Taking More Action Before Affirmative Action

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I’m a female black professional who, by any objective measure, earned spots in honors programs and a well-regarded university for graduate school. While I would not say I have been “shamed” by affirmative action, as one reader suggests, the practice has at various points intensified my experience of impostor syndrome.

For instance, I recall having secured an internship with a prestigious institution and sneaking a peek at the resumes of others who had applied. I was surprised by the amount of relief I felt in seeing that my resume was, in fact, stronger than the others. The institution also had an internship program reserved for minorities and I had begun to be bothered by the possibility that perhaps I couldn’t with confidence say that I was just as capable as others who had been hired.  

Aside from any fleeting doubts I might have about my own accomplishments, I do tend to think that the focus on preserving affirmative action in college admissions distracts from the more fundamental problem, which is that the majority of failing public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. are composed of minority (black and Hispanic) students.

I grew up in a school district that was very weak, and so my mother insisted that I attend the local parochial school. The school district continued to decline until many years later it was officially stripped of its accreditation. (In fact, it was the subject of This American Life’s Ep. 562: “The Problem We All Live With” [embedded above]).

I have sometimes wondered what my own prospects would have been had my parents not been able to afford even the modest tuition we paid, and had I not commuted to a high school that boasts of a 100 percent college admissions rate, instead of going to a school in the worst district in the state. Even if I would have made it through anyway, I know that I would have been significantly less prepared to compete for college admission and to do well once admitted.  

So to a large extent, we as a society seem to be attempting to make up for our failure to provide minorities a better education at the primary and secondary school levels with affirmative action in college admissions, leading to many of the problems mismatch theory addresses.

Another reader hits on similar themes:

The inequities begin in elementary school (or before), and I am not referring to home training. The dividing line today is no longer black or white; the true dividing line is between the haves and the have nots. The existence of a technological divide is not merely a convenient catch phrase; it is real. The quality of work produced by a student with limited access to research materials and to the internet compared to a student who has received the advantage of top line equipment and 24/7 online access may be in some cases equivalent, but you can be sure that the student with limited access worked a lot harder to attain their standing.

The auxiliary services in schools in economically depressed areas and high density minority areas also suffer in comparison, in that an unfortunately large percentage of guidance counselors are more concerned with merely graduating students to protect their jobs rather than encouraging them to pursue higher education, and for those few who do, they are pushed to attend those schools which have lower academic standards. Why? Because they are aware that their students, who may have been straight-A students, have in many cases never been offered the required courses they need to survive in a top-line school.

That is the inequity that needs to be addressed: because if that student, by some miracle, gets into a top line school, he or she has to learn not only their current subjects but also those topics which they never received in school. Imagine having to learn two or three years extra work in addition to your freshman year coursework. This is why so many students drop out.

I am not talking about conditions of my generation; I am talking about today’s generation. Yesterday, I heard a young man (11th grader) complaining about the math courses at his school: he said that he is still receiving that same level of math that he had in 8th grade. “It never changes.” We are still not being properly equipped to compete on a level playing field.

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