As the Supreme Court once again takes up the issue of affirmative action (in Fisher vs. University of Texas), I can't help but think that society needs to shift the way we view race in college admissions. Like most people, I do not believe it is right to treat people differently based upon race in and of itself. But in this society, there is no way to look at race in and of itself. That is, race has meaning. Socially constructed meaning, but meaning nonetheless.
What I hope for is a system that takes into account how race affects one's life: how it intersects with class and opportunity, and how prejudice and discrimination affect individuals' achievement. If we strive toward such a system, colleges can consider racial inequalities without making decisions based upon race in and of itself.
For a long time, I thought that examining class would be enough to address how race affects one's life. Because 33 percent of black and 27 percent of Latino youth live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of white youth, considering class in the admissions process can address racial inequalities. Furthermore, there are both well-off and less privileged youth within each racial group. It is certainly more impressive to have a 3.4 GPA if you are the first in your family to graduate high school and had to work part-time than if your parents both have master's degrees and paid for tutors and extracurricular activities. Regardless of race, the child of a doctor, lawyer or teacher has an advantage over the child of a single mother struggling to make ends meet at a minimum wage job.
But within any given socioeconomic category, racial minority youth are at a disadvantage. A poor black teenager must deal not only with the perils of poverty, but the stigma of being black. He must deal with the fact that, when he walks down the street, people may give him odd glances, erroneously wondering if he's in a gang, into drugs or unintelligent. When he watches TV, he will mostly see black characters in token supporting roles rather than as prominent leads. When he applies for a job, he's less likely to get a call back. A poor white teenager may have to overcome having parents with limited education and a lack of role models to promote a higher education, but a poor black teenager must overcome this plus the effects of racial prejudice.
In other words, for a low-income teenager of color to achieve the same as a low-income white teenager, it is more impressive. More likely than not, he or she has to be more motivated, work harder, and work with fewer resources than her white counterparts. And if she achieves a little less than her peers, she may still have just as much potential. We need a system that recognizes that, especially given the historical under-representation of racial minorities in higher education.
How do we accomplish this? That's the difficult part. It's easy to ask applicants for their race; it's hard to grasp how race -- and racial prejudice -- affect a person's life. One idea I had was to ask college applicants to describe a time when they experienced or witnessed discrimination and describe how that affected or influenced them. On the one hand, this would provide an opportunity to better understand how race affects an individual's life experiences. It also would provide an opportunity to see how such experiences have changed a person's perspective or built their character. But such a proposal also places a new burden on racial minority individuals to delve into their life experiences, and it is possible that the better educational opportunities available at elite, predominantly white schools would lead to more impressive analyses that would serve to further benefit these privileged students. Not to mention, cash-strapped universities may not have the resources to read tens of thousands of extra pages of applications.
However we go forward, we as a society need a mindset change, as race is not just a box on a form but part of a set of experiences that influence one's life. I would not be surprised if the Supreme Court rules that race-based affirmative action is unconstitutional; the court's rulings have consistently narrowed the scope of affirmative action, and in the most recent decision in 2003, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor predicted that the practice would no longer be justifiable within 25 years. However, trying to understand how a person's life experiences have shaped their ability to achieve will always be permissible. I am not certain how we can feasibly create such a perspective-taking system, but if we strive toward it, we can have a more fair admissions process that considers not the color of one's skin, but what that really means.