Category Archives: Affirmative action

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The curious case of Michael Steele

By Christopher Metzler

metzlerLet’s face it, if Barack Obama were not president of the United States, Michael Steele would not be the “chairman” of the Republican Party. Yet Steele continues to act as if race was not the sole reason that he was selected to lead The Grim Old Party. The reality is that both race and tokenism played a significant part in his election whether he and the GOP want to admit it or not. Moreover, while he continues to chastise others for “playing the race card,” he has given himself a Black pass to do so. It is, the curious case of the pot calling the kettle black.

According to Steele, “Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck. Our political system has no place for this type of rhetoric.”

However, “Mr. Chairman,” since you have been elected, your most significant accomplishments have included: having to apologize to Rush Limbaugh (the real head of the party), for calling him an entertainer. As you said in your apology, “My intent was not to go after Rush – I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh.” And, ” I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”  Yet when New Gingrich dismissed Rush, he did not apologize. Does the phrase ‘yessa massa’ ring a historical bell?

In an interview with Cameron Cowan of milehive.com you promised to lure more Blacks to the Republican Party by offering fried chicken and potato salad. Perhaps you would have been more successful had you also offered Kool Aid, greens, watermelon and chitterlings. Does the phrase “jump Jim Crow” ring a bell?

Implying that President Obama is a racist for asking New York Gov. Paterson to end his bid for re-election. According to your racial logic, “Mr. Chairman,” implying the race card and playing the race card are two different things. As you said recently in an op-ed in Politico, “As an African-American, I know what racism is and that is not racism. Addressing the comments by President [Jimmy] Carter who said racism is to blame in the protests against President Obama, you said, “Just like the millions of African-Americans in this country who have fought and overcome on their way to the American dream, I have experienced racism firsthand. It is something you never forget.”

So, is the race card only the race card when you deem it to be “Mr. Chairman?”

Speaking at a historically Black college near downtown Little Rock, Ark., you said, “The Republican Party walked away from the black community in the late 1960s. It was stupid. It was dumb to pursue a southern strategy and it came back to bite them in 1992.” You went on to say, the Republican Party must court Blacks if they are to regain power. Have you vetted this with your party?  The hallmark of your tenure has been making statements ostensibly on the part of your party and then having to backtrack. We thus anxiously await your forthcoming apology.

In fact, it seems that your base has rejected your fried-chicken-and-potato-salad strategy.

In response to your “outreach” several members of the Free Republic (online message boards for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web) have written:

“Yeah, if the GOP would just offer MORE social welfare, we could get the black vote?”, “Single moms, drugs, easy credit, alcohol, disregard of the law, no education, no incentive, dependency upon the State”;

 “This guy is just begging to be pelted with Oreos again. …I just wish he would focus on the REAL causes.1. What does the black community need: tough marriage laws, reduced welfare, educational vouchers, and good understanding of Booker T. Washington’s ‘Up from slavery.’ 2. Homelessness is caused by alcohol and drug addiction, and mental health disorders. Giving money to an alcoholic is the same as yelling jump to someone standing on the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. More welfare is NOT the answer.”

Of course, these statements, which are just a small sampling of what’s been written, are not at all about race because, as you have said, “Blind charges of racism, where none exist, not only are an affront to those who have suffered the effects of racism, but it weakens our efforts to address true acts of racism and makes them more difficult to overcome.”

So, are the statements by the Freepers as they call themselves true acts of racism or simply policy disagreements infected with the stench of stereotypes? Perhaps viewing these statements as acts of racism would be to raise charges of racism where none exist.

Your stance on racism, “Mr. Chairman,” can be described as contradictory, condescending racial polemics steeped in racial perturbation. You have said, “What you will face is very subtle. It’s very quiet. It’s deceiving, but it’s there and you can’t be fooled otherwise, but I’m still a black man; when I walk in a room, you have attitudes about black folks. I can’t change that. And I’ve gotta deal with that reality regardless of my title.”

Speaking of President Obama, you said, “He was not vetted, because the press fell in love with the black man running for the office. ‘Oh gee, wouldn’t it be neat to do that? Gee, wouldn’t it make all of our liberal guilt just go away? We can continue to ride around in our limousines and feel so lucky to live in an America with a black president.’”

