Rod Graham: The Fight Over Affirmative Action

Back in 2016 the US Supreme Court established that the University of Texas could continue to consider race as a factor in admissions, in order to ensure a diverse student body. At that time Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared, “I don’t expect that we’re going to see another affirmative action case, at least in education.” But Justice Ginsburg hadn’t anticipated the current Court and its appetite for re-examining established law. Later this year the Court will hear challenges to affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Given the right-leaning makeup of this Court, the decision may well deliver a major blow to affirmative action at this country’s institutions of higher learning. This week on Sea Change Radio, we discuss the state of affirmative action with Prof. Rod Graham, a sociologist at Old Dominion University. We look at the recent history of racial preference in educational policies, talk about why it would be a mistake to abandon affirmative action, and ponder the impact that such a decision could have on legacy preference in school admissions.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability, I’m Alex Wise.

Rod Graham  0:19  So symbolically saying you know, we want you from the black community here because you bring something unique as a black person has power.

Narrator  0:30  Back in 2016 the US Supreme Court established that the University of Texas could continue to consider race as a factor in admissions, in order to ensure a diverse student body. At that time Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared, “I don’t expect that we’re going to see another affirmative action case, at least in education.” But Justice Ginsburg hadn’t anticipated the current Court and its appetite for re-examining established law. Later this year the Court will hear challenges to affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Given the right-leaning makeup of this Court, the decision may well deliver a major blow to affirmative action at this country’s institutions of higher learning. This week on Sea Change Radio, we discuss the state of affirmative action with Prof. Rod Graham, a sociologist at Old Dominion University. We look at the recent history of racial preference in educational policies, talk about why it would be a mistake to abandon affirmative action, and ponder the impact that such a decision could have on legacy preference in school admissions.

Alex Wise I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Rod Graham. Rod is a Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University, writes for the Editorial Board, has his own Substack and his work can be found at Rod, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Rod Graham 2:12  Thanks for having me.

Alex Wise 2:14  Well, I wanted to have you on because we recently learned that the Supreme Court was going to reopen affirmative action, if you will, on the docket – it’s a pretty ominous concept for those who believe that affirmative action is a good thing for our educational system. Knowing the makeup of the court, this could be the end of affirmative action in higher learning as we know it. What was your first reaction when you heard that the case was coming before the Supreme Court?

Rod Graham 2:48  I guess it was the same as yours, this this sense that, okay, it’s, it’ll probably be struck down because of the composition of the court. That’s unfortunate, because I’m a supporter of affirmative action for a lot of not just race, this is the thing that that’s going to be up at the Supreme Court discrimination against Asian Americans, but just in general, using preferences in our institutions, I think is beneficial for us in society. And so yeah, this is problematic.

Alex Wise 3:20  Whenever I think about affirmative action and the Republican response of it, I always harken back to the initial Stephen Colbert character where he was like this caricature of a right winger, it was called The Colbert Report. And he kind of pretended to be almost a Bill O’Reilly character. And he would always say, you know, I don’t see race, you know, people tell me I’m white, because I like Steely Dan or so whatever it might be. And when you see Republican public figures speaking on this subject, they tend to take the same attitude that Stephen Colbert character would be – that the rest of us are racists – “we’re the ones who are seeing race, they’re not seeing race, they want to live in a colorblind society.” But to me, that seems to really bury 400 years of black oppression in this country.

Rod Graham 4:18  Yeah. I think that the idea of being colorblind is, is good. You know, it’s, it’s something to strive towards. But any research that you that you do, will show that race still matters. So even if even if it’s the case that people aren’t intentionally overtly thinking about race, still, we see these patterns where it seems as if people of color, especially black Americans, and then two different other degrees, Hispanics, Asians and indigenous folk, they’re being disadvantaged. And so, you know, it’s cool To say, you know, you’re colorblind, but that the evidence just doesn’t support that idea at all.

Alex Wise 5:05  And you write about affirmative action in the editorial board. And you kind of do a brief overview of eras of white backlash in this last century, when it relates to affirmative action, the most recent, we’re about to see, could you give us kind of a recap of some of the, the highlights and lowlights of affirmative action since, let’s say, Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954?

Rod Graham 5:35  Sure, there has been a progression. And I did that for a reason, because I think the average citizen imagines that affirmative action is occurring in some kind of crude way where it’s just Okay, let’s some sort some sort of rigid racial quota or something. And that is, that’s not how affirmative action is, is done presently. But it did, in a way start that way. And I think was for good reason. So, you know, when federal agencies were mandated to take affirmative action, and this was through some legislation from Lyndon Johnson, and then Richard Nixon, actually, when he extended it to women, I believe. So even at that time in American history, there’s a sense that we needed to right some wrongs. It was mainly for federal agencies, but then colleges said, Well, you know, what, we would like to have more representation as well. And so they started initially, by doing the kind of racial quotas in a way we want to have a certain number of non white folks on campus. Well, you know, someone Sue, they said, Hey, this is this is discrimination. And we don’t like that. I don’t have that that case in front of me. I could, I could kind of look it up. But

Alex Wise 6:45 I think that case you’re referring to is Regents of University of California, Berkeley v. Bakke (1978).

