Sunday, August 13, 2023

Racial Preferences and College Admissions: The Tsunami is NOT Coming

Despite a lot of huffing and puffing from the pundits in the immediate reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision that race can no longer be a criteria for college admissions, the response from the general public has been “remarkably muted” (Brookings Institute, William Galston, 7/7/23). 

That’s because most Americans, and strikingly,  most blacks and Hispanics, support the Court’s decision. According to a poll conducted by The Economist/YouGov, Americans who “strongly favor” the decision outweigh those who “strongly oppose” by a 28% margin, 46% to 18%. Young people aged 18-29 back the Court’s decision by nearly a 2-1 margin, 49% to 26%. Among minorities who might benefit from racial preference in admissions, black Americans support the Court’s decision 44% to 36%, and Hispanic Americans, 45% to 30%. 

I believe these numbers reflect the feeling that, for the most part, racially based admissions programs have failed to significantly advance the cause of racial equality—some would argue, to the extent they tarnish the achievements of successful minorities—they’ve even been destructive of that end. The Pew Research Center reports that only 1 in 5 black respondents believe they’ve been helped by affirmative action in admissions and hiring practices. Eleven current states, including California, have already disallowed racial preference in admissions, and to the extent that racial preferences are still relevant, they apply principally to our nation’s most selective, most elite universities, affecting a very small number. 

Justice Thomas argued these points in his concurring opinion. Racial preference in admissions policies, he contended, do nothing to increase the overall number of blacks and Hispanics able to get into college but instead “simply redistribute individuals” among colleges and universities, “placing some into more competitive institutions than they otherwise would have attended” and where they may be less likely to succeed academically. And if they do succeed, Thomas wrote, they may still be harmed by the stigma that race-conscious admissions programs create—that they got in on a pass. (Thomas has dealt with that stigma most of his life). Rather than solving existing issues of inequality, Thomas argued, these policies themselves divide students and “lead to increasing racial polarization and friction.”

It appears that a majority of our country, including blacks and Hispanics, agree.

But will this decision truly change admission policies or simply cause universities to shuffle the deck differently? In a colorful interview with Anthony Caravale, Director of Georgetown’s “Center on Education and the Workforce” and an economist (“Harvard Ruling Will Put Spotlight on College Elitism,” The 74, July 10, 2023), Caravale says this decision will “rip the band aid off” the truth, and expose the socio-economic elitism of the universities. Universities need money, lots of it, so flush enrollments and strong tuition streams are critical. Racial preferences give selective universities masks that increase their pool of prospective students and project them as progressive and generous, when in fact the vast majority of their minority students come from families who are wealthy, similar to the rest of the student body. Universities collect as much as they can from them for the “privilege” of enrolling.  

“Filthy rich” schools such as Harvard will be OK, Caravale predicts, since they have the means to re-orient their admissions preferences toward social class and away from race. If they intentionally aim for poorer students they will have a more diverse student body. But only a few schools have multi billion dollar endowments, and so cannot afford comprehensive affirmative action programs truly aimed at social class. They need the majority of their students to pay full freight or thereabouts.  This is the reason universities so jealously protect legacy admissions policies, completely contrary to merit based standards. Wealthy graduates beget wealthy progeny! And grateful parents and grandparents give generously! But in a world without racial preferences, Caravale says, selective universities will be exposed for what they’ve always been: institutions that serve the socio-economically elite, on whom they are dependent, with little “diversity” to suggest otherwise.   

The problem is that Americans despise elitism—especially white elitism— and in this new light of day, the reputation of these universities will suffer greatly. Carvale predicts two year institutions and trade schools will be the beneficiaries. 

But I don’t think selective schools will allow this to happen. These are multi-million dollar—in many cases, multi-billion dollar—businesses, run by smart people whose jobs are to protect their school’s market share. Built within the Court’s argument is a giant loophole that universities will exploit to maintain the status quo: While the Courts will not allow race as a general category to boost minority enrollment, applicants may write in their essays how their experiences as an individual, especially instances of racism, have shaped their lives, and universities may use these subjective experiences to assess the quality of an individual’s character and admissions worthiness.

