On Wednesday, January 15, Martin Luther King’s birthday, George W. Bush ordered White House lawyers to use all their energy, resources and experience to convince whatever members of the Supreme Court needed such convincing that the University of Michigan should not be permitted to factor an applicant’s minority status into its admissions calculations, and neither should the University of Michigan-or, by extension, any other American university-have the option of ensuring ethnic diversity in its student body. Minority ethnic status, Bush said, shouldn’t provide an academic advantage and educational institutions shouldn’t have favored slots. Educational institutions, he has several times said, should rather offer “affirmative access,” a vaporous phrase that seems to mean everybody is free to apply to whatever institution he or she wishes and institutions are under no obligation to do anything about anything.
It’s sort of like a white restaurant owner in Mississippi in 1960 affirming that everyone has access to his restaurant. Everyone does, in fact, have access, but black folks aren’t going to get inside. And if any should make a fuss about it they’re going to get their ass kicked and they’ll go to the county farm for a while. But, boy, they did have their access affirmed.
Affirmative access is what George W. Bush had when he got accepted by Yale University despite mediocre prep school grades, and by Harvard Business School despite mediocre Yale University grades. His father’s position as a very rich guy and as a Washington politician with huge connections and power to benefit both schools, to say nothing of being an old grad of Yale, provided Dubya’s a whole lot of affirmative access. And that affirmative access was no doubt what got him into Yale’s Skull & Bones, the same all-white-no-Jews-or-Catholics men’s club to which his father belonged. And affirmative access explains the $12 million gift his partners in the Texas Rangers gave him, just gave him, with no rational explanation whatsoever.
Perhaps you too could have had that kind of affirmative access at Yale and Harvard Business School if you were son of a man powerful enough or rich enough or old boy enough for you to fall into what those schools call “legacy admissions”-candidates whose applications would be tossed into the paper recycling barrel in the first round were it not for daddy’s position and power, or the fact that there was a building on campus named for someone in the family or that right now someone in the development office was trying to get the family to underwrite the erection of another such building, or get some other kind of erection going. And perhaps, for the same kind of affirmative access reasons, your Texas business partners would one day just give you $12 million.
Dubya’s foggy years
Back when a lot of Dubya’s friends thought he was nothing but a whore-mongering dope-smoking coke-sniffing falling-down drunk he may have hung around with the kind of folks who had use for affirmative action. But he doesn’t talk about that part of his life any more, perhaps because he doesn’t remember it, or perhaps because he prefers to pretend he doesn’t remember it.
The hagiography has it that, at some wonderful non-affirmative action point in his life, he discovered Jesus and was shortly thereafter handed all those millions of dollars and so many swell connections by his father’s friends that he could be rich entirely on his own without depending on anybody and he could put all those bad questions behind him. He was, from that moment on, a self-made man. Self-made made are their own affirmation and have no need of affirmative action.
When he was running for president, that’s how he answered all questions about the years in which he was or wasn’t a whore-mongering dope-smoking coke-sniffing falling-down drunk. Jesus separated that Then from this Now with a sanctified wall that might as well have been made of stone: Dubya simply refused to talk about anything the other side of it.
And the press, with uncommon discretion, let him get away with it. The same press that for years dogged Bill Clinton just about to death over a real estate deal in which it turned out he or his wife made or didn’t make a few thousand bucks at most, just let Dubya get away with everything.
Since the all-white-but-one-who-might-as-well-be-Supremes gave him Florida, he has been, in his official household, able to brag on his ethnic openness by pointing to such senior staff ethnic success stories as Condoleeza Rice (a university provost when she started tutoring Dubya on axes of evil here and abroad) and Colin Powell (a very good soldier who keeps his mouth shut about an astonishing number of things, this one included). Among the Supremes he seems particularly fond of Clarence Thomas, who, um, did have a bit, quite a bit of affirmative action throughout his entire career, but realized how evil it was once he became a Supreme Court Justice and didn’t have anyplace else to go and therefore didn’t need it any longer now that he’s got Supreme access.
What this is really about
Only The Shadow knows what’s in the hearts of men, so we can only speculate about what prompted George W. Bush to put the weight of his presidency against the admissions office of the University of Michigan.
We can be pretty sure of this: Dubya cares no more about admissions to UM than he cares about quality of life issues for villagers in Afghanistan or Iraq. Whatever is motivating him, it’s homegrown.
