In all the well-justified furor over the Supreme Court’s review of voting rights and marriage equality issues, it’s easy to forget that when this term’s opinion roll out, the odds are high that the Court will strike a major blow against affirmative action programs for college admissions.
We are all familiar with the ideological dimensions of the affirmative action issues. But we have an original piece up on the website today, from Elias Vlanton, a distinguished public-school teacher in Maryland, that cuts through the hype and compellingly addresses the human element of affirmative action, and why it is an imperfect but essential way to deal with a persistently unfair and unequal landscape for college admissions. Here’s a sample:
Tramon, Morganne, Arnetta, and Anngie were all students of mine in Advanced Placement classes at Maryland’s Bladensburg High School . Bladensburg is neither a private school, nor a “we skim the cream of the crop” magnet public school. It is in one of Washington, DCs poorest suburbs, where family income ranks in the bottom quarter of the state, and a school where less than ten percent of any graduating class makes it through college.
This semester, while Morganne proudly posts videos of her next dissection and Anngie writes another long essay in French, the Supreme Court, in deciding Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, will determine whether my students deserve to attend the colleges where they are being so successful. In addition to attending a low-performing high school, my kids are all African American and Latino. They were accepted into their elite colleges as part of those schools’ commitment to the mission of promoting diversity in higher education, the very diversity that affirmative action attempts to encourage—and that Fisher seeks to declare unconstitutional….
My four freshmen—my odds-beaters—had SAT scores hundreds of points below the average of the students admitted to their colleges. They took far fewer AP courses, and participated in fewer extra-curricular activities (since our school offers few activities other than sports). What set them apart was their class rank: they were all in the top two percent of the senior class, a function of their love of learning, their desire to do well, and their hard work to rise to the top. Despite the claim that, on the merits of their applications, they were “unqualified” for admission to the schools where they are getting As and Bs, all will graduate with honors from schools that are among the best in the country—joining my former students who graduated from Bowdoin College, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Stanford University .
So Chief Justice Roberts, in the end, we agree: Discrimination is discriminatory. That is why colleges must be allowed to consider the social and economic circumstances of my students when making admissions decisions—as Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Middlebury have done. My kids don’t want a leg up; but neither do they deserve a kick in the chest.
Vlanton’s passionate essay is a reminder that while so many agonize over the “injustice” of affirmative action, our country is doing a terrible job (as Kevin Carey documented in his article in the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly) of providing anything like equal opportunity in higher education.
Yes, affirmative action programs are flawed, but not half a flawed as the “color-blind” system that will be left in place if affirmative action is discarded and something more systemic is not put in its place.