Rod Graham 6:51  But yeah, so he’s sued, and won the case. And so the Supreme Court said, you know, that’s not equal protection on law. But what you can do is take race into consideration, along with other factors when bringing someone in. So that was a slight change. So it’s not as if this was in the 70s. It’s not as if you know, you’re getting people of color just because of their color. It’s just one of the factors. But that was still a problem for some people. And so in. So another case came up later in the early 2000s. This is Grutter versus Ballinger. And in this case, the Supreme Court said, okay, the decision was that you can use racial preferences, not a quota. But you can only use racial preferences, if there’s no other way to achieve the diversity you want. Now, though, there was another shift. So it’s not simply that you’re putting a bunch of people on campus by quota, you can’t do that. And you can’t just do it to, to you can’t just have affirmative action just for its own sake. But it must be some reason that the Supreme Court says compelling interest, it must be some reason for having affirmative action on the campus, which I think is great, because as a as a professor, I think that having different voices in a classroom is wonderful. And so that in itself is a value. And so if we want that, and we can get it through affirmative action, we should. And so and so in, at least in the past, the Supreme Court has agreed with that idea. So now we’re up to today. And it might be that when they hear this case, next year, they say, just forget it all. You can’t use it for race for any reason, in college admissions, which I think would be a shame.

Alex Wise 8:45  I know that conservatives kind of want to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to quotas, because they’re okay, generally with legacy admissions, which are uniquely American. Now, most of the European countries have abolished legacy admissions as a piece of admissions puzzles. There was an interesting case, Texas A&M In the early 2000s, when Robert Gates, I believe, was the president of Texas A&M, where they did away with legacy admissions, because the plaintiffs were arguing that if you want to establish quotas, and you want to do away with racial preference, fine, but you also have to do away with legacy admissions, because they’re waiting candidates applications differently. Perhaps, this could be the end of legacy admissions, along with affirmative action, so there could be a little silver lining there.

Rod Graham  9:43  Yeah, it’s possible. It is interesting that there isn’t the same clamor to end legacy admissions as it is to end affirmative action. It’s really bonkers in a way if you think about it, because the number of People who are on college campuses through racial preferences, in the instance of trying to get diversity on those campuses is incredibly small. So we’re arguing over maybe the 2020, tops, schools that actually can can turn people away. We’re arguing over that. And then we are going over those cases on the edge where the the candidate of color, the student of color, may not have the same LSAT scores as a white student or Asian students who are going to those small cases. Meanwhile, I’m quite sure that the number of students who get in through legacy admissions dwarfs that by so much. In fact, in the piece that we’re talking about here, I tried to make the point that there are so many preferences that go on on college campuses, you know, a University says, Okay, we want to have the sons and daughters of first responders or veterans or teachers to have a chance to go to our university, and we will lower the standards a bit for them. I think that in an institution that’s meant to serve the public, those kinds of things are normal, and we kind of need them in our democracy. So by getting rid of affirmative action, you’re building a case for a kind of situation where only a certain group of people can get into those top universities or even the mid tier universities, because they have the resources to get the best scores.

Alex Wise 11:37  Yes, just to bolster that point. Harvard’s incoming freshmen a few years ago was over 25% legacy admissions, and some schools like Middlebury had legacy admissions up to 40%. So elite schools are letting in the children of alums at astounding rates, not even close to the kind of rates that we’re looking at in terms of affirmative action. Acceptance when there’s let’s say, there’s two candidates who are who are very comparable and they might take the minority candidate.

Rod Graham  12:12  Yeah, I believe you’re right. I don’t know the percentage of any school that takes someone in because of racial preferences, but clearly it’s nowhere near 1520 30 40%. Right. So it’s just amazing that that’s not more of a problem for conservatives.

Music Break  12:47

Alex Wise  12:57  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Rod Graham. Rod is a sociology professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. So Rod, I read a piece in the Harvard Crimson by Sasha Ramani, entitled Harvard should eliminate race in admissions is from 2018. It was a thoughtful piece. And I’ll just read a quote here, Harvard should eliminate the use of race in admissions while doing more to specifically target underrepresented communities. While Harvard already considers school quality for its admissions decisions, it could increase the weight attributed to this factor, and do away with race entirely since the two metrics correlate so strongly. So you’re a sociologist, and you’re used to using data? To me, it does not seem like there’s good data to back up the reality of implicit bias and 400 years of oppression and what it’s like to be black in this country. The data is overwhelming that it is harder to be black in this country than white even if you’re at the same income level.

