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.
He understands men in America better than most people do. The rest of the country should start paying attention.
Every morning of my Joe Rogan experience began the same way Joe Rogan begins his: with the mushroom coffee.
It’s a pour-and-stir powder made from lion’s mane and chaga—“two rock-star mushrooms,” according to Joe—and it’s made by a company called Four Sigmatic, a regular advertiser on Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast. As a coffee lover, the mere existence of mushroom coffee offends me. (“I’ll have your most delicious thing, made from your least delicious things, please,” a friend said, scornfully.) But it tastes fine, and even better after another cup of actual coffee.
Next, I took several vitamin supplements from a company called Onnit, whose core philosophy is “total human optimization” and whose website sells all kinds of wicked-cool fitness gear—a Darth Vader kettlebell ($199.95); a 50-foot roll of two-and-a-half-inch-thick battle rope ($249.95); a 25-pound quad mace ($147.95), which according to one fitness-equipment site is a weapon dating back to 11th-century Persia. I stuck to the health products, though, because you know how it goes—you buy one quad mace and soon your apartment is filled with them. I stirred a packet of Onnit Gut Health powder into my mushroom coffee, then downed an enormous pair of Alpha Brain pills, filled with nootropics to help with “memory and focus.”
Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out.
In the summer of 1987, I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and headed northeast to attend Yale. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at various universities—the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees along the way. Today, I teach at Yale Law, where my students unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities. I pass on to them the advantages that my own teachers bestowed on me. They, and I, owe our prosperity and our caste to meritocracy.
Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.
On his 73rd birthday, the former MVP of the Democratic Party has been sidelined—perhaps for good.
In the summer of 1996, as he prepared to turn 50—and win a second term in the White House—Bill Clinton took to musing aloud that he now had “more yesterdays than tomorrows.” If that sentiment seemed maudlin for a man still in the prime of life, it was rooted in fact: The men in Clinton’s family died young—his birth father at 28, his stepfather at 59.
Today, Clinton turns 73, having exceeded Psalm 90’s allotted three-score years and 10, and having survived impeachment, open-heart surgery, and more than enough personal and political scrapes to exhaust nine lives, much less one. Unless he lives to 150, the 42nd president really does have more yesterdays than tomorrows. But what should have been these golden years are turning out to be leaden.
The president is reshaping Americans’ political views, just not the way he intended.
One of the most enduring descriptions of presidential power comes from Teddy Roosevelt, whose description of the office as a “bully pulpit” reflected his conclusion that its true worth was not its constitutional powers, but the ability to speak with and persuade voters. A century later, political scientists had largely debunked Roosevelt. It turns out, Ezra Klein wrote in The New Yorker in 2012, that presidents don’t actually possess much power to sway public opinion.
But maybe Roosevelt was right after all. Recent polling shows that Donald Trump has managed to reshape American attitudes to a remarkable extent on a trio of his key issues—race, immigration, and trade.
There’s just one catch: The public is turning against Trump’s views.
I want to respect her wishes, but I feel hurt and confused by her request.
My closest friend of many years is battling a very deadly diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer. She is single, childless, and not super close to her family.
She is generally a very private person, and I’ve always been the one who knows her best. About four months ago, I traveled out of the country; around the same time, she decided that she needed to disconnect from our friendship in order to stay focused on her own situation. There was no issue between us that caused this, and she’s confirmed that. She has told me that she just needs to deal with this stuff on her own and that it’s too difficult for her to talk about.
I suspect that she’s had more bad news, because that tends to cause her to retreat from others, and I worry that things are going downhill. I miss her deeply, and I’m also kind of angry with her. She has apologized to me for “it having to be this way,” but asks that I don’t contact her at all, and says that she’ll connect when she is ready. Although I know her so well, I can’t relate to this state of mind. I am so sad that we may not have much time left to spend together. I have respected her wishes, apart from a couple of texts to let her know I’m thinking of her. She has asked that I not even do that.
The writer Ben Howe grew up in the world of conservative evangelicalism. When he looks at the religious right now, all he sees is a thirst for power and domination.