For starters, it’s payback to the Christian conservatives who put him in office, dotting the i’s on his appellate court renominations last week of Priscilla Owen of Texas and Charles Pickering of Mississippi, both of whom had been rejected by the Senate last year. And it’s probably payback to Clarence Thomas (“I never had affirmative access with that woman”) and Thomas’s puppeteer, Antonin Scalia, both of whom were instrumental in the Florida decision that put Bush in office. It’s a clarion danke to everybody who paid to put him where he is. It’s another way of saying, “Don’t let this unresolved Al Qaeda mess let you think I’ve gotten distracted and forgotten why I’m really here and who put me here. I’ll deliver for you. I’m delivering for you now. Armaments orders are up and if all goes right they’ll be up for a long time to come. We’ll get those Iraqi oil fields under control sooner rather than later. We’ll soon be drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and all those other places just sitting there full of woodchucks doing nothing profitable. I will continue delivering for you. And you, my dear friends, know the post office box where checks for BUSH 2004 should be sent, earlier rather than later, thank you one and all, praise Jesus who votes Republican straight across.”
What’s this incursion into academia going to cost him? The votes of the liberal professors? How many of them are there, and they all vote Democrat or Nader anyway. The black vote? He only got 9% of that last time and the projections show no significant movement. His father left office with the cruelest ethnic joke in American jurisprudence: replacing Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas. Repercussions? Zero. Black voters are not a factor in any Bush family political scheme and never will be. (Keeping them from voting, as happened a lot in Florida 2000, is another matter entirely. If all the Florida black voters who should have been able to vote had been permitted to vote, the University of Michigan wouldn’t have White House lawyers crawling all over the place now.)
I’ve gotta tell you: George W. Bush doesn’t know jackshit about quotas. He doesn’t read books and he has no historical memory. He grew up in privilege and it was privilege that got him into schools that would otherwise have rejected him, as did the University of Texas Law School, which, I guess, considered his family and his money too northeastern to warrant special handling. His personal experience of quotas, so far as I’ve been able to find out, is restricted to how many fish you can yank out of the private lakes without being busted by the game warden on the canoe ride back to the big house.
Dubya said that Michigan’s awarding points for ethnicity and attempting to have ethnic diversity is a quota system that must be abolished because discriminatory quotas are bad. But he’s turning the world upside down. The kind of quota that has to go is the kind that keeps people out, not the kind that tries to help them get in. Saying that we’ve fucked you and your entire family for generations but now we all start life on the same level playing field is an obscenity. You don’t fix generations of unequal access simply by saying, “We’re equal now.” The idea of a level playing field is a metaphor; it has nothing to do with real life. The real life field is not the least bit level.
I’m an English teacher, so professionally I like metaphors, but you have to keep things in perspective. Reading and hearing about a broken leg is nothing compared to the fact of having a broken leg. Metaphor is words; real life is real life.
The myth of the level playing field and the fallacy of meritocracy
There’s no such thing as a level playing field in American education. It never existed before, it doesn’t exist now, and it won’t exist because an American president says on national television that it exists now. Real change takes more than smug statements by a rich guy on national television.
Kids who grow up in households where parents have the ability and education and time to read to their kids and help them with their homework and have the status to get teachers and administrators to take them seriously do better in school than kids who do not have any of those things. Every parent and teacher in America knows that.
Kids who go to prestigious prep schools are more likely to get into prestigious colleges, whatever their SATs, than kids who go to ordinary schools. Kids who go to school in poor cities do not, on the whole, get as good an education as kids who go to school in rich cities or in the rich suburbs surrounding poor cities. Every parent and teacher in America knows that too.
Those are facts of life. You can’t make them go away by saying they don’t matter any more, we have a level playing field, we have affirmative access. These problems are real, they matter. Access gets you to the door; only action gets you inside.
Yes, it is possible for kids from poor households who are very, very smart and very, very energetic to transcend their environment and make it up through the establishment. Bill Clinton was one of those kids and so was Condoleeza Rice. They’re both terrific success stories; they both triumphed over astonishing odds.
And they’re both freaks. Condi and Bill are Freaks. You know that. You’ve always known that. Most kids aren’t that brilliant or that ambitious. Can you imagine living in a society in which everybody was like those two? Most kids are like most other kids.
