How I Benefited from Affirmative Action

I’m not going to make the gesture, beloved of gotcha!-debaters and the “check your privilege” crew, that I have benefited my whole life long from being situated in a certain class, gender, Pantone color range, and so forth, that made access to academic institutions easier. Partly because it’s self-evidently true, and I don’t like to waste time on the obvious; partly because, even if it’s true, a whole lot of people can exhibit exactly the same social and phenotypical traits as me and not pursue, or seek to pursue, a whole lot of academic rewards.

My purpose is not to bemoan and regret the advantages I have had through that kind of affirmative action, but to celebrate the good things the other kind of affirmative action has brought me and others, and most of all to point out to the Supreme Court the hundreds of ways the likely outcome indicated by their lines of questioning and, indeed, the case they agreed to hear, are misconceived.

College before the 1960s was in most cases an extension of the country club, to hear our elders tell it. Kids from comfortable families went there to network, to play sports, to major in beer, to eyeball potential marriage partners, and of course to get those all-important draft deferments. If your family could pay for it and you met the minimum standards, the question “Why do you belong at the University of X?” did not have to be asked. Of course there were exceptions: places where physics nerds or philology freaks congregated, places with a professional orientation, and the outstanding women’s colleges that did not specialize in the degree. I suspect the HBCUs were an exception to this pattern, but they too probably harbored a number of jocks, networkers, and inheritors. A college had its traditional target population and drew from it. Life went on, pretty much the same from generation to generation, with football drawing most of the attention and professorial research being a kind of institutionally tolerated hobby.

With the requirement to show that they were taking concrete and “affirmative,” yes, steps, and implementing them “with all deliberate speed” (ah the lawyerly knack of concocting phrases that sound apodictic but are vague in application!), those same colleges started to have to ask the question, “Why does Student N belong in our programs?” And they had to ask it in a new way: not the way that implies that you have to be “their type,” and they know what that type is. I’ve never worked in an admissions office, but what I hear suggests that there was always an active search to pull in those students whose admittance would result in donations for the institution (thus, legacy kids and the children of the rich); to that type of background research was now added the requirement to show that the institution was making an effort to diversify its draw. “Diversify,” according to preset criteria; and we all know how crude those criteria can be. (How high does an Okinawan planning to major in art history rate against an Ojibwe planning to major in ethnic studies, and how are the percentages of blood inheritance to be calculated?) But it was actually a good thing, however crude the machinery invoked to make it happen.

I went to school with a lot of kids who differed from me along many axes. Let’s start with gender: by the early 1970s the august New England institutions had broken down and admitted women. When I went to my good Southern college in the late 1970s it had crossed that bridge a long time ago, and others: I found myself studying with and befriending kids who had discovered that they were attracted to people of the same sex, and so forth. (I had fairly bohemian parents, so the existence of gay folks was not a surprise to me, but the fact that people could be out and not confidential about it was new.) The fraternities and sororities were maintaining 1950s gender theory with all its associated behaviors, but I had no interest in joining. In fact my main reason for refusing to apply to any of the schools where I would have been a legacy was that my relatives wanted to write to the fraternity chapter of the school concerned; and to get a call from the local SAEs, or whatever, was the last thing I wanted. I felt, in fact, unease with people of my own class and background, and avoided them whenever possible. I regret that I lost touch with some marvelous people who landed on the wrong side of this instinctively drawn line. People who were going to graduate and go straightaway to work in the family firm, even if they were, technically speaking, smart enough to get a high score on their SATs (and not all of them were), did not have anything to say that I wanted to hear. Without having a theory about it, I hung out with people who were unlike me according to the superficial race-class-gender criteria, but like me according to the criteria that mattered. These were the people who could tell me things I didn’t already know. When we read Baudelaire or Livy together, I could see how the same string of six words would bring up different associations for us. Not to mention the late-night discussions after falafel and Stroh’s, where we got into the how and the why and the what-to-do of everything. That was my real education.

It never occurred to me to pick my friends on the basis of their racial category or any other generalized label. If I had X many black friends, the number of black kids with whom I didn’t feel a particular vibe was many multiples of X; and that’s the way selection operates on the personal level. The institutional level is important because the group of people admitted presents to the individual student the roster of possibilities. If you go to a school where a large degree of homogeneity obtains, you’re not going to meet those kids who had to split one can of Husband-Pleasing Ranch Style Beans four ways for supper, or the ones whose parents had had to barricade the door against the Klan. I’m grateful to Duke University for thinking (or having to be forced to think) about whom to admit in a way that people of the 1950s could not have imagined.

The effects of bringing a population of 18-year-olds who have experienced widely different life courses, and I don’t mean some who went to Exeter and some who went to a Swiss finishing school, are vast. When the 1980 version of myself asks, “How do I know that my point of view is the right one?,” I have lots of examples of other points of view in mind. As I go into professional life, whatever that life may be, I have at least been called to notice other people’s lives and to see that those lives matter to them.

The Supreme Court, following in the steps of the famous Bakke decision, envisions college admissions not from the point of view of an administration that wants to create the most stimulating and various environment for its students, but from that of the one student who got rejected from Harvard despite having test scores that were at least as good as some other person’s who did get admitted. That student will think that he or she has been wronged, because he or she lacks the ability to imagine that a life in which s/he went to Williams, or Arizona State, or Stanford, was equally good and possibly even better. This one-track mind is, I suspect, the common vice of most right-wing activists. “I want what I want because I want it, and I have a right to get it!” They suppose that in the world of the 1950s (the world as it ought to have been, they think), they would have naturally been granted this or that thing, and that now that they are not going to get that thing, the world having changed, their lives are damaged and they must sue for redress. My advice for anybody who wants to keep their brain active and flexible is not to think that your life course is so inevitable. It would be good for you to meet some people who are not the people your parents, or your sociological category, think you ought to meet. I am grateful for what affirmative action has done to me. And for me. I am concerned that future kids may not have that intensive exposure to other young lives. So I am waiting for a Supreme Court with fewer blinkered party hacks to take the long view and return to considering the common good in the broadest sense.

Affirmative action never took anything away from me. What it gave me is immense, and I reap the benefits every day, in friendship, ethical awareness, and ability to think. Not that I’m perfect in any of those domains.