Carvale is sharply critical of this workaround:

“What disgusts me… is that they’re demanding that minority applicants humiliate themselves. The best way for a minority to get into Harvard now — it’s allowed in this opinion — is to write an uessay about the hardship you’ve suffered; that your parents abused you, that your neighborhood abused you, that you got beaten up going to school every day, and that was good for your character. I find that humiliating, to turn on everyone you know and care about so that you can get into Harvard. Telling your story in this way is kind of like racial porn: “Let’s see who’s got the sorriest story to tell, and we’ll let them in!”

But I am reasonably sure that the universities will find a way to frame these kind of questions in a way that is less humiliating than Carvale predicts. They will ask essays of all applicants, for example, to discuss incidences of social injustice they have encountered personally or have witnessed, and what they’ve done in response or how they have grown from their encounter. Essays will be given much more weight in the admissions decision. And that will allow universities to continue to keep their student bodies as diverse (and as wealthy) as they want them to be— in a way that is explicitly permitted by the Court.

University presidents, in their initial response to the Court’s ruling, have already said as much. This statement from Liz Magill, president of Penn, is representative: 

“This decision will require changes in our admissions practices. But our values and beliefs will not change. Bringing together individuals who have wide-ranging experiences that inform their approach to their time at Penn is fundamental to excellent teaching, learning, and research. In full compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision, we will seek ways to admit individual students who will contribute to the kind of exceptional community that is essential to Penn’s educational mission.”

Don’t expect the institutional behavior of universities to change much due to the Court’s decision. There’s no tsunami coming. In the end, schools have too many vested interests, and too much money on the line, to push against the status quo. 

Saturday, July 08, 2023

College Admissions and Race: The Recent Supreme Court Decision

It is frustrating to hear the “talking heads” discuss the recent Supreme Court decision to eliminate race as a consideration for college admissions. Most critique the result, either celebrating the decision or making dire prophecies of what will now occur, without any presentation of the Court’s argument. 
 So I spent this morning trying to better understand the arguments myself. 

Here’s my quick summary: 

Earlier Court decisions had allowed race as a category to factor into admissions decisions, but only if it survived “strict scrutiny”—that there was a compelling government interest, and that the compelling interest was narrowly tailored. (Regents of University of California vs Bakke, 1978 ). Justice Powell, writing for the majority, held that diversity was a legitimate educational goal for a university, but because “racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort are inherently suspect,  and antipathy toward them was deeply rooted in our nation’s constitutional and demographic history,” these programs were limited: universities could not use racial “quotas,” nor could they use race as a “negative” to exclude individuals from consideration. Race could only operate as a “plus” for an applicant. 

The Bakke decision continued to be litigated in the lower courts, such that the issue found its way back to the Supreme Court (Grutter vs. Bollinger, 2003). Grutter re-affirmed that student diversity was a legitimate justification for race-based admissions and also re-affirmed the limitations that Bakke decision imposed. Those limitations, Grutter stated, were intended to guard against two dangers that all race based government action portends: first, the risk of stereotyping (assuming that all minorities will always or consistently express some minority viewpoint on any issue) and that race will be used not only as a “plus” but a negative—to discriminate against those against racial groups that were not the beneficiaries of a race-based preference.  Finally, Grutter said, that at some point, race-based admissions programs should end: “Enshrining a permanent justification for racial preferences would offend” the Constitutions’s unambiguous guarantee of equal protection. Accordingly, it expressed the expectation that in 25 years, the “use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” 

Fast forward to the present, when Harvard and the University of North Caroline were sued for their raced based admission preferences. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority,  ruled that the two universities’ race-based admissions policies did not abide by these earlier Court limitations: 

Respondents' race-based admissions systems fail to comply with Grutter’s twin commands that race may never be used as a “negative” and that it may not operate as a stereotype…. Respondents’ assertion that race is never a negative factor in their admissions program cannot withstand scrutiny. College admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter.” 

As evidence of the "zero-sum" effect,  the Court points to the impact of racial preference for blacks on Asian applicants. At North Carolina, Roberts notes that in the top decile of applicants, 80% of black applicants are admitted, vs. 70% of Asian applicants. In the second highest decile, 83% of black applicants are admitted, vs. 47% of Asian applicants. And in the third decile, 77% of black applicants are admitted vs. just 34% of Asian applicants. 

