Color Me Blind: The Affirmative Action Debate

[3 July 2003]

By Josh Jones


Jayson Blair

Fervency for color-blindness has left some observers simply blind to a basic fact of American public life: we have pressing moral dilemmas in our society that can be grasped only when viewed against the backdrop of our unlovely racial history.
—William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University, in a letter to Senator Bill Bradley, 11 January 2000

By conveniently forgetting every word King ever said except “color-blind,” they [right-wingers] pretend not to see white privilege and accuse blacks of “reverse racism” for daring to point it out… How low can those bootleggers go?
—Courtland Milloy, The Washington Post, 29 June 2003

What will be most interesting about the scandal involving New York Times journalist Jayson Blair… is not whether we have here a cautionary tale regarding the excesses of standard-lowering in the fanatical pursuit of “diversity.” We obviously do.
—Roger Clegg, National Review Online, 13 May 2003

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Diamond As Big As The Ritz,” obscenely wealthy Braddock Tarleton Washington lives in a literal ivory tower, atop a diamond mine. Asked why he removed marble baths from his slave quarters, he explains, “Water is not good for certain races, except as a beverage.” Fitzgerald’s story is, of course, hyperbolic, but its satire of American avarice, classism, and racial paternalism is spot-on, particularly in Washington’s comment. Substitute “educational opportunity” and “social equality” for “water,” and “palliative” for beverage and you have an approximation of publicly stated white attitudes toward black America for all but the last 30 years or so.

Unfortunately, those attitudes persist, in less virulent and legal forms, into the present, as evidenced by the recent controversy over an always controversial topic—affirmative action—occasioned both by the just-decided Grutter and Gratz cases against the University of Michigan, and the Jayson Blair scandal that rocked the New York Times and sent its top brass tumbling from their pedestals (to the delight of conservatives everywhere).

In both the Supreme Court cases and the Blair scandal, the copious mud-slinging has made it quite difficult to see what is really at issue. Many people seem bent on proving that blacks and other minorities who have benefited from affirmative action policies just don’t “belong,” or, to use a much-abused cliché, affirmative action is a “hand out, not a hand up.”

While critics of affirmative action policies recite their catechism of dissent—AA results in lowered standards, resentment between races, “reverse racism,” and low self-esteem among beneficiaries—they yearn for a “color-blind” society, in which race need never be discussed at all… ever… for any reason. In this utopian near future, we will have all risen above such divisive distinctions. Both claims—that affirmative action policies are undeserved and harmful “hand-outs,” and that “color-blindness” is on the horizon—are as ludicrous and hyperbolic as Fitzgerald’s story about a diamond as big as the Ritz Carlton. Call me cynical, but I find it hard to believe that a nation that recently printed photographs of lynched black men and grinning white mobs as picture postcards will soon forget its history of racial apartheid and color consciousness, or that racism will ever disappear of its own accord.

In his 1971 book, The Black Image in the White Mind, historian George M. Fredrickson argued that U.S. racism became theoretically sophisticated in its opposition to sophisticated Enlightenment principles of social equality. In order to justify their worldview, says Fredrickson, white supremacists appealed to another facet of Enlightenment thinking, scientific rationalism—pure data. In spite of historical injustices, and the present social realities that are their direct result, affirmative action opponents like ideologue Dinesh D’Souza continue to use faceless statistics as the only measure of “merit” and argue that policymakers, employers, and admissions officers should do the same.

In addition to glowing biographies of Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan, D’Souza has written Illiberal Education and The End of Racism, both of which argue against affirmative action and welfare, and blame blacks for their own poverty and educational woes (in the latter book, he describes the black community as “pathological”). In “Sins of Admissions,” published in The New Republic (2 February 1991), D’Souza asserts that because whites and Asians score an average of 200 points higher than blacks on the SAT, “the only way for colleges to achieve ethnic proportionalism is to downplay merit or abandon merit criteria.” In truth, as William G. Bowen and Derek Bok painstakingly document in The Shape of the River (Princeton University Press 1998), the SAT scores of black applicants have consistently averaged about 100 points lower than whites since the mid-‘70s. But what D’Souza neglects to mention is that so-called “merit” criteria have never been the sole determinants in college and university admissions, and for good reason.

