Jamelle put me on to last night’s debate over affirmative action being webcast by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs. The resolution put forth to the debaters was that AA should focus on class/wealth, instead of race and ethnicity.
On the pro side: everyone’s favorite relatively mainstream black conservative John McWhorter*, and NYU sociologist Dalton Conley. On the con side: everyone’s favorite relic of the civil rights industrial complex Julian Bond, and Columbia president Lee Bollinger.
First, I’ve come around to supporting class-based AA (and not the kind that means rich, dumb kids get to go to top universities), but the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if it just means black and Latino kids will get the shaft in some unforeseen way. Anyway. Part of the reason I support class-based AA is because of people like Julian Bond. His ‘argument’ in favor of race-based AA was more Ramblin’ Storytime With Uncle Julian than an actual position. It seemed like he was going through the motions, supporting a position that isn’t really defensible any longer, because that’s what he’s always done and that’s what he’ll continue to do. Bond is stuck in auto-pilot, thinking about things as they were, not as they are.
His opening statement:
Using class as a substitute for race would be the abandonment of affirmative action as it was intended. In the process, abandoning its promise of justice to once-enslaved Americans.
And then he went on to quote Ronald Reagan, explain to the crowd how bad slavery was, and call the characteristics of race “immutable.”
The thing about this that bugs me is that advantaged blacks, like Bond, like his five children, and like me, don’t really want for opportunity. As Dalton Conley said in his excellent opening statement, at a certain level of family income, black students actually graduate at higher rates than their white counterparts. Yes, racism exists, but ending racism isn’t the goal of most race-based AA supporters. The goal is to handicap the less-advantaged descendants of slavery. But advantaged kids, regardless of race, are already handicapped.
John McWhorter frustrates me in a different way. While Bond, though wrongheaded, really believes that AA is the only way to end black disadvantage, McWhorter just seems really, really dishonest. He structures his argument against points that no one is actually making (like “AA is necessary because admissions officers are racist”). He also tosses out the “poor black kids think being smart is for white people” red herring a few times. Pretty much anytime he speaks, he builds a straw man and then takes it down with vigor.
Bollinger, the named defendant in two Supreme Court cases that attempted to end race-as-a-factor in admissions, fared better than Bond in his support of AA 1.0. He supports class-based AA, but thinks that it should be an addendum, not a replacement. He did a great job of listing the many factors that go in to admission decisions, and notes that if class is the only factor, then the proportion of white students will increase. I think that’s a fair point to make, but no one is suggesting that class would be the only factor in admitting students.
Dalton Conley, who seemed to almost be on the wrong side of the discussion (when I started watching, I wasn’t sure whose team he was on) made the best argument of all. Socioeconomic factors play a huge role in the success of all Americans, no matter where they go to school. He also suggests that ‘diversity’ isn’t the main goal of AA, but rather that America tries to make social change in schools, instead of taking a more radical approach to fixing wealth disparity and housing segregation in our larger society.
The discussion, despite Bond’s multitude of non-answers and McWhorter’s shadow-boxing, covers most of the arguments on both sides. It is disappointing that, at times, both Bond and McWhorter seemed to be trading on their ‘blackness’ as the reason why we should listen to them, while Conley pointed to actual research and Bollinger used intimate knowledge of the university admission process make their arguments.
*McWhorter produces incandescent rage in me. I think he’s wild smart, but when he starts being dishonest (as he often does when talking about AA or hip-hop or ebonics) I get really, really stabby. I have to wonder if he’s just effing with us.