Race Matters on a Sad Day

It’s a weird, narrow way of talking about college admissions that we somehow think that we have identified a metric of success that is independent of a person's racial identity.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court dealt a big blow backwards for racial equity, ruling that there no longer could be considerations of race in college admissions decisions.

I mentioned this to Michael this morning, and he was confused. “Didn’t that already happen?” he asked.

“I think you’re thinking of the UC system,” I said.

It does feel like this has been rolled back, rolling back, always going backwards, from the very moment that the whole idea of affirmative action got started. And that’s a sad thing.


Maybe counterintuitively, I’m going to start by being sympathetic to SCOTUS for a moment. I understand how bizarre the idea of race is when we’re talking about merit. Let’s take race as a metaphor too, and imagine that we were, having a foot race like a marathon where the idea is to be the fastest, and everybody is running their very fastest. That is, in a sense, race blind. The fastest person just is the fastest, they won, and we don’t say that they won more or less if they’re black or white. The singular metric of success also doesn’t care about training regimens, or single parenthood, or ankle reconstruction surgery over the summer. It isn’t racist if a white person or a black person wins because we’ve all agreed about the rules and the singularity of the metric of success.

But it’s a weird, narrow way of talking about college admissions that we somehow think that that is what we’re doing. That anyone would think that what we’re doing is ferreting out the most meritorious, the “best of the best.” We’re not. Not even close. They don’t even say that’s what they’re doing.

If you look at competitive college admission websites, they say they’re doing things like “paying attention to the shape of the whole class” and “bringing a rich array of voices to campus” and “taking lots of factors into account.”

And they are. And you know that because on applications, they ask about where you live and what classes you took in high school, and where you went to elementary school, and what volunteer opportunities you’ve taken. They ask what you’ve done with your time and what kinds of colleges your parents went to, and how many degrees they have. Also who your siblings are and what they’re doing with their lives, and your gender, and your high school, and your rank in that high school. They look for your teachers to describe a time you were helpful and a time you were creative, and overall, they are trying to figure out what kind of human being you are. In the process, they invite you to tell them all about yourself, what you imagine doing with your life, why this college will help you do that thing. In other words, they’re trying to get to know all about you. In judgment, yes, but they keep saying how much they want to take into consideration of the whole picture.

And even it’s true that knowing a person’s race doesn’t tell you everything about them, it is something that you know. For some students, their race might be part of the fabric of life and community and a richness of tradition. And for the record, you don’t have to be part of a minority community to have a rich experience of race that defines, supports, or challenges the sort of person you want to be. And in college admissions, where they have the conceit of wanting to know all about you, about every last volunteer job you did, or test taken, your parents’ education, it seems a little silly to suggest that race wouldn’t be a data point that would be helpful to consider. 


But that’s not really what people are worried about, are they? They’re worried about quotas, that people might say, “enough of this sort, we need more of another sort,” and then a person of the first sort won’t have a fair chance. And maybe that first person of the first sort was very, very deserving. It gives the lie to the idea that your own individual strivings are all that matter in this country. As if it were a race and if you came in first, or fifth, and now you are somehow robbed of your rightful place. And let’s agree— if you ran a marathon, and came in first, but they decided to give the medal to someone else, that would, indeed, be very unfair. But why do people think this is what we’re doing? Why have we bought into the idea that there is some sort of singularity of personal worth that a college admissions officer can access? This is a destructive idea in more ways than affirmative action, but let’s save those considerations for another time.

Because in the best case, leaving designated spaces for certain people can encourage someone to claim a space that maybe they should have considered for themselves all along. 

I myself benefitted from just this sort of space-saving. A few years ago, I attended a public lecture where afterwards, participants were invited to line up to ask questions. I had loved the lecture, I was brimming with thoughts and eager for the conversation to follow, but I didn’t have a pressing question. And I didn’t line up, and I didn’t notice the lineup. But then the presenter took two questions from the long line, and then said, “okay, now I have a two-men to one-woman rule. I won’t take another question from a man until a woman asks a question.” 

Now turning my head, I could see that the whole line of people standing to ask a question was male, every last one of them. My (female) friend sitting next to me nudged me, and I agreed, and I stood up to ask a question, joining the conversation. I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t have done that if the speaker hadn’t made that space, to make sure the audience could hear a woman’s voice and question. Was my question uniquely female? Assuredly not— at least not in this particular case.

But it changed my mind going forward about why that line always looks like that. I benefitted from a sort of ad-hoc affirmative action that day. Because of this policy, and because time at the lecture was limited, it is true that some other person did not get a chance to ask their question. Maybe they even had a better question than I did, something more burning, an itch they more desperately needed to scratch. So on an individual level, I have no confidence that justice was done, because we’ll never know what that question would have been. But I do know that as a whole, women got their voices heard. More importantly, it made me wonder about all those things that had led me to decide that I was content to listen to other people’s questions, about what it means to have a burning question, or a desire to be heard. Maybe at another lecture, it won’t take that policy for me to bring my voice forward, or I will be able to hold space for someone else who is doubting the validity of their own question.

So anyways, I’m sad today. We just got told that the sort of space-holding that I experienced wasn’t a communal asset, even when I felt keenly that it was of immeasurable importance to me personally. More importantly, when we get told that our racial identities don’t matter, it reduces the complexity of our interesting lives to a foot race. I’d rather live in a richer world.

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