I've had an idea rattling around the empty space in my head for the last week, and would like to noodle it here on the blog. But I've been worried a bit to take it up, because it's such an incendiary topic, and I really, really don't want to be misunderstood. Ever since the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, there has been an undercurrent of thought about Affirmative Action--both her position in the Ricci case, in which a white firefighter was denied a promotion based on an exam because not enough minorities passed the exam, and also about whether or not her own qualifications should be viewed through the prism of Affirmative Action (henceforth abbreviated "AA"). But taking up out-loud thinking of AA opens all sorts of doors to being called racist, so I want to tread very carefully.
I have a few related thoughts about AA, largely based on my own personal experiences. I attended, and teach at, an elite, expensive, private prep school. Both as a student and as a teacher I have seen AA at work, both by my school, and by colleges in evaluating our students. But I also spent my first 5 years of teaching at an inner-city magnet school, with a student body that was 85% minority and 65%+ on the free lunch program. Into that mix of anecdotes I stir my study of history, as something of a specialist on 20th-century America. And the outcome is a conflicted mess. For a better treatment of how messy the racial spoils system has become, here's an article by one of my favorite thinkers, Victor Davis Hanson.
Let me begin with my first observation: I think there IS definitely a place for a properly-constructed form of AA as a means of leveling the playing field where there is (or has been) genuine disparity. It bothers me not a bit that last year my cousin (who teaches at one of the poorest inner-city schools in our town) had a minority student from a poor family who got a full ride to Georgetown, even though my former (white) student with very similar qualifications didn't even get in (she's at Davidson, so she came out OK). "My" kid's family gave her every advantage--money, opportunity for foreign travel, private school, an Ivy-league pedigree. The other fellow had to overcome numerous hurdles to get where he is. If I'm on Georgetown's admission board, I would favor him, too.
But secondly, and most importantly, I don't think that RACE should be the deciding factor in AA. It ought to be a more holistic system that evaluates individuals, not groups. I see this all the time at my prep school. We have some wonderful minority students who get into some great schools, and even get scholarships, because of the "diversity" they bring to campus. But some (not all) of these kids are of the same economic and social class as my Davidson kid I mentioned above. A couple of examples come to mind--there was a young lady I coached several years ago whose parents were West Indian immigrants, both professionals (lawyers, I think). She was a great student, who wound up choosing Columbia over Yale. It bugs me that Columbia was able to check a box for "diversity" by picking her, when other kids of modest means didn't get in. Even President Obama falls into this category--his dad was a Harvard-educated immigant, not the son of a sharecropper. He was raised by his white, middle-class grandparents, went to private schools, and then winds up occupying a "diversity" slot at elite universities. I'd rather that slot go to an inner-city kid (black or white, or whatever). Or a hillbilly kid. Or the son of an Asian immigrant.
But there's another wrinkle, too. That one is generational. President Obama is 8 years older than me. Judge Sotomayor is 14 years older than me. I'm not sure how much older than me Justice Thomas or General Powell are (20?). But I'm 40, and I entered elementary school in 1975. In 1975, All in the Family was cutting-edge TV. Doctor King had been dead less than 10 years. Even a child of dark-skinned immigrants (like Obama, or Powell) really would have had hurdles to overcome that I wouldn't. And certainly a southern black kid whose family history included slavery, sharecropping, etc. would have walked a very different path than me. His parents may have actually endured the hoses in Brimingham or the beatings at Selma, or at least been denied service at the front door of a resturant. I don't think it's necessarily fair to criticize people over about my age for being the beneficiaries of AA... in our childhood (and even in our young adulthood, if we're old enough), there were legitimate vestiges of discrimination that needed to be combated.
But fast-forward to the present, and that brings me to a third point. Times have changed. Nothing is a better indicator of that than the election of Barack Obama. As recently as 20 years ago, some would have said such a thing was impossible. Interracial dating and marriage is no bid deal now. I have a friend my age whose interracial marriage almost splintered his extended family 20+ years ago (on both sides). Now, Hannah Montana can have Corbin Bleu as a boyfriend on the Disney Channel, and no one bats an eye. (And that's a very good thing!) President Obama has two daughters roughly the same age as mine. Even if he had never been president, or even a senator, I think it's fair to say that if our girls were competing for the same slot in a university, you couldn't plausibly claim that my child had the advantage. Indeed, the reverse is more likely true.
Finally, there's an issue of culture and behavior which is related to class and economics that I'm not sure what to do with. Pretty much all of my friends who happen to be minorities are just like me in terms of class, culture, and family values. They are married, educated, have jobs, take their kids to little league and dance lessons, save for retirement, refinance their vinyl-siding homes when rates fall. Their kids and mine could be treated the exact same from this day forward, and no one would even blink. But my cousin's students often come from communities in which not a single person is married, nor plans to be. Part of me says that those kids need a hand up to escape their circumstances. Then the hard-hearted part of me replies, "why should we, as a society, reward bad decisions?" It's just as unfair to the middle-class black guy who puts his kid in a good school (whether by paying private tuition or buying a house in a good district) and helps with homework for 12 years to have his child leapfrogged at admission time as it would be for me.
So where does that leave me? If I could design my own AA program, I would say that for anyone under the age of say, 35 (just to be safe), race-based preferences are a thing of the past. Instead, we should follow Dr. King's advice, and judge people by the "content of their character." That judging can take into account legitimate social disadvantages based on class or economics, and should. Any takers for this new system?