New Orleans native Elizabeth Thomas will attend Georgetown University this fall as a legacy student — of sorts. Georgetown granted Thomas preferential admission because of her family’s historic connection to the university. Almost 200 years earlier, the college’s president sold Thomas’ great-great grandparents Sam Harris and Betsy Ware Harris, along with 62 other slaves, to help pay off crippling debts. As part of a new program to make amends for its historical reliance on slavery, Georgetown now extends preferential admission to the descendants of the 272 individuals it sold over time, acknowledging the burdens caused by slavery, segregation and discrimination.
Elizabeth Thomas told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “I’m definitely grateful for the preferential status. It’s not something they had to do, but the fact that they did it is amazing.”
But from a moral, ethical and financial perspective, it’s hard to argue that Georgetown shouldn’t offer preferential admissions or some sort of affirmative action program for descendants of the enslaved. To paraphrase the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, affirmative action is defined as any policy or practice that permits the consideration of race, national origin, sex or disability, along with other criteria in order to provide opportunities to individuals who have been historically denied. Just as blacks, women and other ethnic minorities couldn’t earn a seat at many universities.
The historic denial of education to African-Americans, like other manifestations of racism, didn’t magically end when slavery was officially abolished, and black people today still carry the financial, social and political burden of the past. But while black students were being denied admittance to their choice of college, white people were being ushered in on the basis of privilege, not necessarily fairness or merit. This is what makes the U.S. Justice Department’s new duplicitous plan to redirect money from its civil rights division to fund efforts to protect white people from being discriminated against absurd.
America has never had a merit-based system for college attendance. We’ve never admitted students strictly based on test scores, but we have on race and gender.
According to internal correspondence to the civil rights division obtained by The New York Times, the Justice Departments seeks lawyers for “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” The administration is simply trying to change, through the executive branch of government, what the courts and most of society have already decided is a proper way to level the racial playing field.
In the latest of a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action, the ruling on June 23, 2016 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin narrowly “reaffirmed the compelling governmental interest in promoting student-body diversity in higher education” and upheld its constitutionality, according to the education research group, the American Educational Research Association.
But colleges aren’t the only institutions to support affirmative action. The U.S. military filed an amicus (or “friend of the court”) brief in the Supreme Court case in support of diversity, as did 57 corporations. The court in fact, received a raft of such briefs, a total of 73.
What’s ironic is that Abigail Fisher, for whom the case is named, is a white woman, and white women have actually been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action policies. After affirmative action was formalized in the private sector, one study found white women are disproportionately represented among New York business owners; another in California that they have more managerial jobs in the private sector than African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans; and a third that women as a whole were getting a majority of graduate and post-graduate degrees in 2009.
Just so we’re clear: Affirmative action isn’t just for black people. In fact, it works very well for white people, white women chief among them.
An attack on affirmative action only peddles the false belief that white achievement is being displaced by black and brown mediocrity. As New Yorker columnist Jelani Cobb wrote, “The dominant theme in the history of American populism, from the days of Tom Watson through those of George Wallace, is that resentful whites understand their economic status not in absolute terms but relative to the blacks whom they perceive as the true barometer of their standing.”
The illogical assault on affirmative action only makes sense in the mind of someone who desperately wants black and brown people to know their place. Actually, psychological insecurity stemming from the competition that a diverse field poses is a more substantive reason for white underachievement. But racism always ends up cutting the nose off an already spiteful face. We weaken our society when we don’t protect the rights of those who’ve really been discriminated against. More importantly, we fall far short of authentic democratic ideals and values.
We all have a stake in whether or not our institutions become more inclusive. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats. Policies of exclusion keep America from creating more opportunities for everyone. Limiting opportunities for advancement in college worsens individuals’ abilities to seek certain kinds of jobs, and diminishes community prosperity. Going after programs that seek to include historically disenfranchised people is not a solution — it’s injustice.