Roderick Graham: The End of Affirmative Action?

With the right-leaning US Supreme Court poised to eliminate affirmative action in higher education around the country — this seemed like an opportune moment to take stock of how effective affirmative action has been since President Kennedy instituted it in 1961. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Roderick Graham, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University to examine who will actually be affected by the seemingly inevitable change, what the right wing might do once affirmative action is gone, and how this decision may affect other selection preferences in college admissions.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:17 Rod Graham (RG) – We want to make sure that they get college degrees because they’re going to go back to the communities they’re going to raise good families. They’re going to be our doctors, our firemen, this type of thing, and so we think it’s in our best interest as a university and a community to target that population for that reason, and I think that’s how we should do it.

00:36 Narrator – With the right-leaning US Supreme Court poised to eliminate affirmative action in higher education around the country – this seemed like an opportune moment to take stock of how effective affirmative action has been since President Kennedy instituted it in 1961. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Rod Graham, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University to examine who will actually be affected by the seemingly inevitable change, what the right wing might do once affirmative action is gone, and how this decision may affect other selection preferences in college admissions.

01:30 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Rod Graham. Rod is a professor at Old Dominion University and a sociologist and he’s a contributor to The Editorial Board. Rod, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

01:43 Rod Graham (RG) – Hey, thanks for having me.

01:45 Alex Wise (AW) – So I wanted to have you on to talk about affirmative action. We have discussed affirmative action in different iterations previously on the show, but we’re at a new breaking point in the American legal framework and the approach to affirmative action. If all predictions prove correct, the Supreme Court, this conservative-leaning court, is going to reverse 60 years of affirmative action legislation through this case brought by an organization at University of North Carolina and Harvard – Students for Fair Admissions. You wrote a piece for the Editorial Board entitled “Who needs affirmative Action when we have racism? Leveraging white power can produce the same results.” Walk us through. Your process of absorbing and how do you square this in your mind?

02:41 RG – Well, as it happens, like a year or two ago, I was reading this book. I think it’s called “The Economics of Race.” It’s from an economist at Columbia, Brendan O’Flaherty, and it was just an offhand piece in the book. He was talking about racial inequality and all this stuff and he said, well, I’m not going to talk about affirmative action too much because it doesn’t really matter much because of the percentage of people and it just kind of stuck in my head and I said, you know without doing any calculations or looking at it. I was like, you know, he’s kind of right, because there’s a sort of misconception about how many people are impacted by affirmative action. In reality, it’s only a small percentage of top schools where people are competing heavily. That’s when you get the situation where you say. OK, this person has a racial background that we like or gender that we like and so then we will select that person over someone who may not have that background but has a higher density. So that’s that’s very few schools, and so in that piece I just kind of did some back of the napkin calculus. Where I looked at the top 50 schools in terms of their status, their prestige, I guess, and it’s about 600,000. Students and so Harvard. In this case they gave court documents where you can calculate the percentage. Of people or they actually tell us the percentage of people who are there because of affirmative action. It’s about 13%. So if Harvard class is 13% affirmative action, then we could say OK, you know out of that pool of 600,000 people who may have some impact associated with formative action may be impacted by it. 13% of that 600,000, which is which is nothing. It’s about 75,000. Out of a United States population, student population of about 19 million or so, so it’s about 1% of students in the United States. And that’s a generous overestimate. I believe who are actually on a campus right now because of affirmative action.

04:48 AW – There’s 19.4 million college students?

04:51 RG – Yes, that that includes all the students. Community College and everything – about 19 million.

04:58 AW – And that’s a generous estimation where you tripled the number to 220. It’s 200. And 200,000 stuck out to me because you mentioned how University of California has already rolled back their affirmative action in the mid 90s or late 90s. I think it was ‘97 when it took effect, and that’s 227,000 students. So we have 2 1/2 decades of the largest public higher education system. We can look at how having no affirmative action on the books has affected that system. They, of course have been able to use proxies to kind of get to the same place that they wanted to, without affirmative action on the books, like they can look at ZIP codes and other lower performing high schools and things like that to try to triangulate, if you will, getting a diverse populace, but what can we glean from that and what does it mean for us moving forward with this remaining population that you’re talking about this 600,000?

06:00 RG – Yeah, California, the last thing I read about it is they don’t have the same levels post AA as when they were using AA. And the same with University of Michigan. I think they also, I don’t know if they officially banned it or something, but they used to use AA in their law school and they don’t now I believe. And so it was. It was they also dropped in their minority population. Once this happens, universities will have to be more deliberate in how they use other measures to create a diverse student body – if that’s what they want, because a lot of people are unclear that they imagine that AA is. Now it is about righting wrongs. And yeah, maybe, indirectly, you know there’s something about that, but I think the main purpose at this point is because university administrators and their student. Would like a diverse student body and so you can use AA legally to try and create that diverse student body if other measures aren’t working. And so that’s kind of how it’s used now. And so OK if you ban it, you can have to find another way to create that create that student body.