So, “Mr. Chairman,” are you palling around with racists? Are you calling the kettle black? Or are you using the race card when it suits you. In the age of multitasking, critical thinkers will decide for themselves.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

Racism, It’s Viral

metzlerBy Dr. Christopher Metzler

“To entertain her daughter, Michelle Obama loves to make monkey sounds.” That’s the photo caption of Michelle Obama speaking to her daughter Malia posted on Free Republic.

Disclaimer on Free Republic:  “Free Republic does not advocate or condone racism, violence, rebellion, secession, or an overthrow of the government. ” For those of you who have argued vociferously with me that we are living in a “post-racial America” rather than an America in which Jim Crow is on steroids, you apparently have not read the daily diet of racism that the readers and bloggers on this site consume and then regurgitate. The photo caption above was posted with a blog in which comments included: “Could you imagine what world leaders must be thinking seeing this kind of street trash and that we paid for this kind of street ghetto trash to go over there?” “They make me sick … The whole family … mammy, pappy, the free loadin’ mammy-in-law, the misguided chillin’, and especially ‘lil cuz … This is not the America I want representin’ my peeps.”

First, it is easy to dismiss these comments as isolated incidents posted on a right-wing rag. To do so, of course, would be to completely miss the point. Moreover, these comments show the continuing significance of race in a country that has become so enamored with the election of its first Black president. In fact, far too many of us are content only with the symbolism and dismiss the substance. I have heard many say that he can’t tackle race in his first term but that he will do it in his second. The result is that too many of us have accepted racism as a creature of the past and we use the election of President Obama as unequivocal proof of this.

The reality is that Bull Connor; the Grand Wizards and members of the KKK and the Aryan Nation have been replaced by the writers, editors and owners of Free Republic, who through the use of technology have more power to spread hate and racism than any of the three aforementioned entities combined.  Free Republic is the modern day racist engine that a majority of conservatives rely on to indoctrinate old and new generations of race peddlers and demagogues. Of course, the site owner is also a “sensitive” man.

According to site owner, Jim Thompson, “We should steer clear of Obama’s children. They can’t help it if their old man is an American-hating Marxist pig.” Second, far too many of us have responded to the election of President Obama simply as the removal of the most significant symbol of racism and manifestation of subordination without realizing that while significant, his election alone does not mean the entrenched racists’ mindset that continues in so much of America has simply vanished.

Racial thinking will not be cured by a single event no matter how powerful that event. Web sites like Free Republic provide a gathering place for Whites who are convinced that the election of a Black president means the end of White power and the introduction of Negro rule. For those of you who wish to quibble with me about whether President Obama is Black or multi-racial, I say that the readers of  Free Republic are not confused. Their arguments are not based in multiculturalism; they are based in naked racial stereotypes that have been and continue to be assigned to Blacks.

As one writer on Free Republic puts it “we can no longer afford to give people the benefit of the doubt simply because we do not know them personally. Our tolerance in this area has the effect of shredding the fabric of our society. It has nothing to do with being hateful, racist, or biased. It is merely a desire to maintain our society and culture.”

Third, since the president’s election, there has been an emerging cacophony of Blacks who insist that the president should stay “race neutral” because to do otherwise would relegate his presidency to the margins of history. These voices were loudest when the president boycotted the World Racism Conference, did not announce a Black person on the short list for the United States Supreme Court, chided attorney General Eric Holder for his comments that on the question of race America is a nation of cowards, said that judge Sonia Sotomayor misspoke with her wise Latina woman comment and punted in Destafano v Ricci.

It is as if the president cannot be race-conscious in his policies and govern effectively at the same time. To be sure, since his election racism has not taken a holiday and his attempts at race neutrality have been an abysmal failure. Fourth, while we have become so caught up in the symbolism of the president’s election, many of us have failed to even care that the United States Supreme Court in the Ricci case has turned back the clock, thus making it harder for racial minorities to prove racial discrimination in employment and making it harder for employers to defend employment decisions when they choose racial minorities over Whites.

I have heard very few people calling for Congress and the president to overturn that case by legislation. Yet, the very first bill that the president signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Act overturning a Supreme Court decision on equal pay. Do we wish to become so race neutral that we refuse to acknowledge the deep social context in which racial subordination is a reality in America, Black president or not?