We can’t afford a school or university system defined in terms of rich kids like George W. Bush on one side and brilliant kids like Bill Clinton and Condi Rice on the other. We need a school and university system in which most kids have a fair shot of making it, not just the lucky few who are born rich or brilliant and lucky.
Here’s something weird: when you talk about affirmative action to people who want to abolish affirmative action the ethnic group they bring up more than any other is Jews. “Jews made it without affirmative action,” they say, “so why can’t these people.” The term “these people” applies to whatever ethnic group they don’t like. But the rabid anti-affirmative action people don’t like Jews any more than they like black or Hispanic or Asian people.
When I’m in those conversations I get emotional because I remember things, things that my students and my own children have no memory of. Like ads for places that said they were “restricted.” I remember asking my mother what that word meant and her telling me it meant only very rich people could go there, not people like us. Indeed, people like us couldn’t go there, but it had only secondarily to do with the fact that we didn’t have any money. The word “Restricted” meant “no Jews allowed.” It was a twofold insult: the exclusion of us then, about which I never cared, and my mother’s embarrassment in having to explain it to me, about which I will never not care.
It wasn’t that long ago and it’s not all gone. There are still clubs in Buffalo, New York, the city where I live now, that are restricted in exactly that same sense. Buffalo’s not special in that regard. A lot of cities have clubs like that.
There’s a very good reason so many New York Jewish intellectuals of the 1930s got their degrees from CCNY or got their education in the New York Public Library: those were the only two institutions many of them could find that let them in. Years later, when I was a kid trying to get into college, Jews still couldn’t get into Princeton at all; you didn’t bother applying there. Only a small number of Jews were allowed into Yale and Harvard and if you applied you knew you were fighting for a spot in very small quotas. Scholarships were also restricted. I remember filling out the application for a Danforth Fellowship (Senator John C. Danforth of Missouri, a wealthy scion of that same family, was Clarence Thomas’s sponsor before the Senate Judiciary Committee) and the high school guidance councilor tearing it up, saying, “You can’t apply for that, Bruce. You’re a Jew. Danforth doesn’t give scholarships to Jews. Didn’t you read their application?” Like it was my fault.
Two things destroyed that restricted world of the Danforths and got Harvard and Yale to increase their quotas and Princeton to decide it was time to let Jews walk its theretofore goyische-only paths, and both were governmental affirmative action programs.
First, the GI Bill, enacted in June 1944, paid for tuition and books and a good piece of the living expenses for any veteran of WWII and Korea who wanted to go to college, and provided financial incentives for colleges to make room for those millions of returning veterans. No college or university could afford to ignore those funded, mature, purposeful students. And twelve years later the National Defense Education Act of 1958 made it possible for educational institutions to expand scientific research in all areas and increase their teaching in anything having to do with science, language and culture.
Those two pieces of legislation were the educational equivalent of the WPA and the Renaissance. Their combined impact on American life has never been calculated. The two of them in combination are the greatest tsunami of affirmative action in American educational history.
What neither George W. Bush nor I know about what happens in college
I’ve been a college teacher for 35 years and I still don’t know what makes some kids do well in college and other kids not do well. I can tell you that it’s not their high school grades and SAT scores. Neither do I know what lets some people do well and others not after college. I’ve seen students with great grades go into a life of marking time and kids who marked time in college go into a life that keeps getting better every year.
Some kids come to college far better prepared for their first year than others. They’re easy to spot. Those are the kids George W. Bush wants to have first dibs on all the available spaces. But evidence of preparation doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. Something happens in that first year to many of them and differences that may have seemed huge on one side of the admissions office become insignificant the other side of it. Often the thing that matters most isn’t the high school grades or the SAT scores but rather the first three or four college teachers those kids encounter. Affirmative action, wisely applied, attempts to compensate in some small way for those inequities that life put in the path of those kids. All of those kids-not just the very rich or the very smart ones, who don’t need it anyway, but all of them. Of course it’s not a perfect solution. It’s just a solution. If we had a perfect world we wouldn’t need solutions. But we don’t have a perfect world.
Affirmative action is a lot better than lying to ourselves with inaccurate and inappropriate metaphors from the world of organized sports, like “flat playing fields.” Where in real life are things run on a basis of flat playing fields anyway?
Why should college be singled out for this special restrictive treatment? The only place there’s a flat playing field in when you’re playing a game and somebody has had the time and money to make sure the game is played on a field that is flat.
Only idiots and liars confuse games and fields with the real thing.
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.