The painful truth about hand-wringing over whether Affirmative Action “harms” racial minorities is that no one cares if Affirmative Action harms racial minorities. The faux concern for the well-being of poor put-upon non-white students who are promoted beyond their ability never extends to concern for the many more white students who are surely promoted beyond theirs. At the same time we have debates about whether any student learns anything in college anymore (see: Academically Adrift), we also debate if there is too much learning happening for poor non-white students. And we care about that only as it is politically convenient to defend the legacy preferences, white preferences, athlete preferences and donor preferences at colleges and universities. With friends like this, as the saying goes, non-white students don’t need enemies.
This is liberal concern-trolling of the type, tenor and intensity that makes social media trolling seem quaint by comparison. The argument goes that black students’ self-efficacy is damaged when they have to compete with better-prepared white students at rigorous universities. These students persist and feel better when they are at a university that is calibrated to their level of ability. Even if we accept that someone actually cares that black students’ feelings are hurt (and I would argue vehemently that very few people making this argument actually care), the reasoning is usually fallacious, from circular logic to selection issues. The most common fallacy here is selecting on the dependent variable. The other fallacy is arguing that grades are objective, standardized measures and not subjective, non-standard measures. But all of that is perhaps beside the point. Douglas Massey, Camille Charles, Garvey Lundy and Mary Fischer tackle this well in “The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities”. Alon and Tienda also have work here in the Sociology of Education.
It is true that black and hispanic students report lower levels of satisfaction and belonging at PWIs. That can certainly condition one’s academic performance. It is also true that poorer black and hispanic students are likely to have different levels of academic preparation that can be a “mismatch” for the assumed curriculum exposure embedded in college curricula (with that skewing towards elite universities and away from say open access community colleges). None of these things are about being black or hispanic. It is true for many students and seems to be becoming more true for more students as stratification within and between k-12 schools persists. Black and hispanic students don’t like racist communities and many of these universities are racist. But, non-elite students also tend to not like classist communities and many of these universities are classist. Ask some working class students about how their mismatch impacts their academic performance some time (or read some of that research).
But, of course, the issue here is one about race. It isn’t an issue of race because there is anything inherently flawed with racialized people but because there is something inherently flawed with white supremacy. That’s what affirmative action was about and what it continues to be about. Can you design an integrated social, economic, cultural, and institutional system of privilege that delimits access to colleges and universities as a normal course of business and be not-for-profit, state-supported, and culturally legitimate? Because that’s what U.S. higher education did and what it continues to do. Whether black or hispanic students do not like the culture, drop out, transfer, get an F in freshman comp is not the issue. The issue is not individual performance but institutional exclusion. Of course, these universities could agree that the mismatch is just too great to bear. They could concede that the greatest universities in the world are just too fragile for a few thousand or so non-white, non-legacy students to exist on the yard. It may be the case that for all of our collective brilliance and innovation we simply cannot overcome the compound effects of white racism and residential segregation and educational stratification. In which case, put these institutions out of their misery and turn off public funding for them and to them. The mismatch between what they are and what a just, diverse, and ethical society needs may well be too great.