07:13 AW – We all have to kind of square this in our mind, something that we’ve been kind of taught is good. Like I’ve always been taught that affirmative action is an important part of a better country, and now that we’re taking this off the books, you know your first reaction is just bear it and yours gives me hope, but I couldn’t help but thinking about some of the pieces that I read when the Voting Rights Act was reversed by the Supreme Court. There’s ways to kind of like look at the numbers coldly and say we’re going to be OK, But what we’ve seen as a result of the Voting Rights Act being repealed is like in a vacuum. Yeah, it sounded great, but then the darker forces take over and we’ve seen what we’re about to experience with this latest election and what we saw in the last election is voter intimidation. In gerrymandering to an extreme ways to try to suppress the vote, people get creative, so how can they get creative when it comes to affirmative action? How can the darker forces exploit this, Rod?

08:16 RG – I don’t know how they would exploit it. To me it would be that they’re happy that it’s gone now because they realize that that’s in some ways…it’s very symbolic to me, more so than practical. In that the Supreme Court has now said that this is discrimination, by the way, the same person who’s pushing this case was also the person who fought against voting rights. Uhm, his name escapes me, but there’s a connection there actually between these two things. But yeah, so when it comes to the total number of people who are affected by affirmative action is very low, but it’s very symbolic, because then the person can say, look. You know some politician or some lawmakers. Some legislator can say look, thought leader. Maybe the Supreme Court has said that this is discrimination. Here in this case in colleges so. Here you are trying to make funds available for Hispanic small business owners, this too is discrimination, right? And they can start pushing back against all the ways. That we go to improve a democracy in our society. I think that’s the big problem. It sets the stage for something for greater things in the future.

09:36 (Music break)

10:18 AW – This is Alex Wise on sea change Radio and I’m speaking to Old Dominion University sociology professor Rod Graham. So Rod, we’re very race forward country. You can always point to things getting more racist, but there’s there’s a lot more evidence that things are more equitable. You’re a professor at a university you are on campus. How have you seen things evolve over the last decade, let’s say?

10:46 RG – For the better, so there to me there are two ways of… two opposing forces maybe. And you have to look at it this way, to know what’s happening to understand why racism may be increasing. So you’ve got a younger generation and people in urban areas who you know they’re fine, I mean. There’s a, you know, there’s a there’s not this, at least – not covert, obviously, I’m sorry, overt racism. Sure, there are biases. Everyone has them, but by and large people are fine with diversity. People are fine with organizations trying to achieve that, including a higher education. And so, so you have a large percentage of the population who are happy with how racial minorities have been platformed. So the idea is OK, white Americans, especially Christian, White heterosexual society, has been the norm. And so there’s been this push over the past several decades to platform, something that’s not that. And it doesn’t mean that you now erase White, Christian heterosexual families, but it means that you put them on an equal ground with these other ways of living. And in these other lifestyles and cultures, OK, most people are cool with that. I do believe, however, if you are a White Christian heterosexual, and that’s really a part of your identity. And if your conservative, you have a strong incentive, more than 20,30 years ago, to push back against anything that you see as “woke.” So you’ve got these things that are happening here, where yeah overall you have to say that American Society is much more open than it’s ever been and much better for racial minorities and sexual minorities and women. But then you got that pocket of people who are having a lot of trouble with accepting these changes. And they’re causing a lot of stake. And they’re voting a lot and this is what you get.

12:50 AW – They’re getting a lot of airtime to somebody like Kari Lake, Herschel Walker… they say outrageous things and, or Trump, they say outrageous things and TV news can’t get enough of it and it shocks us. But then we end up giving them free airtime.

13:04 RG – Yeah, that’s true and people do like those types. They see them as as avatars of them, right? The government has left me behind or something or is ignoring me. So here’s Marjorie Taylor Greene with her gun in hand and flag in the background, and talking about a Christian like Lauren Boehbert saying what something insane like you know? Uh, we should be. The Constitution should be subordinate to the Bible or something, or at least I find that I’m saying, but, uh, insane, but people will find that comforting if you’re a Christian and you’re grounded in Christian values, and I’m from that culture in a way, I’m from South Carolina. People will find that comforting. They really will or you get a Republican who. You know, as you call it, a red herring to just blow up this like you’ve got like a percentage of a percentage of trans folks who wanna live their lives normally, you know but they can latch onto that and say this is the destruction of the society that we knew and it’s coming from the left. And so you know you need to vote for me. And the more outrageous they are in talking about that, the more believable they are and the more people like them.

