! Because that’s how it had always been!
Enter integration and affirmative action and now White children have to compete! And, despite having hundreds-of-years’ head start of unfair economic and educational advantage, we are mad about it.
So check yourselves, White people. And let’s educate our children while we’re at it.
The truth is that White students get more than their fair share of seats educationally from Pre-K through college. And if we’re being really honest, beyond.
White privilege has purchased more seats in higher performing schools, more seats in honors and advanced classes, more seats in classes taught by experienced, high quality teachers — not to mention a hundreds-of-years’ guarantee of all the seats in k-12 and higher education.
The truth is we’ve always enjoyed affirmative action — we just have a problem sharing it.
Dear White people, discuss.