This week, news broke that the Trump administration will continue with its agenda against affirmative action and “race-based” admissions. Unfortunately for all students, these measures demonstrate a clearly deficient understanding of the reality of affirmative action, what it means to consider race in admission and why these practices were implemented. Our entire educational system stands to suffer as a result.
The ignorance displayed in this decision begins with the basics — conflating two individual concepts. Affirmative action and race-conscious admission are related, but they are not interchangeable.
Affirmative action is described by the Chronicle of Higher Education as “typically understood to mean the intentional promotion of members of minority groups … but colleges practice several forms of affirmative action in admissions, including ones that help the children of alumni and donors, prospective athletic stars, and others. The kind of affirmative action that appears to be in the cross hairs of the Department of Justice is race-conscious admissions, wherein colleges consider applicants’ race, among other factors, in deciding whether to admit them.”
The administration seems to have no problem with specialized treatment for legacy students, athletes, children of donors, or even women — in fact, white women have benefited more from affirmative action than any other demographic. “Affirmative action” is far too broad a term for a specific focus on race.
What does race-based admission mean? Honestly, nothing. Race-conscious is the more accurate, appropriate term. There is no evidence in modern America of students being accepted or denied based solely on race. College admissions professionals are highly skilled, trained and make decisions with the expectation of having to answer directly to the applicant (and, too often, their parents). Screaming parents demanding special treatment, hurling verbal abuse, even threatening admissions professionals, are a dime a dozen — and they come in every race.
Considering race during the admissions process as a secondary factor, with academics as the foremost concern, simply allows admissions professionals to consider the benefits of a diverse class. Contrary to popular belief, race-conscious admission does not permit consideration of institutional and systemic racism. It is not applied as a leg up for marginalized students. It is far more transactionary, seeking not to benefit individuals, but to improve overall institutional quality.
Colleges and universities across the country move through the recruitment process with a framework of institutional goals. Usually included is some variation on increasing diversity – be that diversity of experience and thought, or more tangible factors such as socioeconomic status, gender and race. How are institutions supposed to meet these goals, developed to improve the quality of educational opportunities available to all students, if they cannot consider these factors?
Race-conscious admissions does not allow admissions processionals the room to consider personal strife or circumstance based on race. They may not factor in how immigrant students and/or students of color could be faring under an openly hostile administration. There is no room for calculating those experiences, no room for empathy, just transaction – what can the student bring to us?
These measures to undermine race-conscious admission are not based in fact or logic, but fear and antipathy, from an administration that scorns higher education almost as vehemently as it scorns diversity.
There is no benefit here. There is simply a struggling administration, attempting to curry favor within its racially sensitive base by targeting the bogeyman of imagined discrimination. These changes are nothing more than a smokescreen, a waste of time and money and will do nothing to improve educational outcomes for any student.
Madalena McNeil is a local community organizer and education professional.