This has been a trying month for us seniors. It all began on December 8, when the Ivies and other top colleges released their decisions in the early round of undergraduate admissions.
As the universities’ renderings wound up on Facebook and worked their way through the grapevine, I was sometimes shocked by the outcomes, but it wasn’t too hard to put my finger on what had happened. Inherently, the college process is marked by risk and randomness, the decisions seeming almost a result of force majeure. Of course, though, they aren’t. Elite schools, in addition to their commitment to the public interest, also must take care of institutional needs, a prerogative that leads to preferences in admissions for particular groups, specifically legacies, athletes, and underrepresented minorities — categories that few Stuy students fall into.
I have always been ardently against advantages for the children of alumni; I believe they privilege the privileged. Sportsmen and sportswomen – I have largely brushed them off, because like everyone else in this country, I know March Madness wouldn’t be the same without them. However, I have wrestled over preferences for blacks and Latinos. Liberals usually support affirmative action. Nonetheless, as someone who has seen more than a few classmates ascend to the pinnacle of our own ivory tower, only to be slapped back down by a rejection from a first-choice college, I have arrived at my opposition to the practice as a simple matter of fairness.
In the real world, the most significant fault of affirmative action is that it makes outmoded assumptions about race, accepting as fact a dubious correlation between skin color and socio-economic status. Take for instance the example of my classmates. Many of them come from immigrant backgrounds or belong to families that have overcome economic hardship. Meanwhile, the black and Latino students at Stuy and at other schools of its ilk are not representative of the overall national population, tending to have wealthier and better-educated parents. Furthermore, at Stuy, it is likely that the majority of blacks trace their roots to the Caribbean rather than the American South, thus benefiting from a system that wasn’t designed to give them a leg up.
Beyond its practical problems, the legal and ideological justifications of affirmative action have serious flaws. Since Earl Warren’s Supreme Court incorporated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause down to the states, distinctions made on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin (suspect classifications, in legal parlance) have been subject to “strict scrutiny,” the most rigorous form of judicial review, in which the burden of proof rests on the discriminator, who must show that the scheme he has established advances a compelling societal interest. Affirmative action, as the Court views it, has jumped this hurdle. In the 1978 case of University of California v. Bakke, the justices split the baby, holding that while no specific quotas could be set, institutions of higher education could take race into account when doling out admissions because diversity was critical to the nation’s welfare. That ruling, reaffirmed by the University of Michigan cases of 2003, defines diversity too narrowly. Diversity does not have to be racial; it can also be socioeconomic or geographic. Indeed, as my U.S. Government teacher pointed out to our class, there is more difference between a rich white kid from a Manhattan private school and a poor white kid from a Texas public school than there is between a black kid and a white kid who both attended Groton or Andover.
Finally, turning to ideology, I have come to realize that those who champion affirmative action fundamentally misunderstand liberalism. President Lyndon Johnson, in a 1965 commencement speech at Howard University, said, “it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates,” adding, “we seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” I admire LBJ greatly, but he is wrong on two counts. Liberals and socialists believe in equal opportunity, but tolerate unequal outcomes. Communists, at least the Marxist-Leninists, think equal outcome should be enforced by a government that has no respect for the sanctity of private property or human rights. By my estimation, admission to the Ivies or other top colleges is more an outcome than an opportunity; it gives the student a spot in an educational aristocracy that has significant overlap with this country’s ruling class.
For liberals, the question becomes, “How do we create equal opportunity?” The answer is to do what we have always done: continue the fight for good schools and a strong social safety net, which allow people to scale the socio-economic ladder.