Saturday, November 1, 2008

Saturday Evening Review: Affirmative Action Scholarship

As I noted last week (22 October) here, Colorado has an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution.  If only every voter would read the new article by Devon Carbado and Cheryl Harris, The New Racial Preferences, 96 Cal. L. Rev. 1139 (2008), and consider how complex our notions of race, identity, and individual "qualifications" are.  Carbado and Harris consider the anti-affirmative action proposals passed by California and Michigan in the context of the required "personal statement" for academic admissions.

They write:Images_4

Michigan's Proposal 2 and California's Proposition 209 both prohibit their state governments from discriminating or granting “preferential treatment . . . on the basis of race.” Both initiatives were aimed at eliminating state promulgated race-based affirmative action programs. For advocates of Proposal 2 and Proposition 209, affirmative action is the quintessential example of a preference on the basis of race; the policy benefits blacks and Latinos and burdens whites and, in some formulations, Asian Americans.

Supporters of both measures insisted that the state should not be in the business of allocating benefits and burdens along racial lines, particularly when doing so undermines another core American value: meritocracy. More generally, they argued that state policy should not be based on race at all but rather should embody the principles of colorblindness and race neutrality, concepts they deployed interchangeably to mean the non-utilization of race. Under this argument, Proposition 209 and Proposal 2 became a necessary means to a realizable and desirable colorblind end--the elimination of racial preferences. This racial logic made both ballot initiatives the heirs of Brown and affirmative action policies the heirs of Plessy. This Article neither defends affirmative action--though we support the policy-- nor critiques anti-affirmative action initiatives--though we oppose such measures.

Instead, our project is to take Proposition 209 and Proposal 2 seriously by engaging in something of a thought experiment: What concretely does it mean to make institutional processes colorblind or race neutral? We believe it particularly productive to explore this question in the context of school admissions policies, where selection procedures have been highly scrutinized and debated. The broad and interdisciplinary discourse on university admissions provides a rich context for considering the possibility and desirability of formally race-free admissions regimes.

College and university admission policies typically require an evaluation of “objective” measures of academic achievement, such as standardized test  scores and grade point averages. The admissions process also includes an assessment of letters of recommendation and personal statements. While race is implicated in each of the foregoing criteria, we are most interested in the personal statement, which plays a particularly important role in an applicant's file but is rarely discussed in debates about race and admissions. Admissions officers read these statements to ascertain whether applicants can distinguish themselves and demonstrate that their potential contributions to the school extend beyond the applicants' numbers. Applicants, for their part, employ the personal statement as a way to quite literally inscribe themselves into and personalize the application. Given the significance of the personal statement in the application process, we will explore how “anti-preference” initiatives like Proposal 2 and Proposition 209 affect that role.

To that end, this Article asks: what do “anti-preference” mandates require with respect to personal statements?

In the Article, they present various hypothetical personal statements to "illustrate some of the subtle but significant ways in which racial advantages and disadvantages can persist in formally race-free admissions environments." 

Their first "hypothetical" is a “personal statement” based on Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.   


Affirmative Action, Fourteenth Amendment, Race, Scholarship | Permalink

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