Further, Roberts says race-based admissions programs require stereotyping.  The justification for race-based admissions is that they bring a diversity of thought and perspective into the educational community. But Roberts notes “when a university admits students on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that students of a particular race, because of their race, think alike.”

Finally, Roberts notes that though 20 years had passed since Grutter, there was nothing which indicated that raced based admissions policies would end in five more years, as  suggested by the Grutter decision. 

Accordingly, the Courts voted 6-3 in SFA vs. Havard to eliminate race as a general category for admissions decisions. It is important to emphasize race is no longer a factor as a category,  I believe. The Courts note that as a category, race doesn’t always predict disadvantage, as in the case of upper or middle class minorities whose children may go to excellent private schools, with access to A.P. courses, tutors, etc. Per diversity goals, prior to this decision, those students could receive preference over other ethnicities, even if applicants from those other ethnicities were poor or disadvantaged,  without access to the same educational opportunities. That outcome, Roberts writes, is repugnant to the Equal Protection Clause. But is IS OK, Roberts explicitly states, to consider the impact race may have had on that individual, if racism has played a factor in his or her life: 

“Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life as long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university. (But) many universities have too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

Judge Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, writes: 

“Racialism simply cannot be undone by different or more racialism. Instead, the solution announced in the second founding is incorporated into our Constitution: that we are all equal, and should be treated equally before the law without regard to race. Only that promise can allow us to look past our differing skin colors and identities and see each other for what we truly are: individuals with unique thoughts, perspectives and goals, but with equal dignity and equal rights under the law.”

Critics of this Court's decision have been particularly vicious of Judge Thomas, accusing him of hypocrisy, saying “he’s burning down the very ladder which allowed him to become only the second black man to be on the Supreme Court.” (Steven A. Smith, et al). But those critics have either not read this decision or are simply unwilling to apply it to Thomas. Thomas was the second of three children, born to a farm worker and domestic helper in rural Georgia, both of whom spoke Gullah as their first language. They were so poor, they had no indoor plumbing. His father left him when he was two, and after a fire burned down their home, he was taken in and raised by his grandparents, also farmers.  At the age of ten, he began helping his grandparents on their farm, and he worked his way up the ladder from there, prioritizing his education.  Overcoming those disadvantages reveals a quality of character which the Courts explicitly say is a legitimate set of facts for a university to consider. 

In essence, the Court is saying that applicants should be judged "by the content of their character, not the color of their skin" to use Martin Luther King's elegant phrase. Does racism still exist in America? Sadly, yes. Does racism suppress some students' opportunities for higher level educational achievement? Sadly, of course it does. But does racism have equal impact on everyone within that same race, regardless of socio-economic standing or family background? Of course not. When and where it has impacted someone, the Courts affirm the right of the applicant to explain how they've been shaped by it and grown from it, and the right of the universities to take these statements into account in their assessment of the individual's character. 

The Courts are insisting that applicants be judged individually, according to the unique circumstances of their lives, rather than by a blanket category. That distinction seems like a step forward for everyone. 

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Confidence, Courage to do Something Great!

These are my remarks to the graduating 8th graders of Prince of Peace School, May 19, 2023.

Good evening, and congratulations to all of you.

I know that tonight feels like the end of something—a completion, and for sure, it’s partly that. You are no longer elementary school students. 

But it’s more than that. Another name for graduation is “Commencement.” To “commence” something means to “begin,” to “start something new.” Tonight marks a new beginning for you. It’s a commissioning ceremony that “sends you forth” to do great things.

Because really, that’s what we want for you. Our mission statement says it clearly, that we hope you will become “faithful to Jesus Christ, prepared for high school, and confident you can do great things through Christ who strengthens you.”

For just a few moments, allow me to speak as if I were your high school principal next year, because I was one for many years. Here’s what we need. We need students willing lead other students to do great things. We believe you’re capable of that.

