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.
Back in December, when the Supreme Court held oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, we started a robust reader debate on affirmative action in Notes. (You can peruse it from the beginning here.) In a 4-3 decision this morning, the court upheld UT-Austin’s program for increasing student diversity partly based on race. The ruling is a “substantial defeat” for opponents of affirmative action, says Garrett Epps. On the deciding swing vote:
For the first time in his judicial career, Kennedy gave his approval to a race-based affirmative-action program. And he did so in an opinion that clearly reaffirmed the constitutional rationale for such programs first enunciated by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the 1978 case of Regents of University of California v. Bakke and reaffirmed by the court majority in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger.
Yet: “Kennedy was careful to clothe his opinion in narrow language that appeared to leave larger questions open. Thus, a nine-justice court (if such a unicorn is ever found in the wild) might one day reconsider the issue.” That would be just fine with this reader:
We still need affirmative action right now. BUT if we ever want to gain true equality, benefits based on race will have to go, just the same as racial degradation needs to go. Nobody can deny that someday soon affirmative action will be gone.
When would that be—by what metric? If you’re a backer of affirmative action and want to tackle that question, please drop us a note. This reader suspects the policy will never be phased out:
AA used to be justified as a tool to achieve equality, or to redress past wrongs. Now the justification has shifted: It is now a tool used to make sure that classes are diverse, regardless of whether all the applicants are on a level playing field. This ruling ensures that affirmative action is now a permanent fixture of American colleges.
But this next reader points to where AA is not a fixture at all:
I’m so glad I live in a state like California where we understand that race should not matter in college admissions [due to Proposition 209, approved by votes in 1996]. And with a colorblind system, we have a majority non-white state college system. The California experience pretty much shows that affirmative action is unnecessary in getting non-white minorities into college.
Here’s a statistical chronology of that “majority non-white state college system”:
In California, the state’s flagship, nine-school University of California system announced an eye-opening milestone: that it has admitted more Latino students (29 percent) than whites (27 percent) for the 2014 academic year.
Update from another reader in California:
On the surface, Kennedy’s opinion seems to make sense, as each school can best decide the makeup of the institution and can include race as a factor to address diversity at their particular school. But this decision also brings up some troubling questions. What about diversity of religion? Or age? Females have surpassed males in most undergrad programs. [From that 2014 US News piece: “Women now making up about 57 percent of all college students, an exponential gain compared to around 40 percent in the 1970s, according to the NCES.”] Should being a man be of benefit to the admissions process? Political bent? Sexual orientation?
I don’t know that there’s a slippery slope, but it seems to me that there certainly could be.
Last week, in the wake of the SCOTUS decision upholding the use of racial preferences at UT-Austin, I posed a question to readers who back affirmative action: When, under what standards or metric, should the policy be phased out in the future, if ever?
For her part, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her pro-AA opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), famously stated that “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.” See below for a 2006 policy paper that estimated whether that 25-year standard is attainable.
I think when affirmative action should end, we’ll all know it should end.
Only a generation ago for many of us, the idea of someone being a doctor or lawyer wasn’t realistic; it was an almost completely alien idea for our parents and an almost a complete uncertainty for our grandparents. Diversity is codeword now for affirmative action, but it’s more than that. It’s often mocked, but it’s an ideal that a truly free country, the people at the top will match the people in society. If that discrepancy isn’t fixed, it’s a clear stain on the idea that all men are created equal. [CB: That idea was stained from the beginning, of course, in a very different way.] How can we as a people proclaim that America is free land of equal opportunity if people of darker skin are continually worse economically and socially?
Update from a reader, who snarks: “I agree that Korean college students should atone for the sins of the South,” suggesting that Asian American students are disadvantaged by AA policies. (For more on that aspect of the debate, see Alia’s newest piece, “Asian Americans and the Future of Affirmative Action.”)
Another reader points to the existence of private racial jokes as the reason to continue AA in perpetuity:
Perhaps if all Southern land owners had their property confiscated and redistributed to slaves after the Civil War, then we would not have had segregation and the generational problems of racism we do today. However, that’s not what happened, and affirmative action should continue until, for instance, folks like Meg Whitman’s racist son calling people ni**ers in public is no longer a common occurrence. [CB: This claim apparently stems from anonymous rumors posted by Gawker in 2009.] As long as the public face of white people is to smile while cracking racist jokes in private, there should be affirmative action.
Update from a reader on that excerpt: “No. You are demanding perfection from all people at all times in all places.” This next reader makes “a key distinction”:
Affirmative action is NOT about equality but rather about equity. Equality is about treating everyone the same, whereas equity is about meeting folks where they are at.
