Why Should Colleges Be Blind to Color and Nothing Else?

By Jill Lawrence

April 24, 2014 6 min read

If you don't like affirmative action, the Supreme Court has a clear signal for you: Go for it.

When Michigan voters approved a ballot initiative to ban race as a consideration in admission to state schools, the high court said that they were simply exercising their privilege to bypass unresponsive public officials and make laws themselves.

So what's next? Will spindly, graceless people, still smarting over being picked last for every team underwrite ballot initiatives that ban consideration of the genetic gift of athletic talent? What about the genetic windfall of alumni parents? Will courts someday be asked to decide if voters have the right to ban legacy preferences?

Hardly. I have never understood why there isn't a huge outcry every year about legacy admissions or any of the tools colleges use to get what they need — be it athletes, musicians, tech nerds, classics fanatics, budding capitalists, future donors, students from all over the country and the world, rural and urban students, gay and straight students, and students of many colors.

Can you imagine an ad that says: "You needed that college acceptance, and you were the best-qualified, but they had to give it to a rich kid, because his father went there. Is that really fair?" I can't see it. But in 1990, there was an ad for North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms that said: "You needed that job, and you were the best-qualified, but they had to give it to a minority, because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"

Only race provokes feelings of resentment and persecution so intense they inspire not just campaign ads but movements for laws, referendums and court rulings. Yet those are visceral reactions that ignore history.

African-American students are legacy students in their own way. Too often, their legacy is struggle.

The Economic Policy Institute recently sponsored an eye-opening presentation on concentrated intergenerational poverty. The big takeaway: Even when black families make it to the middle class, many of them are still living in, and dragged down by, neighborhoods with poor people, inadequate schools, high crime, pollution and few transportation options or basic amenities.

New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey, author of "Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality," offered some astonishing statistics. For instance, on average, black families making $100,000 a year or more live in worse neighborhoods than white families making less than $30,000. About half of black families have lived in high-poverty neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared with 7 percent of white families.

And after adjusting for factors such as income and parental education, kids from families that have never lived in poor neighborhoods score six points above the national mean on IQ tests, while those whose families have always lived in such neighborhoods score three points below the mean. "This is the equivalent of missing about three years of schooling, and it's due purely to the neighborhood environment," Sharkey says. Not surprisingly, growing up in such neighborhoods increases the possibility of downward mobility by 50 percent.

These neighborhoods, and the way they have trapped many families, did not happen by accident. One factor was a federal rating system that overwhelmingly funneled mortgage loans to middle-class white suburbs while "red-lining" black neighborhoods in or near cities. Another is a political system that has allowed those suburbs to veto mass transit stops and affordable housing, and for many years, tolerated prejudices, covenants and real-estate "steering" designed to keep the suburbs white. So much for the ability of black families to move to areas with good schools that are on-ramps to college.

The Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 dealt another blow to black families, who have fought to accumulate assets and close the wealth gap after centuries of slavery and discrimination. The EPI, looking at Federal Reserve data from 2004 and 2009, found that the median net worth of black households had plummeted from $13,400 to $2,200 — the lowest level ever recorded. The drop for white families was comparatively modest, from $134,300 to $97,900.

The statistics illuminate the stark reality that the past is still with us. Colorblindness is a noble societal goal, but premature while we are still in the grip of policies that have fostered profound color chasms. And why would we even aim for colorblindness in college admissions when we are not blind to other aspects of teenagers angling for acceptance letters?

Affirmative action in college admissions is currently banned in nine states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and now the list will probably grow longer. The majorities who favor such bans won't care if and when student bodies become increasingly white. But that should matter to people who make federal and state policy. If we are lucky, it will force them to take a look at root causes and how they can help.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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