America after Affirmative Action – L’Atlantique

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The Supreme Court may soon rule against race-conscious admissions to colleges and universities. I called the Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris to talk about how this week’s news fits into the larger story of higher education in America.

But first, here are three new stories from Atlantic.

An open dirty secret

Isabelle Fattal: As someone who has followed the issue of affirmative action for years, what was the most surprising or remarkable moment for you during Monday’s five hours of oral argument in the Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina?

Adam Harris: One thing that I found rather surprising was a series of questions from Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Considering the pressure that ending affirmative action in admissions would put on universities to find racially neutral alternatives, he asked an SFFA lawyer if a university could give preference to descendants of slaves.

And the lawyer replied that it probably wouldn’t be allowed, because it was basically a racial indicator. Then Kavanaugh went on to ask if a university could give preference to people whose families were immigrants, and they said that would probably be allowed.. The lawyers were indeed arguing that yes, all of these other things can be taken into consideration. But the one thing that has helped improve the number of underrepresented and marginalized minorities cannot be allowed. I thought that was a brutal confession.

Isabella: Backtracking a bit: you recently interviewed sociologist Natasha Warikoo, who argues that we’re asking the wrong questions about college admissions. Can you explain how America’s obsession with meritocracy leads to a misunderstanding of how the admissions process works?

Adam: Because there are only a limited number of places at institutions that attract large numbers of applicants, it has created this understanding of higher education admissions, more broadly, as a kind of zero-sum game. , a game that prospective students can manipulate in some way. doing the most extracurriculars, having the highest test scores, having the most AP classes, or whatever. There’s this idea that if you do all the right things, then you should be rewarded by entering X instead.

Let’s say an institution only has 1,600 seats and there are a lot of applicants who have very high GPAs, very high test scores, and lots of extracurricular activities. There are all these institutional priorities that affect admissions and change from year to year. Maybe the college accepted a bassoon player three years ago, and they don’t need another bassoon player until next year. So that extra degree might not push you that year, but it might in the next admissions cycle.

Admissions officers often say they shape a class, rather than just saying, Here are the top 1,600 students who all have perfect test scores and perfect GPAs. We will admit them. And if one of them says, We don’t comethen we move on to the next person. That’s not how the system works.

Isabella: This misunderstanding appears to have contributed to concerns about racially-conscious admissions policies and how they might undermine meritocracy.

Adam: I have written about the higher education admissions black box and how it generates these challenges. You try to do your best, but you don’t understand how an admissions decision was made. You are like, Oh, they say it’s a holistic admissions process, but how exactly do you make that decision? It makes people worried, Was I really shaken up?

Isabella: One of the big questions in the affirmative action debate is whether there is some kind of proxy for race that would allow universities to achieve similar levels of diversity in their student body. What do you think?

Adam: If you look at states that have banned the use of race in admissions, none of them have been able to find a proxy for race. The Texas “10% Plan” [which guarantees Texas high-school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class automatic admission into any publicly funded state university] is probably the most cited and closest to it, but that doesn’t necessarily work because you’re tapping into a larger pool of white candidates due to the way the demographics are shaped. You also have examples of people moving to certain school districts in order to get a head start in the admissions process.

More generally, if you try to use socioeconomic status, you will find that there are more poor white people in the country than poor people of any other race. If you did it by geographic location, that doesn’t work either, because it would be demographically the same as if you did it by socioeconomic status.

Isabella: You wrote last year that “affirmative action has been a veil obscuring the truth about American higher education.” If the Supreme Court lifts that veil, what will Americans begin to see?

Adam: In my book, I wrote that the American higher education system has a dirty open secret: it has never given black students an equal chance to succeed. If you take away the affirmative action, you end up with a system where the better endowed institutions have the fewest black and brown students, and the least endowed institutions – the ones that have historically served those students – are the institutions that are eventually hiring more black and brown students.

If the use of race in admissions disappears, it will become increasingly important to fund the institutions where these students attend, so as not to further aggravate inequalities already entrenched in American society.


Today’s News
  1. Thomas Barrack Jr., a former adviser to Donald Trump, was acquitted on charges of serving as an agent for the United Arab Emirates and lying to federal investigators.
  2. Under Elon Musk’s new leadership, Twitter has begun laying off employees across the company.
  3. The United States added 261,000 new jobs in October, a stronger than expected level of employment growth.


Evening reading
(Paul Spella/The Atlantic; Getty)

The wars of the new history

By David Frum

Even by rancorous academy standards, August’s blowout at the American Historical Association was unpleasant and personal.

The August issue of the association’s monthly magazine featured, as usual, a short essay by association president James H. Sweet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Hours after it was posted, a volcano of outrage erupted on social media. A Cornell professor has spoken out about the author’s “white gaze”. A University of San Diego historian denounced the trial as “significant and substantial violence”. A historian at Knox College, Illinois, organized an email campaign to pressure the AHA to respond.

Read the article completely.

More Atlantic

cultural break
Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain sit on the floor of a hospital in
Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain sit on the floor of a hospital in The good nurse (JoJo Wilden/Netflix)

Lily. As we look to the midterms, Atlantic writers recommend books that explain American politics today.

And if you’re hoping to extend the spooky season a bit longer, this 125-year-old classic still packs a punch.

Look. The new season of The White Lotus on HBO tackles the sex lives of the 1%.

The good nurse on Netflix charts another path forward for the true-crime genre.

In theatres, After Sun traces the bittersweet journey of coming to see a parent as their own person.

Listen. Bonus tracks from Taylor Swift’s album Midnights are where she hid her rawest and most disorderly feelings.

Play our daily crosswords.


I asked Adam what he’s been up to these days when he’s not following the affirmative action story. “I listened to Charley Crockett a lot…The Waco Man on a loop,” he told me. “I read John Feinstein where no one knows your name, on life in the minor leagues. Those two things, combined with the World Series, kept me sane.

— Isabella

About Hector Hedgepeth

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