Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Food for thought in the morning

Ok, well it's probably not morning for you, dear reader, but it is for me. And I just had some coffee. (The dehydrated kind, I have really sunk so low.) A friend of mine sent me this article.

A Question Of Race Vs. Class
Affirmative Action For the Obama Girls?

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; A15

Barack Obama
> doesn't think anyone should cut his two daughters any slack
when they apply to college -- not because of their race, at least. In
the unlikely event that the Obama family goes broke, then maybe.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Obama waded into
the central issue of the affirmative action debate: race vs. class.
Perhaps typically, Obama's remarks were more Socratic than declarative.
He didn't really answer the question, he rephrased it. Maybe the way he
posed it, though, will lead to a discussion that's long overdue.

George Stephanopoulos asked Obama whether his daughters should be able
to benefit from affirmative action when the time comes for them to go to
college. The girls "should probably be treated by any admissions officer
as folks who are pretty advantaged," Obama said.

Stephanopoulos was driving at the question of whether race-based
affirmative action programs are still needed. Another way to frame the
issue is whether race or class is the more important factor in our
society. Are minorities who are raised in middle-class or wealthy homes
still held back by racism? Or should we now focus on socioeconomic
status as the principal barrier keeping people from reaching their

Obama's answer, basically, was yes. To both questions.

Obama has repeatedly gone on record as a supporter of affirmative
action. But "if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids
who are qualified to go to college can afford it," he said in the ABC
interview, "affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to
achieve racial equality in this society."

He seemed to side with those who think class predominates when he said,
"I think that we should take into account white kids who have been
disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have
what it takes to succeed."

It's hard to disagree with that proposition, especially as economic
inequality worsens in this country. Harvard University (where Obama went
to law school) has taken the lead in guaranteeing that money will not be
an obstacle for qualified low-income students.

But Obama seemed to agree with those who point to the lingering effects
of racism when he noted that "there are a lot of African American kids
who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class
may be first-generation as opposed to fifth- or sixth-generation college
attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people
together to help build this country."

That observation points to circumstances that have to be taken into
account. Diversity, in my view, is very much in the national interest.
But diversity is a process, not a destination. We have to keep working
at it. And since a college degree has become the great divider between
those who make it in this society and those who don't, affirmative
action in college admissions is one of the most powerful tools we have
to increase diversity.

The formal separate-but-equal framework is long gone, but de facto
separation and inequality persist. Minority students are
disproportionately disadvantaged by having to attend substandard primary
and secondary schools. Their parents are less likely to have attended
college and thus may not be familiar with all the things parents have to
do to make their children competitive when it comes time to apply for
college admission. And while racism is not the institutional and legal
straitjacket it was 50 years ago, it persists in subtler yet still
pernicious forms.

Yes, class is important. But race is, too, and while I hope we
eventually get to the point where race is irrelevant, we still have a
long way to go.

As for Obama's assessment of his daughters' privileged status, that's
just a statement of the obvious. With such Type A, high-wattage parents,
those girls probably will have the grades and test scores to get into
any college. And if they don't, they will benefit from a different
affirmative action program -- one that for many generations has ushered
the academically undistinguished scions of prominent families into the
nation's most selective colleges and universities.

Let's not pretend that college admissions has ever been a level playing
field. Obama graduated from Columbia; his wife, Michelle, from
Princeton. This means that at those two Ivy League schools, their
daughters will be "legacy" applicants, just like George W. Bush was at
Yale and legions of Kennedys have been at Harvard. Given the Obamas'
power and fame, admissions officers at the schools they attended -- and
probably at other elite schools, too -- are going to find a way to let
the Obama girls in.

Obama's response does sort of highlight one of those great loopholes in affirmative action. For the record, I generally support affirmative action. However, I think most people, at least those who went to expensive private schools at some point in their education, know that there are many rich people of color use the self identifying part of the app to exploit the system. And certainly my Distinguished Institution was much more concerned with shipping in photogenic bodies of color rather than focusing on giving tuition breaks to the truly disadvantaged. And that's not affirmative action was intended for, and certainly not what it should be used for.

Is Obama correct in saying that his daughters shouldn't get any breaks? I'm not really sure. I mean the writer of the article has a point, with a senator for a dad, and a (former) high powered lawyer for a mom, those two probably won't want for anything. And I agree, I've seen tons of extremely rich kids of color who were pretty much ignorant of their privilege and probably never saw it because money smoothed the way for them. However, I also resist the raising of class over race. Doing so makes this more palatable for white people, because they can avoid talking about race. That said, generally speaking, I generally have more in common with the working class white person than the rich person of color, in terms of everyday worries and the reality I live.

