Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hmm, Let me rethink that idea...

I say po-tay-to, you say po-tah-to,
I say to-may-to, you say to-mah-to
I say race, you say affirmative action...

I know, that's not how Fred and Ginger sang it.  But sometimes after talking with a class (or with individuals, for that matter) about race, I hear this crazy version of the Gershwin classic running through my head. It seems like whenever the topic of race comes up (usually in class because it's part of my curriculum) it doesn't take more than a minute or two for someone to bring up what he or she perceives of as the unfairness of affirmative action.

"Whites are the victims of racism, too," is usually how this conversation begins.

"Really? How so?" I'll ask (although, of course, I know what's coming).

"When I was applying for college there were a ton of scholarships I wasn't eligible for because I'm not a minority. That's not fair."

So, even though I might have planned to talk about some other aspect of race relations (like, say, the inequity of our educational system), we wind up talking about affirmative action.  It's almost as if, for many whites, this is the default position when the topic of racism comes up. These folks argue that America should be a meritocracy -- people should gain benefits based on merit alone, and that to take race into account in any way in terms of college admissions or hiring is racist against whites.

So, you can imagine how a study by a professor named Samson at the University of Miami caught my interest.  The researchers asked participants to decide how important various criteria should be for admittance to the University of California. One half of a group of whites were asked simply that. The other half were also told that, proportionately, there are more than twice the number of Asian American undergrads in the University of California system than there are in the state of California.

Guess what happened.  The first group thought that SAT scores should be the major criteria for college entrance.  But the second group, the group that was told of the disproportional number of Asian American students in the university system, decided that criteria other than SAT scores should be considered in admissions decision-making.

So much for the meritocracy.