Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003  

What's wrong with affirmative access?

The Bush administration calls its alternative to affirmative action for undergraduate college admissions "affirmative access." The programs have been hailed as successes in some states, including Texas, which George W. Bush chooses to claim as home. But, are they?

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has described affirmative access.

. . .A practice begun in Texas in 1997, when Bush was governor, that grants admission to state public colleges to all high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes.

"The president believes in affirmative access, providing equal opportunity for all Americans, not quotas," Fleischer said.

An article in the International Herald Tribune earlier this year argued that affirmative access may deal a blow to school integration at the high school level.

Rather than fight school segregation, the Bush administration has been happy to exploit it. Its briefs in the University of Michigan affirmative action case now in the Supreme Court praise plans in use in Texas, California and Florida that guarantee admission to state universities to students who graduate in the top tier of their high school class, from the top 4 percent to the top 20 percent. These plans are only partly effective in integrating higher education. They do nothing for graduate schools, and they often shunt minorities to a system's least selective campuses. But to the extent that they work at all, it is by harnessing segregation at the high school level.

Relying on segregation in secondary education to integrate higher education is cynical and wrong. It also creates troubling incentives. By telling minority parents that their children's best chance of attending a good college is to attend a segregated high school, these programs exert pressure on minority communities not to fight for integration in court, or in their school districts.

The article, which is mainly concerned with resegregation of public schools, argues that affirmative access supports the status quo of racial separation instead of challenging it.

Findlaw commentator Michael C. Dorf, Vice Dean and Professor of Law at Columbia University, also has grave reservations about affirmative access.

To understand why the idea was developed one must first visit a Texas case, Hopwood v. Texas, 78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 518 U.S. 1033 (2001). In it, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled any use of race in admissions criteria for higher education illegal. The case was brought by a white woman who had been denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law. The ruling meant the state, which has a sizable minority population, might return to having nearly all-white competitive public colleges.

Thus, in response to the Hopwood decision, the Texas legislature adopted a law that requires state undergraduate institutions to admit all graduates of accredited Texas high schools whose grade point averages place them in the top ten percent of their class. The result has been to boost minority enrollment without any formal reliance on racial criteria.

The ten-percent plan is the main example of what Texas Governor George W. Bush means by "affirmative access." It uses a formally race-neutral mechanism to achieve racial diversity. Florida Governor Jeb Bush has recently created a parallel program in Florida for students placing in the top twenty percent of their high school classes, and similar proposals are on the table in other states as well.

Note that the only plus factor outlawed by Hopwood is race. Other similar criteria, such as extracurricular interests, ability in sports and 'legacy' status, remain untouched. So, being a person of color is turned into a demerit.

Dorf points out another failure of affirmative access -- it distorts college admissions priorities.

First, the ten percent plan severely limits colleges' and universities' ability to select the students they deem most qualified or deserving. Under traditional affirmative action programs, an admissions committee could look at the entire profile of each applicant - including not only her high school grades, but also the difficulty of the courses she took, her admissions essay, her standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, obstacles overcome, the competitiveness of the school she attended, and yes, her race or ethnicity. In contrast, programs like the Texas ten percent plan allocate most spaces simply on the basis of high school grades, thus eliminating these and other intangible factors from undergraduate admissions.

He is also skeptical about the segregative impact of affirmative access.

Another significant drawback of the ten percent plan is that it depends on segregation. Admitting the top ten percent of Texas high school graduates means admitting substantial numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics - but this is an artifact of de facto segregation, where schools divide into white and non-white. Because there is currently a gap between the test scores and grades of white and minority students, integration would threaten the ten percent plan: At least in the short run, the more schools become integrated, the more minority students would tend to fall out of the top ten percent - and below the radar screen of the Texas plan.

Building a system of "affirmative access" on the foundation of segregation is disturbing in itself. Doing so also threatens to harm minority students, and perpetuate segregation. Measured by objective standards, all-minority schools tend to have fewer highly qualified teachers and other resources than the schools attended by white schoolchildren. Thus, under a ten percent plan, a minority parent with a talented child may be stuck in a dilemma: Should she try to send her child to an integrated high school that offers a better education, or the segregated school where he is virtually assured of being in the top ten percent and thus gaining college access?

Parents should not have to make this choice. Also, to the extent that minority parents have the incentive, as a result of the plan, to send their children to weaker schools, the test score and grade gap will only increase. Indeed, the disparity in school quality, along with other forms of past and present discrimination, is a principal cause of the gap in the first place.

Dorf also considers the failure of affirmative access to apply to graduate schools and in the work world. Affirmative access 'beneficiaries' could be in for great disappointments after college.

