I find even many people who don’t vote Republican and don’t see themselves as conservatives use this type of response when discussing programs like Affirmative Action. They see themselves as arguing for the “meritocracy”, yet don’t recognize how fraudulent the idea of the US as a meritocracy is.
To keep with the Affirmative Action example, since it is one of the most prominent, they tend to get tons wrong about affirmative action, what it actually does for minorities, and the large amounts of “unspoken” affirmative action that exists for the wealthy and alumni (both of which are more likely to be white due to racial wealth gaps and the historical legacy of admissions):
At 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League – Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown – more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.
Roughly one in four of the richest students attend an elite college – universities that typically cluster toward the top of annual rankings. In contrast, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college; less than half attend any college at all.
At elite colleges, the share of students from the bottom 40 percent has remained mostly flat for a decade. Access to top colleges has not changed much, at least when measured in quintiles. (The poor have gotten poorer over that time, and the very rich have gotten richer.)
The children of the rich and famous received special treatment, as did the children of alumni. If your parent or grandparent had gone to the university, your admission chances were greatly enhanced. The thought was a family’s loyalty to the institution should be rewarded even though it created unfairness for first-generation college students. Ultimately, there would be a book by Daniel Golden entitled “The Price of Admission” that explained how Brown and other Ivies had risen to prominence in part based on “affirmative action” for wealthy donors and famous celebrities.
Documents unsealed during that litigation showed how Harvard privileged the applications of the wealthy, donors, legacies (that is, alumni offspring), and faculty children. As an example, the admission rate for legacies was 33.6 percent, compared to 5.9 percent for non-alumni applicants.
Under oath, the Harvard dean of admissions was forced to explain emails he had sent “suggesting special consideration for the offspring of big donors, those who have ‘already committed to a building’ or have ‘an art collection which could conceivably come our way.’”
At Brown, I saw similar practices firsthand. When the children of prominent people came to campus for admissions tours, the development office would call me and other faculty members to set up individual meetings with them. On many occasions, I met the children of famous politicians and media celebrities who wanted their son or daughter to get into Brown. I talked with them about the university, and sometimes wrote letters on their behalf describing the meeting. It was standard operating procedure at the university as well as other elite institutions to provide special treatment for offspring of the prominent and well heeled.
Last year’s survey of college admissions directors by Inside Higher Ed found that 42 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and universities said legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their institutions. The figure at public institutions is only 6 percent.
A new study notes that in the six admissions cycles between 2014 and 2019, 43% of white students admitted to Harvard were either legacies, recruited athletes, children of faculty and staff, or students on the Dean’s Interest List—a list of applicants whose relatives have donated to Harvard, the existence of which only became public knowledge in 2018. By contrast, no more than 16% of admitted students who were African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic fell into one of those favored categories.
The Wall Street Journal reports that over the past five years, Princeton University admitted 30% of its legacy applicants, compared to 7% of the general applicant pool, while the acceptance rate for legacies at the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, and the University of Virginia is roughly double the rate for the overall applicant pool.
Since Ivy League schools were overwhelmingly white for the bulk of their histories, giving special status to the descendants of previous attendees would seem to perpetuate an unjust history of discrimination. (Indeed, legacy admissions policies were invented to justify discrimination against Jewish students at elite schools.)
What race is most likely to have legacy to Ivy League universities? Racial wealth gaps? And racial income gaps? All this not even getting into the indirect benefits, such as better schools, repercussions of a racists justice system faced disproportionately by other racial groups, higher places on the racial wealth and income trends leading to more resources for test prep, the effects of poverty on development, etc.
Racial affirmative action and “racist unmeritocratic admissions” is a beautiful issue to tactically push as a wedge, yet there are more Ivy Leaguers from the top 1% than bottom 60% - as if the portion of smart kids in the bottom 60% is that drastically lower.
In face of that, some argue that affirmative action should just be income or wealth based (which should be included), but when there has been decades of de jure and de facto racial segregation creating living conditions, it becomes necessary to take into account the historical, and current, racial structures.
Poor whites tend to live in more affluent neighborhoods than do middle- class blacks and Latinos, a situation that leaves those minorities more likely to contend with weaker schools, higher crime and greater social problems, according to a new study.
The new research by scholars at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that the gap separating black and Hispanic neighborhoods from white ones persists up and down the income ladder. A black household with an annual income of $50,000 lives on average in a neighborhood where the median income is under $43,000. But whites with the same income live in neighborhoods where the median income is almost $53,000—about 25 percent higher.
A recent, large study examining the effects of California’s ban on racial affirmative action for public schools found that the ban hurt Black and Hispanic students quite badly, while providing relatively little benefit to White and Asian-American students:
A comprehensive study released Friday finds that by nearly every measure, the ban has harmed Black and Hispanic students, decreasing their number in the University of California system while reducing their odds of finishing college, going to graduate school and earning a high salary. At the same time, the policy didn’t appear to greatly benefit the white and Asian-American students who took their place.
This isn’t to say the current affirmative action is perfect: for example, American Hmong and Chinese applicants both get treated as “Asian”, despite having different historical background in America and the average test scores and wealth differing dramatically between groups. As well as other inequalities between different Asian ethnicities. But, there are strong reasons for programs that recognize past discrimination and try to level overall playing fields for the future generations.
Given the racial inequalities in the US, the playing field is not equal, and if you treat everyone as equal, when some have significant advantages (on average) for their educational development, then all you do is strengthen the future divide by rewarding the current divide.