It's the provocative question that polite people don't like to ask in the presence of their friends of different races. Who really has it tougher? Black person A or white person B or Asian person C, Latino person D or multi-racial person E?
Part of why that question remains so provocative is because while many of us may believe we know the answer (and may be willing to cop to it in the comfort and privacy of our homes out of earshot of the political correctness cops), we also acknowledge that there are endless qualifiers to that question.
Statistically, black men are more likely than others to find themselves on the losing end of our criminal justice system (a fact even Ron Paul acknowledged in the last GOP debate, which is saying something). Unless of course it's 1995, you're rich, and your name is O.J. Simpson. Racial minorities are often held to higher academic and professional standards when it comes to receiving promotions at the upper echelons of their fields. Unless of course your name is Clarence Thomas and a conservative president needs to prove he's not a bigot.
When the word "unless" enters the equation, it makes it easier for people to argue that the equation itself should not exist. Welcome to the 2011 debate over affirmative action.
As recently reported in the New York Times, a legal battle that's likely headed for the Supreme Court could soon mark the end of affirmative action as we know it in higher education. (Click here to see a list of the most important legal battles in America's war over affirmative action.)
Let me state this for the record: I don't believe that I should receive an opportunity for a job or admission into an institution of higher learning over someone more qualified simply due to the color of my skin, and wouldn't want to. By the same token I wouldn't want to lose a job or admission to an institution of higher learning due to factors equally beyond my control, such as my last name or my class status, yet that kind of missed opportunity happens to people like me all of the time. (To clarify, by "people like me" I mean those of us who were not born wealthy, well connected and fabulous.)
And therein lies the dilemma in whether to end affirmative action as we know it. Colleges and universities weigh a variety of factors that have little to do with merit, in making admissions decisions. The findings of a recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed confirmed what many of us already know: admissions officers feel pressured to admit students from wealthy families, specifically over students who may require financial aid. This finding simply reaffirmed one of America's most embarrassing dirty little secrets: that many of the criteria used to determine admissions in higher education -- the gateway to the American Dream -- overwhelmingly benefit those born into privilege. And even in 2011, the majority of people born into privilege in this country are not racial minorities.
On the most obvious level there is the issue of legacy admissions, benefiting those whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents or other relatives attended an institution of higher learning. The second President Bush evoked the ire of affirmative action proponents when his administration famously filed a brief encouraging the Supreme Court to declare the University of Michigan's admissions process unconstitutional for the manner in which race was considered. This despite the fact that his father and grandfather's previous attendance at Yale played a much greater role in his admission than his lackluster academic record. (As a quick comparison like many black Americans, none of my grandparents, all of whom were farmers and picked cotton, had the opportunity to attend college, although considering my great-grandmother was born into slavery they did reasonably well for themselves.) But there are countless other ways in which the college admissions process is rigged to benefit the privileged.
"Internship" is code for work done for very little money and often for free. The more prestigious the internship, the more likely it pays nothing. That's great for those kids whose parents can afford to subsidize junior's summer internship at a fashion magazine, or an international charity founded by a celebrity in a foreign country. That's not so great for the average kid who has to work at Starbucks or the Gap for the summer to help out the family -- if they can even get those jobs in the current economic climate.
Then of course there are all those extracurricular activities that don't pay for themselves. If a student lists playing the violin or flute on his application, mom and dad must have paid for private lessons because music programs are being cut left and right in public schools. If an applicant lists "fluent in multiple languages" on an application, mom and dad probably paid for a private tutor, and as far as standardized test scores go? There's not a single self-respecting parent on the Upper East Side who doesn't have a tutor for that too.
My point? Those born into privilege start the college admissions process miles ahead of those not born into privilege. If there is one flaw in affirmative action as it stands now, it's not that it benefits too many racial minorities. It's that it doesn't benefit enough other people from non-privileged backgrounds.
President Obama's daughters will have opportunities in their lives that most of us will only dream of. I'm not alleging that the President and First Lady will pick up the phone and call in favors on their behalf. They won't have to. Just as both President Bushes did not have to call in favors for their children or President Clinton has not had to call in favors for his daughter. By virtue of their names and family connections, there are doors that will swing open for them at colleges, graduate schools and jobs that may be closed to many of us. Or at the very least will require one hell of a strong key to unlock.
What I find mind boggling is why so many invest energy and litigation trying to remedy being "cheated" out of opportunities by a system that they view as "unfairly" benefiting a few minority students, when the entire system unfairly benefits a group of privileged people it keeps recycling generation after generation. Where's the outrage in that? Not to mention the court challenge? Where's that "Occupy Admissions" movement? Maybe people simply assume it's a lost cause. Well, maybe it is. But here are a couple of remedies worth considering before we give up altogether.
The next time a wealthy person attempts to buy his son or daughter's way into his or her alma mater, may I suggest that instead of the college or university using that big check to build another useless recreation center and smacking that person's name on it, how about as a rule only using such contributions to subsidize the attendance of a less privileged student (or two or three or more)?
And a more extreme solution? In some Olympic sports routines are weighted differently based on their complexity. If someone attempts a complicated move and nails it they are graded on a different scale than someone who attempts a relatively easy routine. Why not apply the same thinking to admissions? If someone attended prep school, interned for Madonna's Raising Malawi Foundation at 15, traveled to the United Kingdom to intern for David Cameron at 16, while taking private cello lessons in his spare time (with an instructor who once played for the New York Philharmonic), good for him. His application should receive every consideration. But if the goal of education in this country is to create an equal playing field and equal opportunity, then I would argue that that application should actually not receive as much consideration (or as many "points" per the University of Michigan case guidelines) as the one next to it from the kid who has the same grade point average, similar SAT score, who spent summers working two jobs to help support his family, and whose only shot at the American Dream is that college admissions slot -- and the financial aid to make it possible.
Because you know what? The Malia and Sasha Obamas of the world will ultimately be just fine. It's the Malia Washingtons and Sasha Smiths of the world that we have to worry about.