Revenge of the Reactionaries

Don’t count the reactionaries out.  While the re-election of President Obama was a victory for progressives, it may nevertheless be a negligible setback for intransigent conservatives.  The Supreme Court, for one, could provide a symbolically important victory for the so-called establishment when it rules on affirmative action early next year.

The court heard oral arguments in October in a case brought by Abigail Noel Fisher, an applicant to the University of Texas who claimed that the school’s affirmative action policies violated her Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights by privileging black and Hispanic applicants over whites like her and Asian-Americans.  The five conservatives who form a majority block on the court seemed sympathetic to lawyers representing Fisher, as well they should.  Though schools like the University of Texas claim they employ a “holistic” approach when judging prospective students’ merits, using race as one of many factors, such as test scores, community service, and extracurricular activity, it is far from clear whether skin color warrants special consideration.

Affirmative action’s supporters claim that heterogeneous campuses are necessary to prepare students to live and work alongside of persons from various backgrounds.  Perhaps, but achieving this goal through race-conscious admissions is fraught with peril.  Far better to seek an economically diverse student body instead, especially given the income homogenization at the top echelons of higher education: according to Anthony P. Carnevale of Georgetown, at the country’s 200 most select colleges, just five percent of students come from families in the bottom quartile of the income bracket.  Affirmative action may well exacerbate this polarization by selecting for advancement minority students who tend to come from affluent families.  (And why should this demographic get a leg up over equally qualified non-minority applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds anyway?).

But a far more prevalent and pernicious form of affirmative action exists than carve outs for minorities: preferential access for children of alumni, or “legacies,” who are overwhelmingly wealthy and white.  A recent study by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at Harvard, exposes the breadth of the practice.  Using data from the nation’s 30 most selective public and private colleges and universities, Hurwitz compared two acceptance rates, those when applicants had familial connections to specific schools, and those when the same applicants lacked such ties at similarly competitive institutions.  The key variable, in other words, was legacy connections, not the quality of the applicant or the relative competitiveness of the school.  Hurwitz found that students were seven times more likely to gain admission if one of their parents was a graduate of the school to which they were applying.  Even having a sibling or extended family member who was an alumnus doubled their chances.

Nearly a quarter of students at some prestigious schools have familial ties to their alma mater.  The California institute of Technology does not privilege family connections and, by contrast, less than two percent of its students are legacies.  Yet no case is before the Supreme Court regarding the legality of legacy admissions.  This isn’t arbitrary.

The tired narrative that underprivileged “moochers” are sucking the country dry is de rigueur.  Mitt Romney articulated it when characterizing as “victims” the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal taxes, and updated the allegation just days ago by asserting that Obama’s election victory was due to his support from those receiving government “gifts.”  Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly echoed the claim on election night: “There are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff.  They want things.”  And who are “they?”  O’Reilly elaborated by lamenting, “the white [read: non-moocher] establishment is now the minority.”

The Supreme Court’s review of race-conscious admissions is part and parcel of a campaign—inspired by those who’ve read too much Ayn Rand—to deny minorities undeserved “gifts.”  Were it a genuine campaign against all Washington giveaways then affirmative action for legacies would also be on the chopping block, as would other egregious manifestations of bullshit government gift-giving: $20 billion in annual tax breaks to domestic manufacturers; $5 billion dollar-plus in yearly farm subsidies that mostly go to industrial agribusinesses, not small farmers; $4 billion in annual oil and natural gas subsidies to highly-profitable petroleum companies; multi-billions of dollars worth of tax loopholes for the biggest American corporations, etc.  But it’s a bogus crusade, a reactionary rearguard action by legacies and their “establishment” defenders against the uppity masses with dark skin.

It’s fitting, then, that the fate of affirmative action at the Supreme Court may well turn on the opinion of the body’s “swing” vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a graduate of Stanford University, his mother’s alma mater.

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