I don't think I'm going to come to any conclusion on this today.


nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez said...

good stuff. good questions. i agree with your second to last sentence, tho i guess it depends on the exact situation. but overall, i'd agree.

exangelena said...

This also reminds me of the controversy about how black college (or was it grad school? can't remember) students are disproportionately more African/Caribbean immigrants versus American blacks. One of my friends who is from Southeast Asia told me that a lot of wealthy kids from her country aren't even that smart but go to the US for college because their parents are rich - and that doesn't sound much better to me than a George Bush and Yale situation. (That being said, I know a lot of intelligent and hard-working expatriates, too. The vast majority of my co-workers are not American.)
I think it is okay for affirmative action to be based on class - even if it is, because minorities are disproportionately poor (and class is often linked to race), it will benefit minorities.
I'm lower-middle class, and I hope I didn't get racial affirmative action, because I was not deprived educationally and a lot of rich-middle class white kids who ended up in Ivy Leagues got the same education as me. It really pisses me off when people accuse me of getting into college because of my race!

lovelesscynic said...

Nezua, I agree it depends on the situation. That's why I said generally. Because there are those times, fairly rare, but still, when I can connect better with a rich POC.

ExA, I wasn't necessarily talking about International students. International students do tend to be upper class kids, otherwise they wouldn't necessarily have the resources to get to an american school However, Affirmative Action generally does not apply to them, since they are much less likely to get financial aid, (according to my understanding) hence the predominance of rich candidates.

That said, I really resist making affirmative action all about class. Because for one thing, this would make affirmative action reform, once again, all about white people. Affirmative action, should at the very least, focus substantially on race. Because while white people are able to shed their class background, no poc is ever truly able to shed their race, ever.

That said, it's difficult to balance the two. Class and race. So I've got no answers.

exangelena said...

"Because for one thing, this would make affirmative action reform, once again, all about white people. Affirmative action, should at the very least, focus substantially on race. Because while white people are able to shed their class background, no poc is ever truly able to shed their race, ever."
I don't think it would make affirmative action all about white people, because the poor are disproportionately nonwhite and traditionally poor populations that would likely be targeted by affirmative action (like the inner city) are also nonwhite.
And I understand that perhaps some white people would benefit from class-based affirmative action (in fact, a black teacher I had who came from Michigan said that her public university gave more preference to whites from a very impoverished part of Michigan versus her), I don't know if university admissions should be primarily about addressing racism. I've always seen access to a higher education as helping with the class aspects of race, as a way for POC to get out of the cycle of poverty.
And like I said (plus, you know me IRL), I'm nonwhite and while I am middle class-ish I am much poorer than Obama's daughters, I'm class-privileged enough that I don't feel that affirmative action should target me.
While it may be different for other POC, particularly those who are less class-privileged than me, I don't feel that getting into college has lessened the effects of racism for me.

magniloquence said...

Exangelena - part of the issue with affirmative action is that it isn't about lessening the effects of racism on you, particularly. It's about making the system and the institution less racist. That's the difference.

Whether it makes a specific person's life better in specific ways isn't really the focus of the argument, even though that's a lot of the rhetoric. The argument is that as things are currently, due to societal structure and overt and covert racism, our educational system is racist, classist, and ableist (though relatively decent on the sexism front. Relatively.). Affirmative action, however constructed, is one way that the system can be made less racist, classist, and ableist. That does benefit us individually in the long run, yes, but it's not about us individually.

And... while I realize that there are a lot of really stupid quota-esque affirmative action programs out there, one would hope we could give admissions people at least some credit. Oughtn't it make sense to come up with a system where, at the level of equal performance, (bolded because people like to pretend this codicil isn't involved) the person with the most stacked disadvantages was prioritized over the others? So a poor blind lesbian latina with a 3.0 and decent SAT score would be prioritized over a rich white straight guy with a 3.0 and decent SAT score. Without seriously looking at a specific institution's guidelines, it seems disingenuous to me to assume that it's as simple as race over class, or class over race. If problems are intersectional, oughtn't our solutions be that way too?

I found this post to be a good clarification of the different ways class privilege and race privilege operate. As the author says: "Wealth gets you a ticket, but it doesn’t guarantee you a seat" and "That white skin would get you a seat, if only you had a ticket." These problems are related, and they certainly compound each other, but they are different. Class problems don't (directly) cause racism, and racism doesn't (directly) cause class discrimination; why should we treat them like they're the same thing?

lovelesscynic said...

Well, equal performance and equal GPAs might be a good start, although Allan Bakke might disagree that that's currently what's being practiced.

I think you make an excellent point that affirmative action is about changing the system rather than changing people's lives.

