Though the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas last year upheld the university’s right to use race as a factor in admissions, affirmative action policies continue to be scrutinized. This month, The New York Times reported that President Trump’s Justice Department would begin to investigate and even sue colleges over “intentional race-based discrimination.” Critics contend that the proffering of special consideration or benefits to blacks and Latinos is a form of “reverse discrimination,” while supporters argue that affirmative action merely evens the playing field; a recent analysis found that even with these measures, black and Latino students are still more underrepresented in the country’s top colleges and universities today than they were 35 years ago. Below, two books delve into the debate, while another shows why affirmative action may not be enough.
Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law
By Randall Kennedy
304 pp. Pantheon. (2013)
This book presents a balanced defense of what the writer, the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, refers to as “positive discrimination.” Kennedy explores the history of race-related laws and asks why, despite preferential treatment in college admissions for people based on special categories like geography or legacy status, consideration on the basis of race has always been contentious. His focus is on higher education, where these discussions have historically taken place because of the scarcity of available seats and top universities’ role as “gateways to opportunity, socialization and certification” and “ training grounds for the power elite.” Kennedy concedes some of the costs of affirmative action — the potential to stoke resentments, as well as the stigma and self-doubt that follows high-achieving black Americans, for instance — but concludes that these drawbacks are outweighed by the net benefits. And his defense is not, as he writes in his introduction, because of the many ways he’s benefited from these policies, though he details them in his introduction. Rather, he views affirmative action as a “positive good,” a moral necessity and the responsible choice in a society marred by historical race-based inequity.
WHEN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION WAS WHITE
An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America
By Ira Katznelson
238 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. (2005)
Rather than concentrate on affirmative action as it has existed since the 1960s, Katznelson takes a fresh look at the 30 years before the civil rights movement, when social programs meant to support a growing middle class — including Social Security, unemployment compensation and a federal minimum wage law — unfairly discriminated against blacks, widening the economic gap between them and their white counterparts. Minimum wage laws, for instance, were passed on the condition, set forth by members of Congress from the South, that they exclude occupations like agriculture or housekeeping, jobs held predominantly by blacks at the time. The G.I. Bill of Rights, a series of programs meant to support soldiers after World War II, was drafted to accommodate Jim Crow, which meant that African-American veterans received significantly less support than white ones. The job placement statistics are striking: By October 1946, 85 percent of the available skilled or semiskilled jobs in Mississippi were filled by white veterans, while 92 percent of the unskilled ones were filled by blacks. Up north in New York and New Jersey, “fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.” Our reviewer said Katznelson offered a “penetrating new analysis, supported by vivid examples and statistics.”
THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE
A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
By Jeff Hobbs
406 pp. Scribner. (2014)
The life of the young man followed in this book shows that even with access to the right opportunities or resources, one may still be stymied by sociocultural circumstances. Robert Peace was raised in a poor Newark neighborhood by his mother, Jackie, while his father was incarcerated. Robert was gifted: He achieved an almost perfect score on the SATs, graduated third in his high school class — the headmaster claimed he would have been valedictorian had a C in freshman art class not knocked his grade point average down to a 3.97 — and became one of the top 10 swimmers in New Jersey in the butterfly stroke after teaching himself to swim. He navigated his intellectual and social life by code-switching, an existence that was “fracturing, but it was the only way to integrate his ambition and intellect in a milieu in which neither had currency and in which both could get him hurt.” He called this process “Newark-proofing” himself. But despite these efforts and even with his college expenses paid by a wealthy financier, it was hard for him to leave his neighborhood behind. Robert ended up murdered in a drug-related incident. His was not a clear-cut case of affirmative action — if there is such a thing — but rather, as our reviewer wrote, “an interrogation of our national creed of self-invention,” adding that Peace’s case “reminds us that there are origins in this country of ours that cannot be escaped, traumas that have no balm, holes that Medicaid and charter schools and better mental health care and prison reform can never fill.”
Continue reading the main storySource: New York Times – Politics