And face it: Today in America your race and class (and gender) intersect in troublesome ways that dictate your ability to earn in a lifetime and what type of education you will achieve. Off the top of my head, HBCUs are 70 percent women. [CB: Actually the best number I could find was 63 percent, in 2013, up from 53 percent in 1976.] Black men just aren’t in higher education. There are a lot of social issues preventing this, but there are strongly inequitable patterns that persist among racial and ethnic groups today. We are a long way off from parity.
I think the rush to judgement on affirmative action is that the piece of the pie feels a teensy bit smaller for white, cis-men. And frankly, without diversity and equity, we are a long way off from excellence in a civil society that holds itself to be the best in the world. Democracy and its engagement thereof cannot exist to its fullest extent without diversity and equity.
So I guess affirmative action should end when there is equity, but I also don’t believe our system allows us to be equitable. But that’s another post for another day.
Update from a pro-AA reader who bristles at the image seen above:
That image illustrates the worst possible misunderstanding of AA—that it’s about giving unqualified people a leg up into institutions they are not qualified for. AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.
I’m for AA. I just think that it should be tweaked and updated to some degree. Exactly how I don’t know, but I’d like it to lean more towards seeing the socio-economic identities of those we’re trying to help, rather than just race/gender—which, due to the successes of AA, has become a bit of an anachronism.
I also think we need to be honest about what the controversy is about: It sacrifices individuals of a certain Group to benefit other individuals of another Group, because we are concerned about larger lack of representation of the latter Group. But it does choose winners and losers based on race and sex. It may be for high-minded purposes, but it does just that.
Update from a reader who takes issue with that one:
“AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.” That is just empirically not true. At least in college admissions, the preferences given are enormous—so large that colleges fight to the last to avoid disclosing just how large they are. According to the LA Times, citing a Princeton Study, “African Americans received a ‘bonus’ of 230 [SAT] points… Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points… Asian Americans, [college prep entrepreneur Ann Lee] says, are penalized by 50 points.”
230 SAT points on the 1600 point scale is a staggering bonus—not just a finger on the scale, but an anvil. To claim two candidates whose SAT scores differ by 230 or 185 points are equally qualified is extraordinarily disingenuous.
From Dave, a reader in Texas:
To put it simplistically, of course affirmative action should end, but not until the conditions that cause it to be necessary are gone. In other words, not for a long damned time.
Update from a reader who replies to Dave:
Unfortunately, those “conditions” keep getting redefined. Apparently, everyone is a racist now, even if we don’t know it.
This next reader would probably agree with that sentiment, and overall he thinks AA has become too institutionalized and incentivized to ever go away:
I suspect that affirmative action—at least the philosophy behind it—is so firmly embedded in our society that we’ll never be rid of it. Apparently we’re all ok with the idea of a permanent subclass within society that simply can’t succeed on their own without assistance. Now there is an entire industry based on affirmative action including specialists in AA law, AA HR compliance, support groups, housing specialists, finance, and even politicians. When you make your living working with affirmative action, the entire country looks like a klan rally.
If you want to jump into this debate, please email hello@.
We conclude that under reasonable assumptions, African American students will continue to be substantially underrepresented among the most qualified college applicants for the foreseeable future. The magnitude of the underrepresentation is likely to shrink—in our most optimistic simulation, somewhat over half of the gap that would be opened by the elimination of race preferences will be closed by the projected improvement in black achievement.
Still, it seems unlikely that today’s level of racial diversity will be achievable without some form of continuing affirmative action. If the Supreme Court follows through with O’Connor’s stated intention to ban affirmative action in 25 years, and if colleges do not adjust in other ways (such as reducing the importance of numerical qualifications to admissions), we project substantial declines in the representation of African Americans among admitted students at selective institutions.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Across the country, social distancing is morphing from a public-health to political act. The consequences could be disastrous.
Editor’s Note:The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.
For Geoff Frost, the first sign of the coronavirus culture war came last weekend on the golf course. His country club, located in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, had recently introduced a slew of new policies to encourage social distancing. The communal water jugs were gone, the restaurant was closed, and golfers had been asked to limit themselves to one person per cart. Frost, a 43-year-old Democrat, told me the club’s mix of younger liberals and older conservatives had always gotten along just fine—but the guidelines were proving divisive.
At the driving range, while Frost and his like-minded friends slathered on hand sanitizer and kept six feet apart, the white-haired Republicans seemed to delight in breaking the new rules. They made a show of shaking hands, and complained loudly about the “stupid hoax” being propagated by virus alarmists. When their tee times were up, they piled defiantly into golf carts, shoulder to shoulder, and sped off toward the first hole.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored.
China warned Italy. Italy warned us. We didn’t listen. Now the onus is on the rest of America to listen to New York.
In the emergency-department waiting room, 150 people worry about a fever. Some just want a test, others badly need medical treatment. Those not at the brink of death have to wait six, eight, 10 hours before they can see a doctor. Those admitted to the hospital might wait a full day for a bed.
