I am writing in response to the June 29, 2016, front page article in the Daily Californian, titled, Breaking down the status of affirmative action at UC Berkeley. Let me begin by acknowledging that I may carry some responsibility for the inaccurate framing and misuse of data outlined in the article, as I was contacted by the Daily Cal for an interview for this story, and did not provide my perspective due to time constraints. The article was based on some factual errors with respect to the graduation rate trends over time for African American students at UC Berkeley, but perhaps more importantly, reflected a framing, while not completely inaccurate in a narrow sense, raises multiple concerns that the discussion is not sufficiently attending to such as the ongoing effects of historical discrimination or the contemporary effects of structural racism.
The Legacy of Structural Racism
It is of extreme importance that the conversation about Affirmative Action include a conversation about structural racism—both the effects of its historical legacy, and an acknowledgement that race is still a salient factor in the lives of American citizens, and that unequal access, treatment, and representation are still prevalent today. Affirmative Action is an example of a race-conscious strategy, intended to redress the effects of discrimination in our country. It is critical to understand the extent and reproductive nature of that legacy and how pervasive structural racism is, in that it pervades every aspect of social life: education, housing, economics, and employment. Consider a story that ran in the NY Times recently. It was titled, Jack Daniel's Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave. The story chronicled the history of the making of the Jack Daniels Company and recovers a lost piece of that history—the original recipe was created by Nearis Green, a slave, who never received credit or financial profit for his invention. If we play this story out a little further, we quickly realize that it has reverberating intergenerational consequences for Green's descendants, who to this day have no part in the ownership or profits of the Jack Daniel's company. Yet, Jack Daniel's descendent benefitted greatly from the wealth created by the company. This is but one example of the long-standing effects and legacy of structural racism.
Structural racism is not merely an artifact of the past, but institutionalized in the fabric of our society. Documented by a long line of scholars1 and its durability evident in the current news as our country painfully struggles to find justice in the wake of the growing number of deaths of African-Americans in incidents with police, including the most recent killings caught on camera of Phliando Castile and Alton Sterling (2016). Some have argued that these killings are in line with the legacy of societally accepted lynchings of over 3,959 black men from 1877 to 1950, What do these deaths have in common and to do with structural racism? They are a blatant example of how race is a key factor in how individuals are perceived and treated in a system that is structured to dehumanize and justify unconscionable actions of prejudice and discrimination against people of color, and more specifically African-Americans under the guise of the law. This dehumanization is not limited to the legal system, but reflected in how African American, Latino, Southeast Asian and Pacific Island students often experience the educational system.
The article presents the intent of Affirmative Action as follows,:
"Affirmative action is a policy of favoring those who have historically suffered from discrimination.In the case of college admissions, it usually refers to giving extra consideration in the admissions process to underrepresented minorities — Black, Latino and American Indian students, among others."
However, a key omission in this definition is the point that the intent of Affirmation Action was to correct discriminatory practices and racial injustices that permitted people of color and women to be excluded from equal opportunities in employment and education.
The article also mentions the potential effect of the affirmative action ban on graduation rates of African American students:
"Some opponents of affirmative action also argue that racial consideration can lead to ill-prepared applicants being admitted, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "mismatch effect." They cite the improved six-year graduation rate of Black students from UC Berkeley — which has increased from 72 percent for freshmen entering in 1990 to 79 percent in 2009 — as evidence that banning affirmative action has led to better student outcomes. The Black graduation rate still lags behind that of Asian and white students, who have 95 percent and 92 percent six‐year graduation rates for freshmen who entered in 2009, respectively."
First, the numbers in the quote are in error. In fact, the 6-year graduation rates for African American freshmen entering in 1990 (either Fall or Spring) is 61% not 72%. More troubling, however, is the implicit connection between improved graduation rates for African American students as a result of Prop 209. The article does nothing to note that graduation rates were rising for African Americans prior to Prop 209 (as they were for all students) and that Prop 209 is a benefactor of the rise – and not the catalyst. A few more facts bring this into greater clarity: From 1983 to 1997, the graduation rate for African American freshmen (Fall-Spring entering cohorts) rose from 50% to 74%. After Prop 209 took effect (1998 to 2009), the graduation rate for African American freshmen (Fall-Spring entering cohorts) rose from 72% to 79%. The yearly growth in graduation rates for African American freshmen from 1983-1997 was higher than that from 1998-2009 (post Prop 209). In contrast, for White freshmen post-Prop 209 growth was higher than pre-Prop 209 growth. Thus, there is no evidence of Prop 209 boosting graduation rates for African Americans.
Additionally, the implication is that graduation rates are a direct result of the quality, ability or level of preparedness of incoming students, but does not at all account for the effects of exclusion, imposture syndrome, discrimination, unconscious and conscious bias, isolation, racial discrimination or hostility experienced on campuses. And we know from the research on stereotype threat that such experiences can inhibit intellectual performance, as well as cause anxiety2. I would feel irresponsible if I did not offer a more comprehensive and critical analysis of this article and set the record straight about the positive effects of Affirmative Action in paying the debt to the African-American community that this country's forefathers left for its descendants.
1Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: From the 1960's to the 1990's. New York: Psychology Press.
Powell, J. (2012) Racing to Justice: Transforming our conceptions of self and other to build an inclusive society. Bloomington, IA: Indiana University Press.
2Steele, C. (2011) Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do about it. NY: W.W. Norton.