Certainly Free Republic understands the racial context of President Obama’s election. “DIRTBAGS! All of them. Our [White House] is now a joke to the rest of the world. We have no respect and this is not going to turn out well, mark my words. We will be hit, and much worse than last time. We are now seen as weak and vulnerable. Ghetto and Chicago thugs have taken over.” Finally, regardless of whether we wish to admit it or not, the political winds that lifted the civil rights movement have shifted right.

As the posts that I have quoted from and so many others on Free Republic indicate, the election of President Obama has rewritten the racial narrative. According to the devotees, they will insist that the new narrative not trade the rights of Blacks for the safety of Whites nor would it be held hostage to the ghost of slavery.

A post to Free Republic sums up White racial thinking best: “96% of Blacks supported Zero in November. A group of 50 Blacks set upon Whites for being White in July. Decades of witnessing life. Those are a few reasons it’s back to the ’50s for this White devil, 1750s that is. As much as I can legally discriminate I will discriminate. To paraphrase Marty Balin: Everything they say we are, I’ll be. Wasn’t always this way. It is now.”

Ahh … the perils of a “post-racial America.”

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

The Flawed Logic of Anti-affirmative Action Bake Sales

By Dr. Christopher J. Metzler

metzlerThe Affirmative Action Bake Sale is used by conservative groups on college campuses to further polarize college campuses along racial lines using affirmative action as a hammer. Writing for Fox News, Wendy McElroy said, “Through Affirmative Action Bake Sales, conservative groups on campuses across America are satirically and peacefully spotlighting the injustice of AA programs that penalize or benefit students based solely on gender and race.” Seeking to dramatize the “ills” of affirmative action, the groups charge different prices for baked goods based entirely on race. For example, White and Asian males may be charged $1 for a muffin while Black and Hispanic males might be charged 25 cents.

Recently Bucknell University students held such a bake sale that was shut down by the university. Citing the First Amendment, Bucknell students claimed that their free speech rights were violated. Of course, they conveniently forgot that as students at a private university, the First Amendment simply does not apply. But, the issue goes beyond the technical question of the First Amendment and whether it applies to a private university. Instead, the issue is that students such as those at Bucknell, who put on the bake sale, continue to propagate the myth that only White and Asian males are qualified to be admitted to university study.

First, far too many admissions committees make decisions to admit or deny students based strictly on quantitative factors such as test scores and “standardized” tests. The reality is that in our capitalist society, the more money one has, the more money one can spend on commercial test preparation services. Let us not forget that while the income disparity between Blacks and Whites has changed some, they are not even. Thus, more Whites than Blacks are able to purchase commercial test preparation services, increasing their quantitatives and admissions to colleges and universities.

Second, the Bucknell students chose to ignore completely affirmative action for White men, which is a staple of the admissions process of many colleges and universities. Of course, given that the right wing has so racialized the term affirmative action, they dare not apply it to White men. Instead, it is admission by legacy. Legacy admissions means that colleges and universities reserve places in the class for the children of alumni who have given significant sums of money. The reality is that those admits tend to be overwhelmingly White and overwhelmingly male. In these cases, the only quantitatives that matter are the dollar value of the contribution. Often these legacy admits are outside the regular admissions process and admissions committees are blissfully unaware of them. So, why don’t the Affirmative Action Bake Sales offer a discount for legacy admits?

Third, affirmative action continues to be a divisive issue on college campuses in large part because of the elitism that affects too many universities. Students on far too many college campuses have accepted the notion that Black and Brown students who have been admitted to colleges and universities are academically inferior and could not have been admitted to the exclusive halls of academe but for naked racial preferences. Students sponsoring the Affirmative Action Bake Sale are operating from a superiority complex. The logic of that complex is that they (the predominantly White students) have been admitted strictly on merit and that the Black and Brown students were not. The Affirmative Action Bake Sale is the method by which they seek to further marginalize the Black and Brown students on their campuses. The Black and Brown students are then forced to prove that they belong by denying that affirmative action had anything to do with their admission. Of course, by virtue of the way the conversation is framed, legacy admits have nothing to prove as they are the silent elite.