Ben Howe is angry at evangelicals. As he describes it, he is angry that they didn’t just vote for Donald Trump in record numbers, but repeatedly provide moral cover for his outrageous failings. He is angry that leaders of the religious right, who long claimed to be the champions of American morality, appear to have gladly traded their values for power. He is angry that Christians claim they support the president because they want to end abortion or protect religious liberty, when supporting Trump suggests that what they really want is a champion who will mock and crush their perceived enemies.
To redeem themselves, Howe believes, evangelicals have to give up their take-no-prisoners culture war.
Beards, scars, red clothes, and other secrets of attraction
Hot or not? The question of whom we’re attracted to and why has long confounded humankind’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and reality-show contestants.
Scads of studies suggest that those of us looking for Mr. or Ms. Right may actually be looking for Mr. Facial Symmetry or Ms. Ideal Waist-to-Hip Ratio (about 0.7 for women). [1, 2] But other research suggests that whether a trait is attractive depends on the type of connection you’re looking for. For example, women in one study found men with facial scars more appealing than other men for short-term relationships, but not for long-term ones.  In another study, men with beards had an edge among women seeking long-term relationships—a finding that might give clean-shaven guys with scars an idea about how to turn a one-night stand into something lasting. (If all of this sounds heteronormative, it is: Almost all research on attraction involves straight people.)
In the fall of 1997, after I graduated from college, I began experiencing what I called “electric shocks”—tiny stabbing sensations that flickered over my legs and arms every morning. They were so extreme that as I walked to work from my East Village basement apartment, I often had to stop on Ninth Street and rub my legs against a parking meter, or else my muscles would begin twitching and spasming. My doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong—dry skin, he proposed—and eventually the shocks went away. A year later, they returned for a few months, only to go away again just when I couldn’t bear it anymore.
Over the years, the shocks and other strange symptoms—vertigo, fatigue, joint pain, memory problems, tremors—came and went. In 2002, I began waking up every night drenched in sweat, with hives covering my legs. A doctor I consulted thought, based on a test result, that I might have lupus, but I had few other markers of the autoimmune disease. In 2008, when I was 32, doctors identified arthritis in my hips and neck, for which I had surgery and physical therapy. I was also bizarrely exhausted. Nothing was really wrong, the doctors I visited told me; my tests looked fine.
Is it a cruelty or a kindness to suggest friendship during a breakup?
A weird thing happened to Rebecca Griffith, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, when she began presenting her research findings on “post-dissolution friendships”—friendships between two people who have broken off a romantic relationship—at conferences a few years ago. It was unusual research, certainly; only a few studies had ever attempted to suss out what factors made a post-breakup friendship a success or a bust, and after her presentations, Griffith often took questions from other scientists and peers in her field. But the query she encountered most often was not about her conclusions, or her methodology, or her data analysis. It was, “Should I stay friends with my ex?”
The questions of whether and how to stay friends with an ex–romantic partner are, as Griffith can attest, both complex and universal. Scan through the portion of the internet that’s devoted to crowd-sourcing answers to hard questions, for example, and you’ll find endless iterations of this conundrum: On forum sites like Quora and Yahoo! Answers, as well as Reddit pages like r/relationships, r/teenagers, and r/AskReddit, both dumpers and dumpees seek advice on what it means to want to stay friends, whether to agree to stay friends, and whether to ask to stay friends.
Huge numbers of deaths have gone uncounted in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. What does that mean for due process, and for the countries that emulate him?
MANILA—All Jefferson Soriano wanted was to go to bed. But the power was out, his tiny room felt like a furnace, and his friend Manuel Borbe had come by. The pair walked outside to chat and get some air, eventually stopping for a late-night coffee along a busy road.
Soriano and Borbe had lived nearly their entire lives in the area, a shantytown in a Manila community called Holy Spirit, and had met as teens on a neighborhood basketball court. They had been friends ever since, growing up together, and now both were new fathers in their 30s struggling to make ends meet—Soriano by working odd jobs in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants, Borbe as a construction worker.
At the time, Rodrigo Duterte’s first year as president of the Philippines was coming to a close, a violent period during which the government prosecuted a war on drugs, in which police swept down, arrested suspected drug sellers, and conducted sting operations against them. Officers were given wide latitude to shoot, andkill, suspected drug dealers—ostensibly in self defense—and Holy Spirit was one of the offensive’s epicenters.