Monday, October 15, 2012

Preference based on class: it's not about race

Bob Wilson’s recent column in the Durham News (Affirmative Action: a Cure as Bad as the Disease) is laced with the type of rhetoric that has long hid the truth behind the need for Affirmative Action. People like Wilson are convinced the policy amounts to no more than special privilege based on race. There are special privileges in higher education, but the advantages are given to the rich.
Wilson used his column space to disparage Duke University President Dick Brodhead for two incidents he claims prevented Duke from stepping into the “glow of a post-racial society”.  He begins by ranting about how racial preferences are demeaning to blacks and offensive to others.  I’m often intrigued when white men tell others how they should feel.  What qualifies Wilson to tell a black person what is demeaning?
Wilson then uses his two examples to prove Brodhead deserves a serious talk from the board of trustees. His reasoning left me wondering what the one has to do with the other when it comes to the matter of affirmative action.
Wilson implores the example of Crystal Gail Mangum, the notorious exotic dancer who accused members of the lacrosse team of rape, as evidence that Brodhead has a propensity to side with black people who need to be reminded of their proper place.
“Brodhead deserves singular criticism because he was president of Duke in 2006, when the university’s gutless persecution of its men’s lacrosse team and coach occurred. Brodhead did next to nothing to defend the rule of law,” Wilson states. “The particulars are well known, so suffice it to say that Crystal Gail Mangum, who falsely accused three team members of rape, is now facing trial on a charge of killing her boyfriend.”
It’s baffling that Wilson would use this case to engage in a conversation regarding diversity in education. Mangum’s actions have no bearing on the question on academic performance at Duke, and the 88 faculty members who Wilson states “threw the lacrosse players onto the third rail,” should be commended for having the guts to speak up during a time of hostility based on a culture of insensitivity at Duke.  We are quick to forget people were ready to burn the school to the ground.
The gang of 88 stood for the rights of a Mangum due to the assumption she was telling the truth.  Wilson’s criticism of Brodhead and the gang of 88 are grounded in the advantage of hindsight.  How could Brodhead, the gang of 88 or those fighting for justice, know that Mangum’s credibility should be questioned?  Even more perplexing are the implications of assuming she was a liar based on her race, social status and job when compared to the picket fenced lives of the boys she confronted
Wilson continues his unfounded assault of affirmative action by claiming Brodhead sacrificed economic professor Peter Arcidiacono after the release of his controversial unpublished paper on black enrollment at Duke.  Black students were incensed at the suggestion that black students don’t deserve a seat in the classroom.
Arcidiacono’s data asserted that black students at Duke migrated to academic majors less challenging than those they sought to pursue when they enrolled. Wilson assumes this study affirms affirmative action is no more than a system that offers space to those devoid of the credentials needed to succeed at schools like Duke.
Interestingly, Wilson’s examples bring emphasis to another issue rarely placed on the table when people talk about affirmative action.  Those black students who protested Arcidiacono’s research, and those 88 professors who spoke out that day, did so for reasons that go much deeper than discussions about race.  At Duke, and at universities across the nation, the enemy of education is not race, it preference based on class.
Wilson failed to mention that Brodhead remained silent during the release of a study by Nathan D. Martin, a graduate student at Duke, and Kenneth I. Spenner, a professor of sociology at Duke, in 2006. The study uncovered Duke’s legacy students, a group that collectively have lower-than-expected grades during freshman year, lower SAT scores and do not choose to major in the natural sciences or engineering.
Legacy students are granted admission preferences due to being children of alumni. In many cases at Duke, they are students coming from a family able to make a sizable donation. Over the years, special classes were offered legacy students the summer before their freshman year to prepare them for classes their first full semester.
Duke’s policy of offering special treatment to the rich is mentioned in Daniel Golden’s book The Price of Admission: How America’ Rulin Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gate. The book concludes that legacy admissions act against diversity in favor of wealth. Legacy students are more likely to be white, Protestant, attended private schools and are “considerably more affluent.”  According to the study, being black is associated with an 80 percent decrease in the odds of being a legacy student.
The study notes that the socioeconomic data about legacy students shows how “an admissions preference for legacies clearly ‘advantages the advantaged.”  The book The Price of Admission alleges that Duke encouraged “development admits” – students whose academic credentials wouldn’t get them in but who were attractive due to the donating potential of their family.
Wilson notes the case before the U.S. Supreme Court as an opportunity to undo “reverse discrimination”.  Wilson fails to get it.  Affirmative action was implemented to minimize the advantages offered those who are white and reap benefits due to class.
Given that class privilege is closely tied to white privilege, it’s imperative that systems remain to secure the goal of diversity. If the Supreme Court wants to consider an unfair system, take a serious look at legacy programs and how they impact people like the white female denied admission at the University of Texas.


  1. You argument regarding 'legacy' students would be more valid at a state institution: Duke is nominally private although much of its research is funded by tax dollars.

    Isn't it time to live up to MLK's ideal of judging each of us by our character and not by the color of our skin, or does that only apply in special cases?


  2. Legacy programs are used at both private and public schools and, at Duke, represents between 15-25 percent of those enrolled. They are accepted not based on merit. Wilson's comments are related to Duke, and given that fact, we should consider the implications of legacy at Duke as a means of measuring who gets in and who doesn't based on merit. If the issue was public funded schools, I would approach this different.

    We should be careful in using King's comments related to fairness to undo the very work he sought to overcome. I'm sure he would be upset in using it that way. That's based on reading more than one speech about a dream

  3. You are correct when discussing the less rigorous study reslts of the "legacy" students. The statement from anonymous about private vs. state funding is really moot. What is right is right, whether publicly funded or not. And, yes, these students, admitted because daddy is more likely to donate to the university, are displacing many other, more qualified students.

    I think you might have been a little too harsh on Bob Wilson's use of the phrase "about how racial preferences are demeaning to blacks and offensive to others." Also, your phrase, "I’m often intrigued when white men tell others how they should feel. What qualifies Wilson to tell a black person what is demeaning?" Your statement misses the mark. He's not telling black people they should find the situation demeaning. Instead he's telling you that many WHITE people think affirmative action is demeaning to blacks. Just listen to the many stories of able black students, yourself included, who have felt the unspoken attitude of some whites that their academic accomplishments were only due to preferences instead of achievement. Those stories are mostly untrue, and therefore demeaning to the accomplishments of those who were admitted without preferences.

    That said, the Supreme Court previously affiremd the right of universities to admit a diverse student population as being necessary for the complete education of all students. Note, in their ruling, "diversity" did not just mean more blacks, but other ethnic groups, economic classes, and geographic diversity as well. What passes for racial balance in North Carolina is very different in California where more qualified Asian students are passed over for whites, Hispanics, and blacks in the name of diversity.

    The new case coming before the Supreme Court involves the University of Texas which already has a very diverse student population thanks to their policy of guaranteeing admission to any student in the top 10% of his/her high school class in any school in the state. Whether the new challenge, based on very narrow grounds, provides any significant change in Court advice is doubtful.