Fourth, the students who have these bake sales engage in racial profiling. By choosing to offer the discount to Blacks and Hispanics, they are further advancing the stereotypes of Asians as the “model minority,” whose intellectual capabilities are on par with Whites. The assumption being that students are intelligent and thus worthy of admissions based on how close they are to a “white norm” of intelligence.

Fifth, I disagree with the Affirmative Action Bake Sale because I think that such events are ahistorical, race-baiting and political pandering of the most vitriolic kind. Moreover, students who will be our future leaders should be able to engage in serious debate without relying on divisive and trite tactics that are designed to belittle rather than engage those with whom they disagree. This is a valuable skill that they need when entering the real world. Name-calling and identity politics is in large part responsible for the racial divide that still permeates America. The students in this case are choosing to repeat these tactics. However, I do not agree that the students should be silenced in the free market place of ideas.

Finally, I am also deeply disturbed by the way the Bucknell administration chose to shut down the bake sale. Here, the school had the opportunity to mount a spirited defense of affirmative action if it assumes that affirmative action has merit. It squandered that opportunity. Wayne Bromfield, Bucknell’s general counsel wrote that students did not have the required prior permission to hand out the handbills at the cafeteria entrance.  According to Bromfield, permission is required to prevent cross-scheduling and allow management to prepare for “possible reactions” to the events, “including for the safety of those involved.”

In an academic environment, we should never send the message that academic freedom is only free when we agree with the content of the message.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

Black History, No More?

By Pamela Reed

pamela-reed08Now that Barack Obama is President of the United States, why don’t we just pretend that America wasn’t built on slaveholding?

If the spate of recent “post-racial” articles suggesting that we need no longer commemorate the African American struggle for freedom and equality in this country is any indication, this seems to be where we’re heading.

This is a classic case of the phenomenon called selective history/memory, or as some have termed it, historical amnesia.

We’ve been bombarded with calls to end affirmative action and claims of reverse racism. Indeed, it seems like just yesterday I was writing in defense of Black History Month, which is now deemed racist, counterproductive, and/or irrelevant by some prominent African Americans, as did Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist (and former editorial page editor) Cynthia Tucker in a commentary earlier this year.

Most recently, Corey Dade’s Wall Street Journal article “Civil-Rights Gains Test New Memorials’ Relevance,” poses the following curious question: “Does the America of 2009, led by an African-American president, need any more museums or monuments to the struggle for civil rights?”

Dade’s piece details the fundraising hurdles confronting the organizers of the proposed Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) in Atlanta. According to Doug Shipman, would-be executive director of the future CCHR, primary among them is the question that is apparently uppermost in the minds of some potential donors: “Why does it [the Civil Rights Movement] matter today?”

Perhaps this explains why, presently, public and private pledges total less than half of the $125 million needed for the completion of the historic 100,000-square-foot museum, scheduled to open its doors in 2011.

Hopefully, this problem will not carry-over to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which is moving toward its groundbreaking, and is tentatively set to open on the National Mall in 2015.

In an effort to broaden the pool of contributors, CCHR organizers have had to rethink their original vision of a monument dedicated solely to the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., housed in the city of his birth–and widely considered the seat of the movement.

As it were, there are still many who are in denial about the ugliness of America’s past. This segment of the population doesn’t want to even hearabout lynchings, cross-burnings, or the Ku Klux Klan, let alone see exhibits about them.

Says Lonnie King, a member of the CCHR planning committee (but not the MLK family): “There are people who wanted to turn it into a museum that will glorify a lot of things other than civil rights.” Consequently, although the 10,000-piece collection of King papers will be the centerpiece, only one-third of the facility will focus on King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Another third of the building will be devoted to early American history, particularly the enslavement period and the systemic discrimination that followed in the Jim Crow era. The remaining tierce will highlight the “modern era” of human rights struggles of other American groups since the 1970’s: primarily, women, Hispanics, and gays, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people.

This is a recurring theme in the African American saga.

Even the advisory council of the NMAAHC had to fight for its placement on the National Mall, which was built by enslaved Africans. The New York Times reports that BET founder Bob Johnson threatened to resign from the council if the long-awaited museum had not been built on the Mall. “To have relegated this museum to another site,” he said, “when people are looking to it to answer everything from the need for an apology for slavery to reparations, would have been the ultimate dismissal.”

