Affirmative action isn’t un-American

TBy Andrew Hamilton This year the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up, for the first time in 25 years, the question whether the U.S. Constitution bars elite universities from using race and ethnicity as factors in admissions decisions. So-called affirmative action lies at the intersection of deeply held American values. We all believe it’s important to reward hard work and accomplishment. We also believe it’s important to meet different kinds of people and to have diverse experiences. And we believe the enslavement of blacks was deeply wrong and that any continuing legacy of racial discrimination is wrong.

Is it enough, though, to say that race is unimportant? That what matters is who each of us is on the inside? That affirmative programs are therefore unconstitutional – even un-American – because they mistakenly assign importance to race? I don’t think so. In talking about race and affirmative action, we do well to follow the advice of the community organizer Saul Alinsky, who insisted that we start from the way the world really is, not from how we think it should be.

While we all would prefer to live in a world in which racial distinctions are irrelevant, that is not how things are. According to data compiled by William Kidder, in the mid-1990s, white law-school applicants at every grade-point-average level were (on average, across all law schools) more likely to be admitted than black applicants at those same GPA levels. If racial distinctions really were irrelevant in our culture, that gap would be nonexistent. We do ourselves and our nation no favors if we ignore such facts merely because they make us uncomfortable.

But what about the people like me – white applicants whose odds of admission are affected by affirmative action? (Full disclosure: when I applied last year to law schools, I was rejected by several schools that use affirmative action in their admissions procedures.) Are we treated unfairly? I don’t think so, for at least two reasons. First, there are so many white applicants to elite schools that the odds of the average white applicant getting in are quite low anyway; when an admissions committee gives some preference to the few minority applicants, the average white applicant still has just about the same odds. In other words, white applicants who don’t get in are almost uniformly losing out to other white applicants, not to minority applicants. How could I reasonably blame the small number of minority applicants for the fact that many law schools I applied to had hundreds of white applicants with credentials that were comparable to mine? Doing so would be morally indefensible.

Second, people rarely complain when a university announces that it wants to have people with diverse interests and talents in its classes. We all agree that classes at elite universities should have athletes and artists, New Englanders and small-town Midwesterners. I surely benefit from examining ideas with athletes and artists. As someone who grew up almost exclusively around other white people, I benefit just as surely from examining those same ideas with members of racial minorities, whose perceptions of politics and (especially) experiences with law enforcement are likely to be much different from mine.

Why, then, do so many white people get nervous and defensive when a university or a law school ensures that its classes will have both white students and minority students? There is one explanation, of course: Many white people believe their skin color alone entitles them to elite status. That is, I hope, un-American.

Andrew Hamilton is a student at the Law School. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]