Bowen and Bok point out that, despite the relative importance of academic “merit” (which they define as “a simple function of quantifiable criteria”), both blacks and whites with above average SAT scores are routinely rejected in favor of candidates who meet other criteria. They identify four major categories used in most admissions’ processes: academic merit, legacy status, leadership potential, and “background”—a category not limited to race, but including athletic and artistic talent, employment history, and extracurricular activities.

Far from downplaying or abandoning merit criteria, they argue, selective institutions use measures other than test scores and GPAs to gauge what used to be called the “character” of an applicant—meaning an applicant’s resolve, maturity, and potential to contribute to society. A “color-blind” admissions policy that does not consider race or ethnicity would have to eliminate all criteria but “quantitative data.” There would be no more personal statements, extracurricular activities, curriculum vitae, or recommendation letters, because all these reflect on an applicant’s identity, inextricably bound with his or her race and ethnicity.

Still, affirmative action policies play a role in college admissions, and will continue to do so, “holistically,” after the Supreme Court’s ruling last week. Colleges and universities actively seek to represent minorities in percentages commensurate with population distribution, and there remains a disparity between the test scores of whites and blacks.

While Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve—that bible of social eugenics—has cited lagging black test scores as proof of blacks’ genetic intellectual inferiority, or low IQ, others have pointed to more insidious causes. There is much evidence of racial and cultural biases built into standardized tests. Still, D’Souza derides this idea, charging that minority organizations offer cultural bias as an “attractive explanation” for poor academic skills. He also refers to “the retention problem,” contending that black students who are admitted under affirmative action policies have a high dropout rate or suffer academically because they are “bewildered by at the realities of college life.” D’Souza’s arguments are not only offensive; according to Bowen and Bok, they are false. The authors found that “the more selective the college attended, the lower the black dropout rate.”

And yet, some critics assert that those black students who are admitted to selective schools under affirmative action policies are responsible for lowered academic standards. John McWhorter, African American linguist and author of Authentically Black, says in an interview with Salon:

The problem is that a lot of what’s considered to help black people doesn’t. For example, affirmative action. If what comes out of this is that the White House decides to nudge the Supreme Court into agreeing with the University of Michigan, they’re supporting a policy where black people of any circumstances are allowed into top universities with lower grades and test scores than other people. We say “affirmative action” and we get kind of rosy inside, but it’s a euphemism for lowering standards for people with pigment.

McWhorter should know better. A large percentage of the growing class of “pigmented” professionals and academics in the last 30 years has advanced because of affirmative action policies. This by no means signifies that the black middle class is “unqualified,” or that their education, titles, and achievements have been simply handed to them, but in fact, points to just the opposite. One can be handed an opportunity; one is not “handed,” a degree, a career, or a professorship.

Even Clarence Thomas, whose views are in close accord with McWhorter’s, was appointed to placate the racial, if not political, diversity lobby, whether he wishes to acknowledge it or not. And though he is a qualified jurist, according Newsday‘s Les Payne, Thomas was admitted to Yale Law “on the waxen wings of affirmative action.”

Even so, in his dissenting opinion on the Michigan case, Thomas appropriates the words of Frederick Douglass, in what Courtland Milloy calls “a watered-down mix of black self-help and fermented self-loathing... He seems to have deliberately misinterpreted Douglass’s words.” Tellingly, this misinterpretation hinges on a peculiar notion of “color-blindness,” as Thomas quotes Douglass’ demand that a black man be “left alone,” and free from “interference.” What Douglass is demanding, says Milloy, is that the black man be free from taunts and obstruction on his way to school or the voting booth, not free from opportunities for education and advancement. Thomas omits the crucial context of Douglass’ injunction, that of racist abuse and violence.

In truth, literal (if not legal) “color-blindness” is impossible. Racism might ultimately be conquered, but that will take conscious effort. Although affirmative action has been called “reverse racism” (Justice Antonin Scalia goes so far as to call it “racial discrimination”), those who identify as white have never been legally discriminated against as a group. They have only been displaced individually, to provide opportunities to minorities who suffer from inequalities imposed by neither genetics nor “pathology,” but by historically discriminatory practices that were, until very recently, the law of the land. It is not only absurd, but also willfully ignorant to equate affirmative action with slavery, manifest destiny, colonialism, and Jim Crow.