Especially since at no time since the abolition of the “peculiar institution” of American enslavement has there been any program or initiative intended for the sole purpose of attempting to make whole the formerly enslaved–and their descendants.

Not one.

Not the Freedmen’s Bureau, formed during Reconstruction, and charged with rebuilding the lives of the newly “freed”–and the war-torn south, and poor Whites, andthe former enslavers who, by the way, were compensated for their lost “property.” In stark contrast, the Black Freedmen (and women and children) were–by and large–given nothing but the clothes on their backs…and a hard way to go.

Not affirmative action, which is routinely pointed to as a form of reparations for African Americans for centuries of enslavement. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Granted, because of affirmative action, many African Americans have made tremendous strides in the areas of business, education, government, journalism, etc.

But, let’s be clear. It is White women, as quiet as it’s kept, who have reaped the lion’s share of affirmative action benefits. And, I hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with that, as they outnumber all other “minorities.” I’m just saying…let’s keep it real.

And, without question, women have suffered–and continue to suffer–grave injustices in this country, but that is a separate issue from that of the African American. By the same token, Hispanics have also been–and continue to be–treated as second-class citizens in America. The same is true for the GLBT community.

But here’s the problem. There is this constant effort to lump the Black American story under the “civil rights” or “human rights” umbrella. Moreover, the tendency to dismiss the singular experience in this country that is the African Americans’, like yesterday’s news, is downright disrespectful.

It’s like there is an expiration date or statute of limitations on Black history, after which it will be deemed irrelevant–or dead, even.

Frankly, I find insulting the suggestion that just because the American people have elected an African-American president, the past 400 years of American hegemony are no longer relevant.

This is simply not acceptable. Nor is it credible. It would be just as ludicrous to suggest that we should one day cease telling the story of the Trail of Tears, or other chapters of the near annihilation of the Native American peoples because one Native American crossed a certain threshold previously reserved for White Americans.

I mean, there’s a reason why we study past events, and why history is one of the oldest and most venerated of the disciplines of the academy. As Malcolm X observed in 1964, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.”

Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who is faced with the admittedly awesome task of bringing the CCHR to fruition, reasons thus. “If this center only looks backward it won’t be successful.”

While, I agree that we must be forward-thinking and embrace and promote racial and intercultural harmony, I believe that, in the long-run, we will do more harm than good to race relations by attempting to water down –or bury–the past.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

The Perils of a “post-racial” Presidency

metzlerBy Dr. Christopher J. Metzler

 A recent New York Times/CBS poll concluded that race relations are improving in the wake of the election of President Obama. According to the survey, about 66 percent of Americans said that race relations are generally good compared with 53 percent in July of last year. Fifty-nine percent of African-Americans – along with 65 percent of whites – now characterize the relationship between Blacks and Whites in America as ‘good,’ The New York Times proclaimed with glee, “Barack Obama’s presidency seems to be altering the public perception of race relations in the United States.” The Huffington Post also chimed in claiming that “Obama’s race relations effect is real.” 

 It seems that the single event of the election of President Obama has erased America’s racial transgressions in one fell swoop and has improved the relationship between Blacks and Whites overnight. The problem, however, is not relations between Blacks and Whites; there is no evidence yet that the election of President Obama has had more than a symbolic (but important) effect on America’s still unresolved and conflicted relationship with race.

 Obama’s election has not changed the fact that in this economic downturn, Black unemployment is at approximately 15 percent while White unemployment is at approximately eight percent. Since his election, racial profiling has not stopped, the educational achievement gap between Blacks and Whites has not narrowed. In addition, the President did not attend, nor did he send a delegation to the World Racism conference in Geneva. Thus, it can be argued that Obama’s election has had nothing but a symbolic effect on race. The difficulty with this argument is that it suffers from the same flaw in logic that is inherent in the New York Times/CBS News poll.

 First, the question in the poll was about race relations. That is, the interpersonal relationship between Blacks and Whites. But, the issue is not race relations, it is whether the President will use his bully pulpit to eradicate the substantive racial inequalities that afflict Blacks in America. Much like he will use it to bring peace to the Middle East.

Thus far, the President has been reluctant to do so in any meaningful way. He did chide Attorney General Eric Holder for stating that on the issue of race, America is a nation of cowards. The President said, “I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.” The issue, Mr. President, is racial progress, not racial tension. Moreover, it is about action, not talk.

