On April 22nd the Supreme Court decided that race could not be used as a factor in college admission if the majority of the voters in a state decided to prohibit it. In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 209 ending any considerations of race or ethnicity in public university admissions sending affirmative action to its grave. The recent Supreme Court case (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action) affirmed a similar Michigan law passed in 2006. If voters in a state want to pass a law making affirmative action legal then the Supreme Court is presumably okay with it. Slavery, Jim Crow, Redlining, recent attacks on voting rights targeted at racial minorities – none of that matters because as Chief Justice Roberts says, “things have changed dramatically” since the voting rights act was passed fifty years ago. As he and the majority of the court see it, there’s no justification for racial sensitivity in college admissions. Of course it’s okay to consider other factors such as children of faculty or staff, athletes, legacies, or in the case of California, whether an applicant is a non-tax paying out of state resident. The University of California actually recruits non-resident applicants because they pay about double what a resident pays and therefore are admitted at much higher rates than the sons and daughters of California taxpayers. Some might call that preferential treatment.
The Supreme Court tells us that if we want to add race to the admissions mix we just need to pass a law. And in Judge Roberts’ Pollyanna world where racism and discrimination have gone the way of T-Rex not only is a race sensitive admissions policy unnecessary, it’s entirely possible to pass a law if we want it. Is it? Really? What group has the resources to mount a pro-affirmative action initiative campaign in California or Michigan? Riddle me this Judge, why is enrollment of minorities at public universities in Michigan down 25% since the 2006 law was passed?
I’ve had two encounters with parents this week that would suggest Judge Roberts’ proclamation that things have changed dramatically is, well…premature. A few days ago I met with a very nice white family who live in a very nice beige house on a paved hill in a gated community. Mom had called me to say that her son worked better with men and since I was the only male college counselor in the area she guessed she was “stuck” with me by default. Actually, she’d seen a presentation by a male counselor that “blew her socks off”, but she couldn’t locate him and did I know a counselor named Denny. I told her I don’t know Denny, but maybe she should continue looking for him. She said she was bad at computers and was tired of searching for him, so I suggested we meet and perhaps I would make such a sterling impression she would forget all about Denny and would feel better about being stuck with me.
During our meeting I explained that I had done a six month practicum for my college counseling certificate at the fifth largest public high school in the country. When I said the name of the high school mom perked up. She had graduated from that very same school and was curious to know what it was like because the neighborhood had changed a lot since she grew up there. The high school has over 5,000 students of which at least 80% are undocumented and about 90% qualify for the federal school lunch program. “Undocumented?” “Yes,” I replied, “mostly Latino.” Her face immediately seized up, scrunched into a persimmon scowl as if she’d just tasted excrement. She remained frozen in that doo-doo scrunch for several seconds until I finally said, “Why are you making that face?” She rolled her eyes like I was crazy, and blurted out to her fourteen year old son, “you don’t have to deal with that at your school.” She’s right, of course. At his school there aren’t any poor undocumented Latino kids, just drugs and drunk drivers.
Then the day after the Supreme Court decision a man named White (I’m not kidding) called me to say that his daughter had applied to transfer from a local community college to UCLA and had been rejected. She was a great student who’d done everything required of her and had a 3.3 gpa. He was mad as hell and wanted an advocate: someone who would take on UCLA and get the decision reversed. I explained that UCLA was now one of the most selective colleges in the country with an admit rate of about 18% and that unless there was new evidence not previously disclosed on her application an appeal would fail. But his girl was losing out to blacks who have it easier in admissions at UCLA. Blacks? Easier? At UCLA? Let’s forget for the moment that eighteen years ago California passed Proposition 209 making affirmative action illegal at UCLA. Of the 18% of applicants UCLA admitted, 26% were white and 4% were black. But Mr. White believes that his daughter was discriminated against and that blacks received preferential treatment by UCLA admissions. He referred to an article in the LA Times that reported that 27% of Hispanics had been admitted, the first time UCLA admitted more Hispanics than whites, which might be alarming except that Latinos comprise 39% of the California population, the largest ethnic group in our state. Finally, he admitted that his daughter got a D in a crucial course but that it wasn’t her fault.
I realize that an anecdotal sampling of two proves nothing. But my encounters with Ms. Persimmon Face and Mr. White suggest that there’s no reason to believe Prop 209 will ever be reversed at the ballot box. In fact, last month a group of Asian American state legislators blocked a move in the California legislature to overturn part of Prop 209.
So if you’re Black or Latino, please understand that Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, Alito, and Breyer; and Mr. White and Ms. Persimmon Face, have nothing against you. They all saw “12 Years a Slave”, and they agree that Cesar Chavez probably does deserve that street named after him in East L.A. But come on now, get over it. Get a firm grip on your bootstraps and pull hard, because that’s how the rest of us did it. You don’t need race sensitive admission policies. Judge Roberts said the country has moved beyond it.
Postscript: I never heard from Ms. Persimmon Face or Mr. White again.