Affirmative action may not be a perfect solution to the unbalanced legacy of a society founded and maintained on a foundation of racial bigotry, but, in comparison to affirmative access, it is clearly more likely to help eliminate the vestiges of racism. Though the Bush administration claimed the affirmative action program of the University of Chicago School of Law was "a quota plan," it has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That result is an incentive to continue to focus on affirmative action instead of the more flawed affirmative access approach.

posted by J. | 12:35 PM

Monday, July 14, 2003  

Nella Larsen: Passing

People who put great store in the idea of race often become apoplectic when told race is largely a social construct. They point out the obvious differences in appearance between Asians and Africans or Indians and whites. However, they ignore the greater similarities between members of different so-called races and the much broader array of differences among members of the same so-called race. Nella Larsen's novel Passing is a no holds barred debunking of the myth of race.

The short novel revolves around two women. Irene Redfield and Clare Bellew grew up together as part of Chicago's light-skinned 'black' elite at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though Clare is from a poor single parent family with an alcoholic, ne'er-do-well father, her fair skin makes her acceptable to the petty bourgeoisie and professionals who inhabit the schizoid circle.

As young adults, the two go their separate ways. Irene marries an identifiably African-American physician, has two sons and relocates to New York. She fills her time with charity work for "the race." Clare marries a virulently racist white man to escape her abusive relatives and has spent the last 12 years passing for white. She has a daughter.

A chance meeting when the two women both happen to be in Chicago again results in a kind of stalking of Irene by Clare. Though she claims to be pleased with her choice, Clare seeks out her old colored circle and attends events sponsored by them when her husband is traveling on business.

The most telling passage of the novel occurs when Irene and another white appearing former adolescent friend meet Clare's husband, who's nickname for his wife is 'Nig.'

The man chuckled, crinkling up his eyes, not Irene was compelled to acknowledged, unpleasantly. He explained: Well, it's like this. When we were first married, she was white as a- as- a lily. But I declare she is getting darker and darker. I tell her that if she don't look out, she'll wake up one of these days and find out she's turned into a nigger.

Irene has kept her African ancestry secret from her spouse and abets him in his hatred of colored people, a trait I have observed in some women of color in interracial marriages, whether they can 'pass' or not.

And on-looker Irene observed, would have thought it a most congenial tea-party, all smiles and jokes and hilarious laughter. She said humorously: "So you dislike Negroes, Mr. Bellew?" But her amusement was at her thoughts, not her words.

John Bellew gave a short denying laugh. "You got me wrong there, Mrs. Redfield. Nothing like that at all. I don't dislike them, I hate them. And so does Nig, for all she is trying to turn into one. She wouldn't have a nigger maid around her for love nor money. Not that I would want her to. They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils.

Though he has had no known contact with colored people, Bellew is obsessed with them, believing evil to reside in a 'race' he believes spends most of its time "robbing and killing people."

Clare continues slipping away to go to the often integrated entertainments of Harlem's Renaissance. In keeping with the writers' maxim that if a gun appears in the first scene of a story, it must go off before the tale ends, the gun, 'race,' does.

I find a secondary theme of the 182-page book as interesting as passing. Irene is in continuous negotiation with American society of the 1920s over her place in it. She is willing to accept second-class status as long as there are persons worse off than herself, i.e., the majority of Negroes, and she can enjoy the creature comforts that come with affluence, such as servants and fine clothes. An additional sop is her ability to pass for white when family members or friends who are darker are not with her.

However, it is impossible to make such an accommodation in a time when de jure segregation in much of the country and even lynching are the norm. The harsh reality of racial discrimination has impacted Irene's husband, Brian, and is driving a wedge between them. The more realistic Brian wants to decamp to a less discriminatory society, Brazil, or at least face up to the fact of the horrid treatment accorded even 'nice' Negroes. His wife resists doing so.

Nella Larsen's own life was filled with negotiations. She was born in 1891. The child of a Danish mother and a West Indian father, she was reared in a white immigrant community by her mother and white stepfather after her biological father died when she was two years old. She studied at both black Fisk University and and the University of Copenhagen. Larsen became a nurse and a librarian. Her literary career was promising, but brief. She published Passing in 1929 and the better known Quicksand in 1928. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930, but was unable to get her next book published after she was falsely accused of plagiarism in regard to a short story in Forum magazine.

Larsen, who died in 1964, as the civil rights movement was finally achieving results, spent the rest of her life working as a nurse. Disgusted and disaffected, she withdrew from the literary world she must have loved for the short time she was a darling of it. Like her contemporary, writer Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen discovered that even a famous woman of color is a very vulnerable person in a world rife with racism and sexism.

posted by J. | 12:52 PM