 The President has given no major address on race since his election nor has he implemented any policies that suggest a more inclusive approach to substantive racial equality than any of his all White predecessors. The President’s foray into the question of race came only when as a candidate the Rev. Jeremiah Wright threatened to derail his ascension to the presidency. Is this a racial harbinger of things to come?

 In a “post-racial America”, the fact that Obama is Black restricts rather than expands his ability to implement racially substantive policies. The racial calculus in America means that the President must tread lightly on race lest he lose the support of those Whites who claim to be “post-racial.” Some Whites voted for Obama because he is not in the “radical” mold of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Rather, he is in the “acceptable” role of Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Second, some will argue that he can’t do all things immediately and that he should be given more time. Fair enough. He did, however, immediately decree the closure of Guantanamo Bay, ordered a halt to torture, and rescinded several executive orders by the Bush Administration. Thus, the question, is does a “post-racial America” mean that on the issue of race, his presidency will be relegated to a symbolic footnote? Or that while he was elected to solve America’s economic and international problems, he was not elected to solve its racial problems?

Third, the United States is fascinated with grading our Presidents on their progress in their first 100 days in office. One can argue as to whether or not this is an appropriate barometer. As the pundits and analysts pontificated and analyzed, noticeably absent from the discourse was any analysis of his progress on substantive racial equality efforts. Does this suggest that the chattering class have adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the issue of race? Or does it suggest that America understands and accepts that the black community is willing to trade symbolic victory on the issue of race for substantive victory? Thus, we are willing to avoid the critique of racial avoidance that we have leveled against his all White predecessors.

Fourth, regardless of the “post-racial” moniker attached uncritically to the President’s election, there is racial reality. There are four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that are dripping in racial verisimilitude and, which, depending on how the Court rules, can set the racial clock backwards. Assuming, for example, that the Court castrates affirmative action or renders the Voting Rights Act pointless in the age of Obama; will the President sit on the racial sidelines? And if he does, will this solidify the notion that the single event of his election is proof positive that America has moved beyond race? As a candidate, if these issues threatened to derail his candidacy, would he have acted? If so, how?

Fifth, perhaps it is a question of expectations. That is, why should we expect a Black President to be more racially inclusive than a non-Black President? Or is the question whether he is a Black President or a President who happens to be Black? The fact that these questions are being asked at all suggests that despite the desire by some to “move beyond race”, it is not as simple as it seems. Thus, dismantling racial discourse and substantive racial inequality requires a shift away from the “post-racial” claptrap that has debauched the descant of the Obama victory.

This means that Black advocates for substantive racial equality should not cower in fear of interrogating the first Black President about how he plans to deal with race. It also means that Whites who support the President should ask themselves whether that support is in exchange for his not engaging in any meaningful way on the issue of race.

 Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is Associate Dean at Georgetown University and author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a “Post-Racial” America.

Predicting Academic Success Using Shoe Size: Affirming the Action in College Admissions

By Robin Lee Hughes

newlastword-robin_hughesMany higher educational institutions no longer rely exclusively on standardized tests as a primary indicator of future academic success. However, the courts continue to be bombarded by numerous allegations of rampant reverse discrimination, and public outrage that stems from students’ performances on standardized tests. In light of the insurmountable testimony from students and subsequently courts that profess that such policies undercut the university’s traditional colorblind, equal opportunity approach to admissions, educational affirmative action policies have come under considerable attack. And that approach, inevitably entails the overwhelming use of standardized scores as an indicator of subsequent success and admission.

Meanwhile, there has been no significant testimony to prove that the ATs (SAT, MCAT, LSAT) and GREs accurately predict academic success. In other words, a 1400 on the SAT still does not assure us of a rocket scientist. William Bowen and Derek Bok, in “The Shape of the River,” and researchers from the social, political and other sciences have unequivocally shown that exclusive use of standardized test scores are poor predictors of school success. In fact, academicians routinely disagree on the predictive nature of the SATs—the end result, multiple interpretations and somewhat murky conclusions and possibilities. Many believe that the SAT under-predicts the potential collegiate scholastic achievement for African-Americans and others, although few present supportive evidence to the contrary. In contrast, SATs are thought to be better predictors for Anglo academic achievement, and then, they still remain elusive in their predictive capabilities. Noted critic of affirmative action, Roger Clegg, in many of his articles appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, claims that the ATs are valid cognitive test for everyone. On the other hand, Critical Theorists such as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in “Critical Race Theory” argue that, in fact, they provide little predictive value at all.