As for the quota like systems that are in place, and I agree that it's difficult to generalize, since there are a myriad different systems in place, it is because college has become a business, rather than being about an education. So for some places, it doesn't matter whether the system should change or is changed by affirmative action. For them, I suspect that the objective is to bring in some students that can provide some good photo ops, and also if possible pay full tuition. Killing two birds with one stone as it were.

Your proposed system would eliminate this loophole in some ways right, since the differences between a rich Cuban American kid from Beverly Hills and a first generation Mexican kid from LA would be more apparent. And that would do a lot more than just that "what race do you identify as" box on the college app.

Probably bad for the profit margin in the end, I know, I'm cynical, so somehow at least in the private schools I doubt it will happen.

exangelena said...

magniloquence - if I sounded self absorbed, I apologize, I didn't mean for it to be. I don't feel comfortable speaking for other people, so I usually use myself as an example.
What I meant is that I don't think that my particular case deserves affirmative action. I'm lower middle class and I had a good education, the same education that got some of my classmates into Ivy Leagues. If I applied to college and one of my white classmates did, and all other things were equal, I don't think that I should get precedence because of my race. (And I do realize that many other cases are different.)
"So a poor blind lesbian latina with a 3.0 and decent SAT score would be prioritized over a rich white straight guy with a 3.0 and decent SAT score."
Going with predominantly race-based affirmative action, what if it were a rich straight able-bodied Latino male (like Jeb Bush's son) versus a rich straight able-bodied white male, all grades and test scores being equal?
My general feeling on this whole issue is that affirmative action should predominantly target class-based racial inequality, not racial inequality alone.

lovelesscynic said...

Yes, George P. should rank higher than say, Jenna Bush because he is biracial, and perhaps unless someone knows who he is, is more likely to be perceived as "one of the little brown ones" as his grandfather once called him or one of his siblings. Is George P privileged? Yes. Do I feel that we share a similar world view or type of experience? No. However, do I believe that he is more disdvantaged than his white cousins. Hell yes.

Racism is more than classism. Racism will affect an upper middle class black professor who gets stopped by a policeman because the police man doesn't know WHO HE IS. Racism is the judging of people based on their race, and if your heritage shows in your phenotype, than no matter how rich you are you're unlikely to escape it. However much wealth, or better yet, fabulous wealth can sweeten the deal.

The reason I oppose a strictly class based approach to affirmative action is that this would place people of color once again under whites. Magniloquence puts it much better than I do,

"'we’ll get to your silly issues later. After the big stuff. Our issues are way more universal/important than your ‘identity politics’ or whatever' tacked on for good measure"

It represents a rather disturbing trend to attempt to elide racism, and the inequalities specific to racism under a more comfortable, more nebulous, and whiter classism. And it's this aspect that makes me uncomfortable.

magniloquence said...

Heh, Ex... I didn't mean to imply that you were being self-absorbed. I meant to point out that examining policy at the case-by-case basis isn't useful, really.

And yes, I think that all things being equal, in a predominately/historically white environment a rich straight able-bodied Latino male should be admitted before a rich straight able-bodied white male. Of course, my standard for specificity in this case is pretty high - when I say "all things being equal," I mean "don't know them from Adam, would have to decide the issue based on a coin-toss, argued to a stalemate in committee" equal. I think that this is almost never the case (except possibly in the armed forces, or when writing insurance policy). I think that, in academics specifically, "fit" would be a better decider in almost all cases, provided basic parity in eligibility and serious recruitment from disadvantaged areas.

That said... I think class mitigates a lot. I just don't think it's the same as race, and I don't think it ought be used as a proxy for it. And I think that context is really important. At a relatively mixed hyper elite institution (*cough cough* Our Alma Mater *cough cough*), I'd rank a poor white kid with good grades but not much else and a rich black kid with nice extracurriculars but low grades the same, and take the disabled middle class white kid with musical talent before the both of them. At a poor, snowy white school I'd take a middle class black kid before a rich white kid. At an HBCU*, I'd take an engaging latina over a solid black athlete.

I think it's complicated, and that people really want to reduce it to one factor over another. But I also don't think it works that way... even in strict quota systems, they're generally sufficiently complex to account for this sort of stuff. I don't think they always get it "right" (or even most of the time), but I think that people work a lot harder at it than we generally give credit for.

* Realizing, of course, that this is why I'm not in charge of HBCUs. And this would be "from a balance and diversity standpoint only"... not necessarily a "for the good of the school" or the furtherance of its mission.

magniloquence said...

P.S. On a totally unrelated note - your CAPTCHAs seem to hate me, LC. I always have to enter them twice, at least. Granted, I get this at most Blogger sites, but yours seem particularly disinclined to let me in on the first pass.

lovelesscynic said...

Ironically, me too. I've had some trouble from my own site, when I'm not logged in. Well, you know what they say, there's a pretty fine line between love and hate.