Rod Graham  14:43  Yeah, this is a clever argument, and I don’t entirely dislike it. To the extent that school quality is related to being black and brown, which I think is true. Then by taking school quality into account, instead of just race, then it would produce the similar representation that Harvard is looking for. Because again, that’s what affirmative action generally is for. So I don’t necessarily have a problem with that symbolically, it’s problematic, I would say, because one of the arguments for affirmative action was to write some of those wrongs. And you weren’t writing wrongs. Because people were at different quality schools, you were writing wrongs, because a person was black and mistreated, or family was black and mistreated, or Hispanic or Native American so often gets short shrift, actually in our national conversation. So symbolically saying, you know, we want you from the black community here, because you bring something unique as a black person has power. I would give one caveat, though, and you kind of kind of touched on it when you say that there’s overwhelming evidence that being black is hard in the United States. It could be that a middle class black person who’s not in a low quality school, is still being mistreated in their school, as we have data on that quite a bit. So in a way, it’s not a bad kind of thing that he’s pointing out. But race still is a big factor. And I would prefer to use race on its own.

Alex Wise  16:23  My wife is a sociologist, and has done a lot of work in public school systems around the Bay Area, measuring suspension rates, and there is a direct correlation between race and suspension and black boys getting suspended at much higher rates than any other sector of our society. And that’s a microcosm of a larger endemic issue. What about the issue that the author of this article the Harvard should eliminate race in admissions? Sasha Romani makes about, there’s lots of different minorities, for example, we shouldn’t just put all Asians in the same bucket. I guess if you go that extra mile and say, well, some poor kid from the Philippines is different than some rich kid from Tokyo, and they’re getting treated the same way, then that’s wrong. And that and you can always kind of point to anecdotes that make this system flawed because it is far from perfect. No one will say that the affirmative action system we have in this country is perfect. I mean, Obama mentioned, Obama, who is a staunch advocate of affirmative action, bemoan the fact that his daughters got preference, because they’re minorities, when they got into whatever Ivy League schools they attended. There’s obviously anecdotes that one can point to poking holes in affirmative action, but we need to look at data and we need to remember that anecdotal thinking can lead to bad policymaking.

Rod Graham  18:01  Yeah, um, so first off, kudos to your wife for being a sociologist. That’s nice. So let me say that I am for disaggregating, these big boxes, Asian, Black, Hispanic, if you disaggregate Asian, you actually see something that I think we don’t talk enough about. You’re going to have at the at these universities. First and second generation, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese disproportionately. People that have come after 1965, when they change the immigration laws, they often come or first generation. So after 1965, maybe in the 70s or 80s, they’re second generation, the kids are second generation. But but they they’ve come with a lot of capital, maybe more motivated. If you’re a first generation person or international student, you’re here just for education that sort of changed the dynamic of how you, you know, how you approach your school, and you’re you’re being selected from the cream of the crop, in that in your country. So you’ve you have the Asians, that big bucket dominated by those three groups, actually, I should say a fourth that is Indians, so Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Okay. Well, you have populations of Asians in the United States that are coming, that our asylum seekers are coming from very poor countries, and they’re and they’re here, because they they they are from a war torn country or something in the United States government has helped them I think the Hmong are an example of this. I want to say Laotians are example of this. And so when you start disaggregating, you’ll see that there are a lot of disadvantaged Asians in this country, and so it wouldn’t be good to separate just like it would be good to separate Right. And also the I had someone, I have a little YouTube channel and I try to invite on people of different backgrounds. And so I handled someone who is of Hawaiian descent. And she was talking about how the descendants of a lot of Hawaiians have just been mistreated over the years and their income rates are their their, their average incomes are quite low. And they’re not off going to Harvard, those folks. I mean, they face the same type of displacement of that other indigenous folks on the mainland faced. So that group, we thought we may put in the the these Pacific Islanders put in the bucket of Asian, but they may maybe shouldn’t be there. And so it’s the same thing with black. Right? Just saying black is not going to cut it. There’s blacks who are descendants of slaves like I am, there are Blacks who are of African descent, recent African descent, maybe Obama can fix in that category, you have wealthy, I mean, it’s just it’s just something that needs to be disaggregated. So to me, the issue here is not that we should do away with affirmative action, because I think diversity on campuses is great. I think we should just modify the policy like we do with other policies. You know, this policy was started in the 1960s. And just some small changes. I mean, why I mean, we should just reassess how we go about using preferences of all kinds. on campuses. This person, Sasha is still arguing for preferences, which have also argued, well, I’m just saying that race should be one of them. I don’t understand why that would be exempt.