By contrast, some histories are well remembered, even flaunted. Recall that George W. Bush is himself a legacy case, admitted to Yale because of his familial background. And though he has since flipped, flopped, and praised the Supreme Court’s ruling, on Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s birthday of this year, he called the University of Michigan’s policies unconstitutional. In response, Robert Sheer of The Nation asks, “Would that be the same Constitution that originally condoned legal slavery and voting rights only for landed men? The same Constitution that was interpreted by the ‘impartial courts’ for almost a century after the Civil War as countenancing segregation?”

Bush is not the only affirmative action opponent to use the Constitution as support. According to Laura Flanders in The Nation, the Center for Individual Rights seeks “the re-invigoration of meaningful Constitutional constraints on government.” The CIR is a legal fund that represented Cheryl Hopwood in Hopwood vs. Texas, the case that overturned affirmative action in that state. And it has generously represented the plaintiffs in the U of M cases.

The CIR is funded by conservative foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation. As documented by watchdog organization Media Transparency, these same foundations have awarded millions of dollars in grants to D’Souza, Charles Murray, and the Manhattan Institute, where McWhorter is a Senior Fellow. When you follow the money, it becomes evident that opponents of affirmative action policies are very well connected. Says Flanders: “The same people are bankrolling the campaign against affirmative action by supporting right-wing think tanks and conservative pundits across the country.”

The “same people” also support color-blind, or meritocratic, policies in hiring and admissions. But such policies overlook the continued existence of racism and social injustice, the daily judgments, economic conditions, and (lack of) access to early education still determined by color, not “merit.” The argument for color-blindness appeals to raw data as the measure of an individual’s “merit,” a practice that denies past and present realities.

Such denial has surely affected understandings of the Jayson Blair scandal, which has been cast as an example of affirmative action gone horribly wrong. Yes, Blair was hired by the Times because of a stated “commitment to diversity,” and, yes, he may have been promoted through the ranks for the same reason. But does this individual case lend credence to affirmative action’s detractors? Blair’s blatant fraud, while ethically repugnant, certainly did not set a journalistic precedent. In fact, white journalist Stephen Glass, formerly of the New Republic, was guilty of similar offenses; yet, as Amy Alexander argues, he and other disingenuous white journalists “are not viewed as being examples of how ‘Undeserving White Guys are Ruining Journalism.’”

Where Glass gets a publishing deal (and has written a novel, The Fabulist, based on his days as a journalist who lied), Blair is demonized and made to bear the burden of his entire race. Roger Clegg says at least that Blair is “less of a disgrace” than Glass. But then Clegg goes so far as to claim that “Blair was likely benefiting from the double, lowered standards before (my emphasis) he came to the Times.” To make this point, he quotes the disparate median SAT scores and graduation rates for black and white students at the University of Maryland during the time of Blair’s attendance. Clegg’s assertion that, based on the overall stats of black students, Jayson Blair didn’t “deserve” to be at Maryland any more than at the Times, assumes that, because Blair is black, he “likely” had low SAT scores or was a dropout (he didn’t graduate, in fact, but only because he was hired by the Times—hardly a failure). “To be fair,” Clegg compares Blair to a white journalist, in a manner that reads like a baseball stats page.

Why this obsession with the numbers? Because they allow Clegg and others to “prove” that, despite individual successes or failures, the figures tell us that blacks just don’t cut it in higher education, or “higher” journalism. The double standard applied to Jayson Blair, like the color-blindness advocated by Clarence Thomas, James McWhorter, the CIR, Justice Scalia, and Dinesh D’Souza, only demonstrates the ongoing need for open discussions of race in hiring, university admissions, and the media. Such discussions don’t reach for easy answers in abstract statistics, but are grounded in honest appraisals of past and present social realities, and consider the struggles of individuals, over and above the law of averages. Color-blindness as an ideal is wonderfully, and perhaps willfully, naive, but like the paradise of Fitzgerald’s story, which ends in disaster, it is an extravagant and untenable fantasy.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/030703-affirmativeaction/