14:16 AW – And the conundrum of a Clarence Thomas aside, maybe you can speak to how racist it is to say we don’t see race. This is a uniquely white lens, I think that we generally ascribe to that whole idea of like oh, I don’t see race and that seems to be what Roberts and Kavanaugh and Barrett or are looking at in this in the Supreme Court view of affirmative action is to try to have a more colorblind. Society, but isn’t it racist to not see race, Rod? I mean, isn’t that just dismissing the experience of people of color?

14:55 RG – Yeah, in two ways. Actually, that’s a pretty good question. If you’ll allow me, so I I’ll start with like at the individual level. And then maybe I can say a little bit about how this works with policy at the individual level, I identify as an African American and then also as an American. And you know, maybe even a Southerner or something, but I have all of these identities, and if you come up to me and that identity of being an African American on the surface, it’s about color, but it’s associated with the history that’s been good and bad, but I like that history. It’s who I am and I take it with me everywhere. And so if someone comes up to me and says “hey, I don’t see color.“ OK, but if you want to, if you want to know me, then you’re going to have to accept that I’m an African American and I often you know, see the world through that in some ways. You know, so in a way, it’s almost like you don’t see me if you’re colorblind. That’s not to say that color equals personality. But for an African American person, there’s a history that was contextualized by color, right? It’s the slavery, it’s the Jim Crow through redlining. So I mean, you know, I hope when someone says they’re colorblind, they’re saying, OK, your personality isn’t related to your color, but certainly you being an African American. Means that you’ve had experiences that are meaningful that are different than me, so that’s at the individual level, right? But when it comes to policy. I kind of get it in the abstract. This idea that if discrimination is wrong, it’s always wrong, right? And so you can’t give set asides to black people because we gave set asides to white people seven years ago. And it was terrible. But Context is important, right? It’s like as a as a man as a social scientist is changing, but it’s certainly the case that men were dominant in social science and all science actually. For all the 20th century and moving into this this century, well I have no problem understanding that, OK, in that context it doesn’t make sense for a university to invest in recruiting women scholars, especially in STEM fields. I’m in social science, but even especially in STEM fields because of that reason. So to me, seeing that as discrimination just ignores history or context. It is the case that as a man you you will have a slightly less than a fair shake if you want to think of it that way, but the context makes a big…So all discrimination is not equal some discrimination, you could call it. I think the Brits call it positive discrimination. You’re doing it for a specific reason that you think is beneficial for society, whereas negative discrimination is about subjugation and mistreatment.

17:46 AW – So Rod, we were talking about California’s rollback of affirmative action, and I can’t help but think, I think it was Proposition 209 – the idea that it was left to the majority to vote on whether affirmative action should be taken away, we would have very little progressive change in this country if we left it to a vote. I saw what happened with Proposition 8 and gay marriage around 2008. They left that to the majority and there were not enough attitudes that had been changed to allow legal marriage in California. They did the same thing in the 90s with affirmative action, I don’t think that good policy is going to be made by a majority vote. Generally people are not going to be as magnanimous as we might hope.

18:35 RG – No, I agree. I mean you’re100% right, that’s very insightful. I mean, there wouldn’t have been Brown v. Board if the majority had voted on it. It never would have been, right? So you’re right about that, so I guess we’re trying to connect this to affirmative action. I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it enough to have a a strong opinion. I don’t know if it’s a right or not. I don’t know if I’d put it in that category. I actually believe I have. I have some different views, so I’ve I’ve been here arguing for affirmative action this whole time. I’m gonna throw a little bit of a curveball here and say that I can see why people would see it as unfair, and why they would leave it up to a university or its leaders to articulate why it’s important and why it can help. I can imagine it needs to be local and based upon that Community in that university. I can imagine this is just an example. I’m trying to think of something. It’s not about black and white, so let’s say it’s Minnesota. You’ve got a large Hmong population. And people who study these issues know that you know there is no model minority. Depending on how Asians or immigrants come in, that’s how they’re going to be for a generation or so. So these are asylum seekers mainly, so they’re not going to Harvard, you know, type of communities, right? They’re working class, going to a Community College home on communities. OK, I can imagine in that city the university, or in that state the University of Minnesota or something. Did I mention that this is in Minnesota in Minneapolis, they’ve got like a large Hmong population. Also in California, I think there’s, uh, the newest university in California was recruiting him and scholars because they have uh-huh mung population there, so you have to articulate that and you can say look, we’ve got this Hmong population here. We want to make sure that they get college degrees because they’re going to go back to the communities they’re going to raise good families. They’re going to be our doctors or firemen. This type of thing, and so we think it’s in our best interest as a university and a community to target that population for that reason, and I think that’s how we should do it. The this this broad way of doing it, where it’s about diversity I think, is cool. I like diversity, but it needs to be articulated better. And you know, I have a little faith in most of the American population. I think if you can frame it in a way at a local level, that’s not that’s not hijacked by these bad actors. At a federal level or a national level, I think it I think. It can work.