I am an emergency-medicine doctor who practices in both Manhattan and Queens; at the moment, I’m in Queens. Normally, I love coming to work here, even though in the best of times, my co-residents and I take care of one of New York City’s most vulnerable, underinsured patient populations. Many have underlying illnesses and a language barrier, and lack primary care.
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
How did we get to the point where ministers, the president, many Republican politicians, and a variety of media outlets are calling for people to risk death to save the economy?
The coronavirus pandemic in the United States has reignited long-standing debates about the relationship between freedom and economic and personal security. After barely a week of a partial lockdown in many parts of the country, Donald Trump and others are now complaining that overly risk-averse public-health officials are threatening to strangle the economy. Trump insists that excessive caution is counterproductive and dangerous: “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (BY FAR) THAN THE PROBLEM,” he tweeted on March 22. During a briefing at the White House the next day he added: “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. America will again, and soon, be open for business.”
Conservatives have supported and extended Trump’s position. Writing in TheWashington Post on March 25, the columnist Gary Abernathy claimed that both the stimulus plan passed by the Senate and the shelter-at-home proclamations had completed the nation’s march to socialism begun “incrementally decades ago.” “The delicate balance between freedom and risk was less than an afterthought as our economy was gutted in a matter of days,” Abernathy wrote:
The major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other.
When the coronavirus pandemic now sweeping the world was localized in China in January, many people argued that China’s authoritarian system was blocking the flow of information about the seriousness of the situation. The case of Li Wenliang, a physician punished for blowing the whistle early on and who subsequently died from the disease, was seen as emblematic of authoritarian dysfunction.
The situation now looks less rosy for democratic government. Europe now faces a larger disease burden than China, with Italy alone exceeding the number of deaths officially reported in China, despite having one-twentieth the population. It turns out that the leaders of many democracies felt similar pressures to downplay the dangers of the epidemic, whether to avoid injuring the economy or to protect their personal interests. This was true not just of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Mexico’s Lopez Obrador, but also of President Donald Trump, who until mid-March kept insisting that the U.S. had the disease under control and that the epidemic would disappear shortly. This explains why the U.S. lost two months in preparing for the onslaught, creating persistent shortages of testing kits and medical supplies. China, meanwhile, is reporting a leveling off of new cases. Chinese students in Britain have reportedly been astonished at the lax approach taken by Boris Johnson’s government.
“The thought of simply breathing in and out without coughing and reuniting with my children ... is goal enough. To—literally—live and let live will be enough.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment I started feeling off. My partner, Will, and I were on a bike ride on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 18, to escape our apartment and get some exercise. This was back when leaving a New York City apartment to get some exercise was still okay, or at least that’s what we’d read, or at least that’s what we thought? If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that what is considered dogma today might change tomorrow.
Ten minutes into our bike ride, I was overcome by an intense fatigue. “I think I have to go back,” I said.
Back home, I felt chilled. Took my temperature: 99.1. I’m normally 97.1, but still, not a huge deal. We’d been so careful about wiping down doorknobs, washing our hands, and keeping everyone except for our family out of our apartment. I’d been ambiently worried enough that my 13-year-old son could be a silent carrier of the virus that I’d yanked him out of his public middle school and off the crowded subways four days before Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled the plug– (far too belatedly, in my opinion). I was getting over a urinary-tract infection, so my fever, I thought, must be from that.
It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain.
When, in January 2016, I wrote that despite being a lifelong Republican who worked in the previous three GOP administrations, I would never vote for Donald Trump, even though his administration would align much more with my policy views than a Hillary Clinton presidency would, a lot of my Republican friends were befuddled. How could I not vote for a person who checked far more of my policy boxes than his opponent?
What I explained then, and what I have said many times since, is that Trump is fundamentally unfit—intellectually, morally, temperamentally, and psychologically—for office. For me, that is the paramount consideration in electing a president, in part because at some point it’s reasonable to expect that a president will face an unexpected crisis—and at that point, the president’s judgment and discernment, his character and leadership ability, will really matter.
“This time of isolation could be a period of great growth or great struggle in your relationship.”
Humans have evolved with a drive to share life with a partner—just not all day long. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savanna formed pair-bonds, but they parted in the morning to go about their separate tasks. So did our ancestors on the farm. For hundreds of thousands of years, even the most devoted couples have been uttering some version of that basic romantic principle: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
So what happens now that spouses are staying home all day, and many unmarried couples suddenly find themselves quarantined together? The peril facing relationships quickly became obvious to the pioneers of this new intimacy on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where couples were cooped up for two weeks in their cabin during the ship’s quarantine. Ellis Vincent, a retired airline executive from Australia, told a reporter that he and his wife, Kimberly, were passing the time by having long conversations during which she displayed a remarkable memory.