Frankly, our culture doesn’t. It underestimates you as students, so it waters down what it expects of you in the classroom and inflates your grades. It tells you that you are not capable of virtue or chastity in your relationships, so it preaches “safe sex.” It tells you, bless your heart, that you can’t handle the truth that some people are better athletes than you are, so it guarantees trophies for everyone!

The cultural message is that you’re a fragile little snowflake that needs to be delicately handled. You are puny. Mediocre. You are not capable of greatness.

THAT IS NOT WHAT WE BELIEVE! It’s not our belief here at POP. And I am certain it’s not what JPII believes. What BL believes. What Jesuit or Ursuline believe.

We think, instead, that you can be like a sophomore girl in my old school who went on a mission trip with her parents and her church to a village in Africa. She didn’t really want to go, but her parents made her. But when she got there, she was immersed in complete poverty, and it changed her. She noticed that some families were doing better than others—and the difference, surprisingly, was whether or not the family owned a goat. Goats are a great blessing to the poor. Villagers get milk and cheese from goats. They require very little maintenance— no special diet, just grass and shrubs. They have two gestation periods/year, so they can reproduce quickly, and families with healthy goats can breed them. Children whose families owned  goats are considerably healthier.

So two years later, when her Church decided to re-visit the village, this now senior girl was eager to return. But she had an idea. “Mr. Weber, would it be OK if I did a fund-raiser in the school for goats? They cost about 100/each, and they make an amazing difference to the villagers.” “Of course,” I said. She then raised $8500, and was able to give goats to 85 families when she revisited. This one 18 year old girl changed 85 family’s lives!

We think you can be like a freshman boy I knew. When he was in middle school, he began helping out at Catholic Social Services with his parents. He learned that for many poor children who lived in our county, nutrition was a real problem—the only decent meal they’d get every day was the federally sponsored school lunch. “But what happens on weekends?” he began to ask.  Exactly the problem! So he started a “backpack program” at a grade school with a high concentration of poor families. On Thursdays, he’d stuff backpacks with meals for kids to take home on Fridays, which he would pay for through donations he solicited and contributions of food from local grocery stores. He’s a senior now, and continued this through high school, bringing in more high school students so that he could expand and serve more students. He is a difference-maker!

But these kids are no different than you!

Next year, find something you’re passionate about that helps other people. I spoke to one of you, who said she likes working with handicapped children. Awesome—how can you get your classmates involved in that? Is there a club that already does that? If not, can you form a club? Can this club visit handicapped children on a regular basis? Throw them a big Christmas party each year? What else?

Some have told me you like tutoring younger children. Amazing! Find some way to encourage your classmates to come with you when you do that. Perhaps there’s a grade school you can visit on a once/week basis. Ask your principal if you can form a club, give it a cool name, get something going. 

And I’m sure there are many outstanding clubs like this already that you can join. Seek out those clubs. You will find amazing other students there and become close friends, making a difference together !

Some of you are athletes. How can you use that gift to witness to your faith and encourage your peers to live Christian lives?

There is a young lady who graduated last night at the school I left to come here. Last spring, as a junior, she won the state championship in the 100 meter, 200 meter and 400 meter races. I logged onto the school’s website to see how she did this year, and sure enough, she was state champion again in all three—a 6 time state champion, the most decorated athlete in the school’s young history! But this year, when she was getting photographed for the school’s social media site, she used it as a chance to give “All Glory to God.” Powerful!

So yes, tonight is a celebration. But it’s also a commissioning ceremony.

Now for sure, you’re going from the very top of the totem pole as 8th graders to the very bottom as freshmen, so you’ll have to fit in just a little bit. No self respecting senior is going to let a freshman strut around like he or she owns the place. But don’t let “fitting in” be the thesis statement of your life. Have the courage to shine during your high school careers.

Here’s what author Marianne Williamson says:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?'

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Amen! When we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to shine! Our liberation liberates others. 

One final remark:

We will miss you. There are teachers, staff and administrators here who have known you a long time, who remember you when you were children, and who loved and nurtured you into the young men and women you are becoming. Dream big! Do great things! Change the world! But don’t forget us. We’re not perfect, and where we’ve made mistakes, please forgive us. We love you and are proud that we are now your alma mater. You have been, and always will be, a Prince of Peace Star!

God bless you.