Alex Wise  21:36  Yes, you’re right. A lot of the resentment is misplaced. There is a standard set of pro con arguments. One we here is around affirmative action, the pros, helping historically disadvantaged groups and increasing diversity on campus are the main ones, the cons, it discriminates by race and it hurts the groups, they are meant to help by instilling inferiority. They had to be quote, unquote, helped. Maybe you can expand on that last part.

Rod Graham  22:01  Yeah, that that’s a that’s a common argument. I’ve heard a lot from John McWhorter. I don’t necessarily buy it, actually. But that is the kind of in I don’t, I don’t know, maybe someone’s done some study where they are they’ve interviewed people who were who feel that they were recipients of affirmative action and ask them how they felt about being on campus. But I just haven’t seen that, that that just that’s just one of those, as you kind of mentioned earlier, anecdotal type type deals, but it is a common a common argument, which is actually kind of crazy. I mean, because it’s like, it’s a damned if you do damned if you don’t type thing. Because okay, if the if the person if the person does well, then oh, well, I mean, you’ve still got there because of affirmative action. And if he does poorly, then it’s like, oh, well, you say you shouldn’t have been there because of affirmative action. It just makes it difficult to see the benefits of things when you use these sort of anecdotal type data, I guess.

Alex Wise  23:02  Yes. And you mentioned in your classroom, you prefer to have diverse voices, we could go even deeper into why there’s value in having diversity in higher education, especially when you look at the makeup of the modern workforce. This is not 1964, when the civil rights laws were first really got some teeth put into them. In this country, in the Mad Men era. You go to Wall Street or Madison Avenue, it’s, it’s controlled by white men. Today, the workplace is not controlled by white men nearly as much. And if you’re a white man, and you don’t know how to relate to all races and sexes, you’re not going to succeed. So everybody should be invested in wanting more diversity in education.

Rod Graham  23:53  Yes, yes. I think our institutions have an obligation to serve our community. And it’s best served. If we educate as many people from different backgrounds as possible and learn as much from those backgrounds as possible. I think any professor will tell you that, that international student from Bangladesh, and then that African American student, and then that white student, I mean, they all have different stories to tell. And you want to have that in your classroom. You also want the rich students you want the poor student, they’re not going to say that the working class student, the son or daughter, veterans, you all want those people in your class. And that brings a richness to the class. And then as you said, and I agree with I mean, we have to, we live in a world where all these people are there. And we want to we want people to edit students to interact with those people and learn how to live with those people. So different people, so yeah, no, I just don’t understand. I understand in a way And I think in that piece, I sort of gave some reasons like some people think school is just about merit, and it’s not right. And then there’s some people think that, you know, university is strictly about merit, merit based degree meal. That’s not what it is. And professors will tell you it’s not. And so they think that that affirmative action sort of gums that up, and that’s not it. But then there’s also this sense, I think that white people are losing out in this whole affirmative action thing, because they’re not being selected based on their race. And so they see it as, you know, this zero sum thing, and it’s, it’s not.

Alex Wise  25:39  You quoted LBJ, Lyndon Johnson’s commencement address at Howard University in 1965. He said, You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, you’re free to compete with all the others, and still justly believe that you’ve been completely fair. And it seems like now 55 6060 years later, we’re about to have another moment where we’re saying, Okay, now we basically are on a level playing field. Let’s start the race. That’s what Gorsuch and Kavanaugh et al, I think are going to say when these decisions come down inevitably.

Rod Graham  26:20  Yeah, it’s a it’s a bit unfortunate. Now to be fair times have changed the it would have been in Johnson’s time that you could have plucked an African American from out of a crowd, and that person could have told you that I am working class or poor, my parents didn’t go to college, I’ve been discriminated against, and I cannot get a white collar job like that that would have been the norm for everyone at that time. And it’s not that case today. And I think because of that progress, we imagine that there still aren’t these structures in place that disadvantaged people. And but there are, and so although Johnson’s comments at Howard University aren’t as accurate, they’re still accurate enough that we should continue to do some time we should do some type of racial preferences in school admissions.

Alex Wise  27:23  So assuming that affirmative action gets shot down by the Supreme Court, why can we remain hopeful?

Rod Graham  27:31  Because we’re at colleges and universities, we’re very creative at at finding other ways to get that representation we want. So, I mean, because race and other social indicators can be so highly correlated look, kinda like what Ramani said, we can just take those into account. So you’ll still end up getting the kind of representation that’s necessary on college campuses.

Alex Wise  27:59  Well, I hope you’re right. Rod Graham, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Rod Graham Thanks for having me.

Narrator  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Lettuce and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.