These conclusions should neither be considered good nor bad — just research that supports either argument. But, most importantly, all of the arguments support the fact that exclusive use of the ATs may be poor predictors of academic achievement—for everyone. Moreover, these seemingly complex admissions computations (which are not really that complex, they are typically basic mathematical manipulations of GPA, class rank, and test scores that assume students are disconnected variables, and only describe tangible variables –like grades) force us to be believe that intellect can be easily measured and predicted—or so one would be led to believe.

It could be argued that academic predictions and predictors may glean something relevant from the physicists. They know all too well how difficult it is to predict an event (Egon Guba and Yvonna Lincoln used this same argument years ago. See Naturalistic Inquiry, 1985). When Newtonian physics didn’t quite cut it, Schrödinger used something called quantum mechanics to calculate the probability of finding ONE electron in an atomic orbital. In fact, those equations require Hamiltonian operators to explain just where an electron is located at any given time. In fact, many physicists use supercomputers to do the calculations, and they still call it an estimate of where that ONE electron is located.

In fact, it is quite evident that, one should require more than algebra to describe human interaction, psychology, physiology, sociology and a host of other ologies. Especially, since none of us can seem to even predict something as simple as what college kids will wear to class from year to year. I would contend that these “prediction” equations would have some use, if you could supply… oh, about 1600 (1 for each of the AT points) variables to describe the complexity of each student—perhaps, and we would certainly need a supercomputer to derive the computation. For instance, a traumatic event, listening to music , walking early, playing some musical instrument, and parental education could all be weighted and assigned some human function (like the wave functions in quantum mechanics); or, perhaps we could consider shoe size. I would argue shoe size may be most cost effective. Accordingly, institutions of higher education may require a foot imprint on the application for the sake of authenticity. It would be much simpler. Ludicrous, perhaps, but do remember many current equations attempt to predict academic success by mathematically manipulating a few variables with a heavy emphasis on the power of a standardized score in an algebraic equation (not a differential equation, which would be more accurate given the assumption that one can predict the future).

The question then becomes, why is there an emphasis on prediction equations ? I have two hypotheses: First, there is the growing rhetoric and continuing assumption that standardized tests constitute an egalitarian system of selection (an oxymoron in and of itself) of students to higher education. However, they are routinely used throughout students’ educational careers to sort and select, i.e. by tracking, thusly perpetuating a system of inequality as early as kindergarten, and often times well before. Secondly, because, quite frankly, it’s efficient and cost effective. I submit as an example, if university X receives 16,000 applications for 7,300 freshmen spots, and the university has less than 10 admissions readers, it’s just easier to ‘chuck’ the applications with low test scores or test-GPA combinations (the algebraic equation).

So what should institutions of higher education do? What should we be doing? Many people, including myself would like to see a portfolio and interview process put forth into policy and action. Schools like Sara Lawrence College dropped the SAT altogether. Sara Lawrence College administrators describe studying for the SAT as an unhealthy obsession in an already stressful time. So instead, people who are interested in attending Sara Lawrence are expected to show academic success as reflected by course rigor and grades, teacher recommendations, and their ability to write.

Critics of this system argue that it is time consuming, and expensive to thoughtfully read and critically analyze this sort of thick descriptive data. But, is this not one of the main reasons why many choose a profession in higher education—research, rigor? Unfortunately, still others argue that it is a waste of time to interview potential candidates or look at portfolio information when we have bills to pay and no time to waste? Plus, we already have that prediction equation. Simply put, it makes good institutional economical sense to use numeric descriptors— that prediction equation. And, quite frankly many people honestly believe that they are some type of academic crystal ball that accurately predicts who will succeed and who will not. So, for now, I guess higher education will continue with this sort of skewed psychic hotline approach to admissions, where shoe size might one day become a variable for predicting academic success.

Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in Higher Education Student Affairs in the school of education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.