21:17 (Music break)

21:57 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Rod Graham. He’s a professor at Old Dominion University. My hope from this is that we are able to pair off and finally extinguish another area, which I think affects more people in the higher education system, which is legacy preference admissions which we’ve seen that, like at Texas A&M, people who are fighting to abolish affirmative action in the admissions process there. The defendants were saying that’s fine, if you want to do away with affirmative action you’re claiming that’s discriminatory against white people or whoever you can do that, but then that also means you can’t have legacy preference admissions and the boosters were crying. Well, we’re not going to make as much money, et cetera, et cetera. And it turned out to not be the case. Fund raising did not go down, and I always thought this was a fairly accepted practice worldwide, but it’s been outlawed in most European countries, for example. But here where the American dream is supposed to be? Alive and well. We’re seeing things like Middlebury College has like I think, a couple years ago, their matriculating class had 40% legacy admissions. Harvard has around 1/4 to give them. Preference is exactly what we’re talking about, with affirmative action, isn’t it, Rod?

23:18 RG – It is being in a in a university and seeing the decisions that have to be made about not just enrollment, but how do you invest money? And you’re trying to attract industry to come and invest in your school. All of these different things. I think that a college needs to have some freedom. To make those kinds of decisions. So OK, I don’t know what’s going on at. I mean, these are wealthy, uh, Middlebury and Harvard. But I mean if if having legacy will allow you to grow financially, maybe in the case of Texas A&M, it didn’t, right? I would support that actually, you want to have some kind of way. Of not making it strictly about merit that the university needs to be able to cultivate the student body they want, and moreover it’s going to help democracy. This sounds weird, but because of the way that it takes so much economic investment to get into certain schools, you have a dominance in the top schools of wealthy kids, and so if you say to those universities, OK, forget it, just bring in the top students. OK, well then you’re just going to reproduce a class structure constantly because you’re just going to get the same wealthy people. The kids are, well, wealthy people. The grandkids are wealthy people, so you gotta have some leeway.

24:39 AW – I was discussing this with a friend of mine from high school who was advocating it more, for Hbcus saying that she thinks that having legacy preference admissions in Hughes, historically black colleges and universities is OK because you want that intergenerational connection. Between these schools and I can see I can see the case for that for sure, but when we’re talking about the status quo of power and wealth at a Middlebury or Harvard or wherever. You want diversity and like, yes, so that’s important that we have 20% of our school being like rich, mostly white and powerful. And then in multi-generational at the same school I I’d, I would argue that that is not reflective of modern workplace and you’re maybe doing a disservice to the students.

25:31 RG – Well, yeah, that’s the argument that they often use against racial preference is that you’ve got black and Hispanic students who should not be there because they’re not as qualified as others. And that’s why the argument for allowing a university to cultivate their student body is so important. But it has to be framed that way. OK, here’s here’s an example Now, so I’m at my university where we’re in Norfolk, VA, and there was a large military base in Norfolk, though I guess the largest in the United States and then also, you’ve got other like the SEAL team like they train here and stuff in Virginia Beach. There’s some places there OK, so it’s a big military area. Well, OK, I could imagine if I was a higher up in in DoD use administration saying look why don’t we target kids who are kids or veterans, and let’s make it so that we can bring the manic if we have scholarship money. Maybe we’ll make it, or we’ll make sure that those slide. We’re not that competitive. So just like it’s just like we started the talk. This is hypothetical. Generally, we can accept almost anyone that comes in if they have decent SAT scores, so, but let’s say we were competitive, I would want to make sure that we establish a connection with the military community in Norfolk, and that would be one way to do it.

26:51 AW – So you’re talking about like let’s let’s have more military acceptance rates and have military preference and we give military preference in many different areas. I think that would be a great argument for keeping affirmative action if we’re allowed to prefer military students or prefer somebody who, even though we don’t have athletic scholarships. If somebody is a world class fencer or an amazing volleyball player. We might give them a little edge over somebody who doesn’t fence or play volleyball or isn’t in the military, like we’re only looking at race as one of these factors. But any school looks at it wants to have a well-rounded student body and that well-rounded student body can have so many different facets.

27:35 RG – That’s symbolic, that’s purely symbolic. You’ve got a lot of conservative white Americans and white Americans in general who think that black people are getting something that they don’t deserve, and so they’re putting undue attention onto racial preferences. When you’re right, you’ve got legacies. You’ve got other preferences out there that they wouldn’t be so upset about. Right, so most definitely.

27:57 AW – Rod Graham thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 RG – Thanks, Alex.

28:17 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 Freddie Hubbard, The Roots and Nina Simone. Check out our website at 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 into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.